Conversations with my tampon

Do women really need uplifting messages from their menstrual products?

Published September 2, 2004 12:14AM (EDT)

Tampons have kept their silence for 4,000 years, huddling in cabinets, hiding in handbags. But recently, tampons have found their voice, and this is what they're singing:

When I love my body, my body loves me.

Set your standards high and don't settle for less ... you can have it all and more!

My secret sauce is my secret power source!

Dittie, a brand of feminine products that went on the market in May, has transformed the tampon from a lowly receptacle for menstrual blood to a bona fide medium. Printed on the wrapper of each tampon or pantyliner is one of 120 "ditties" -- as in little songs -- that carry a patchwork message of pop feminism, image consciousness, brand identification and celebrity role models.

"We don't consider Dittie a brand," says 43-year-old company president Barbara Carey, a longtime entrepreneur who last created Hairagami hair accessories. "It's a movement. It's a culture of women coming together. It's a friend there in the bathroom with you."

Dittie is a private company based out of a small office in Orinda, Calif., whose doors have been replaced with bathroom stall doors. Always embarrassed to buy tampons, Carey usually asked her husband to buy them for her. But one day, Carey had to visit the feminine aisle for the first time in years; the idea for Dittie came after she noticed the medicine-like look of most tampon packaging.

"Tampax looks like Lactaid. Playtex looks like Benadryl," Carey says. "These large companies treat you like you're sick. I'm not sick! Why couldn't a tampon make you feel good?"

If a perky pep talk seems odd coming from a tampon, it's because they have always been expected to shut up and stay out of sight. Dittie's mission runs counter to the entire 80-year history of feminine-product advertising, which has been based largely on shame and obsessive secrecy. In the United States, tampons are marketed largely on their power to hide the very fact that women menstruate. Many ads don't even mention menstruation.

"Concealment assured when this new sanitary pad is worn under filmy frocks," boasted one 1929 Kotex ad. (The photo shows a pair of beaming flappers.) Down through the years, the styles have changed, but the theme of concealment has remained: gymnasts in leotards, beachgoers in bikinis, an unending parade of white pants -- and not a spot in sight! In a 1992 Kotex ad, a teenager talks about her "totally hot lab partner," and she vows she'd "change schools if he knew" that she was menstruating. Dittie claims to be proud of the cycle, the blood, the whole shebang -- in a very posed, stylish way.

"In other cultures, with menstrual huts and so on, they make [menstruation] the most obvious thing in the world," says Harry Finley (yes, he's a man), who founded the Museum of Menstruation 10 years ago and serves as its director. "In the U.S., it's not to be detected. Advertising for feminine products has always played to fear and shame."

"My first reaction is, it's about time," says Dr. Susan Basow, a psychology professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, whose research covers gender and body image. "A lot of the [messages printed on the] Ditties seem more about thinking of the body in positive terms and less about pleasing others -- which is the focus of all advertising. I think these might sell -- it's not your mother's tampon."

Ditties went on sale at drug and grocery stores across California in May; since the marketing campaign started in June, sales have risen 39 percent over their baseline, according to marketing director Dana Smith. Priced about the same as other leading brands, Ditties target 15- to 25-year-olds, with a secondary demographic of moms purchasing for themselves and their daughters.

The company is starting small in terms of advertising: handing out tampons at a No Doubt concert and at local high schools, running ads in Seventeen, Redbook and Teen Vogue. It is now testing a radio campaign, and in the fall, the Dittie line of tampons, pantyliners, and thong liners will be distributed nationally.

Ditties developed their particular voice in no fewer than 37 focus groups of teenagers, plus a survey conducted by AMP Insights, a division of the teen-marketing firm Alloy. "If your tampon was a celebrity, which celebrity would it be?" the survey asked 600 young women.

The No. 1 answer was Oprah Winfrey, because she's "powerful and no-nonsense," according to the survey results. The second choice was Angelina Jolie, because she's "her own person."

The 120 ditties -- written by copywriters and the six full-time Dittie staffers -- cover PMS, friendship, self-esteem, fashion, relationships, "famous women" messages and "girl code" messages. For instance: Celebrate Courtney Cox, the first woman to say the word "period" on TV. ... Girl code: Don't date your girlfriend's ex. They can occasionally be quite encounter-group-ish (Once a month, my power source will not be ignored); however, Carey says, the writers have rejected some ditties as too "negative," including Today's the day Im going to paint the town red!

Most of them do sound like something Oprah might say, wrapped up in a package that is très Jolie: the pastel boxes feature cartoons of young, smirking hotties of various races, rail thin, fashionable, arching their eyebrows -- all wicked ingénues in control.

"Ditties have a very spirited voice, youthful, fun," says Carey, who says she's planning a line of similar line of Dittie condoms. "It's sassy and classy, and we think that appeals to women of all ages."

"I'd buy them," says Christina Hernandez, 28, a public-health worker in San Francisco. "Some of the quotes are really good and make me laugh. And some are pretty bad -- like the jokes that used to come in gum wrappers."

But Oona Newman, a 27-year-old waitress, also from San Francisco, says she won't be buying Ditties anytime soon. "They're offensive!" she says. "These pictures on the box, these perfect women ... It's just another thing making young girls think they have to be skinny and have clear skin -- even if they just want to use a tampon."

The small wads of cotton and paper used to make tampons literally cost pennies; the product is sold at many, many times the production cost. Much of the difference goes to marketing costs, and while shame has usually done the trick, Dittie will see whether an avowed policy of "kicking taboos to the curb" will be as effective. After all, 20 million people watch "Oprah" every week.

"Aside from the little encouraging sayings, these aren't too different from what has come before," says Finley, the museum director. "But if they can help one girl or woman feel better, or accept menstruation better, I'm for them."

By Hannah Miller

Hannah Miller is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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