Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Colored Tampons: For Whites Only?

May 5th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Guest Post by Nicole Luna, Marymount Manhattan College

"Try Something BOLD"Elizabeth Kissling’s March 16 post on the launch of the U by Kotex campaign and the comments that followed touched on the implications of the “new” Kotex products and their accompanying empowerment crusade. Comments ranged from how the new tampon applicators resemble glow sticks to how, with the new “menstruation optional” pills and implants, tampon and pad manufacturers are grasping any marketing ploy to keep girls menstruating and buying their products. Indeed, “empowering” women about their menstrual cycle and encouraging women to “celebrate their bodies” is a smart marketing move by Kotex in the face of the menstrual suppression option. The following comment from Giovanna Chesler’s on Kissling’s March 16 post sums up my own opinion about the “radical new product”.:

“Might I add that when I heard that Kotex was bringing a new, radical product to market, I assumed it would be a menstrual cup. What’s new about painting a tampon applicator? Still plastic. Still disposable. Shows how naive I am. Kotex selling menstrual cups… that would be the day!”

Let us not forget, these products still have the same pesticide-infused cotton and the same one-time-use, land fill-bound plastic applicators and wrappers.

At first, Kotex had successfully baited me with their empowerment rhetoric (although I do not buy their products), because YES I want the shame and embarrassment that surrounds the menstrual cycle to be banished, and YES I want “vagina” to be taken off of the list of “dirty words”, and YES I think tampon and pad commercials are ridiculous. Thus, the Kotex marketing campaign is remarkably cleaver, since it speaks, at least on some level, to those of us who want what is on the “U by Kotex Declaration of real Talk” pledge, which is as follows:

I Will…

  • Celebrate my body and my period as natural, normal, and important
  • Respect my vagina, and know that ‘vagina’ is not a dirty word
  • Challenge society to think differently about what it means to be a woman
  • Talk openly and without embarrassment about periods and vaginal care with my friends and family
  • Take good care of myself and encourage my girlfriends to do the same

If you think this is a progressive step in the direction of menstrual activism, visit the U by Kotex website, where you will find a woman to show you, with the aid of a vulva pillow, how to insert a tampon. She mercifully doesn’t make any reference to freshness or boys; instead, she just gives you straight-forward tampon instructions using candid language and anatomy books (although the images she uses are depictions and not actual human genitalia). Also, the U by Kotex site makes the connection that women who are not ashamed about their periods are more likely to have a positive self-image. My own research has shown me that the more educated a woman is about the logistics of her menstrual cycle, the more likely she is to be assertive about safe sex practices and actually enjoy sex more. She is also less likely to fall for age-old myths like “you can’t get pregnant on your period”.

So, while there are some definite upsides to the Kotex campaign, (as Kissling put it, “it’s way better than ‘have a happy period”), there are some shortcomings that were not addressed in the earlier blog posts and subsequent comments. While Kotex may be taking several steps in the right direction, it does not take long to figure out who Kotex is marketing to once you visit their U by Kotex website. There, you can read answers to frequently-asked menstrual questions from more than 14 women who are part of Kotex’s “Real Answers Team”. You can interact with other girls by commenting on the posts by these women who fill the role of the “mom”, the “health expert”, the “peer”. The U by Kotex website also has an “Advocacy Panel” of three women who are dedicated to women’s issues and women’s rights. However, of the women from both the Advocacy Panel and The Real Answers Team (18 women total), NOT A SINGLE WOMAN IS A WOMAN OF COLOR, save for Mai Nguyen, the last woman featured in the “peer” column of the Real Answers Team (interestingly, she is also the only woman who appears embarrassed, with her modest, downward gaze). What sort of message is this sending to women of color who wish to be “empowered”?

Ironically, Kotex claims on their home page, “Oooh, it comes in my color!”. Sure, Kotex, your tampons come in a variety of colors, but the women on your “Real Answers Team” sure don’t. So, what does this mean, Kotex? You have colored tampons, but no colored women on your website. This is somewhat surprising, Kotex, since in an earlier ad, you touted that one of the things that made older tampon ads “so ridiculous” was the “racially ambiguous” women that all girls could supposedly identify with . Well, something that makes your website particularly “obnoxious” (as you yourself point out) is the racial homogeneity of the women on your “Real Answers Team”. Clearly, Kotex, you recognize that black is chic when it’s used on a package, but obviously you don’t think black is so sophisticated when it’s the color of a woman’s skin.

While the insert in the box of Kotex tampons does come in multiple languages, women who are not thin, fair skinned, English-speaking and able-bodied have been systematically excluded from Kotex’s dialogue about menstrual openness. This is a problem that is all too common when trying to create change: a platform is anchored, and thus by establishing who is a part of the new movement, they simultaneously define who is not. This happened with second wave feminism- the politics of white, educated, middle-class women did not resonate with the values of women of color and women from less-than-middle-class backgrounds.

The new Kotex campaign, to the casual reader, seems aligned with the values of menstrual activism and third-wave feminism alike, but upon closer inspection, we see who the “U” in “U by Kotex” really is. Want to really “break the cycle”? Sell me a reusable menstrual cup that lasts for 10 years and doesn’t leach pesticides into my vagina, and then we can talk about REAL progress. Real change, clearly, is not happening when the women chosen to be on your Advocacy Panel and to represent “mom”, “health expert” and “peer” are all pretty, thin, white women who are all too ubiquitous in Western culture. And if I am a girl who uses a wheelchair, give me someone in my situation with whom I can identify and find “real answers” about menstruation. Not only pretty thin white girls menstruate- and for that matter, not only women menstruate! (Think: male-identified women, transgendered, or gender-neural individuals.) I feel that addressing the various ways that people are marginalized is the only way to create awareness of the many, many, many ways that large groups of people are excluded. I am not buying, it, Kotex. Maybe it’s time that you “get real”.

13 responses to “Colored Tampons: For Whites Only?”

  1. Chris Bobel says:

    Right on, Nicole. Bravo!

  2. Hi there,

    I’ve commented on your site before and, since I manage the Real Answers team, I wanted to clarify a few things.

    –We have several women of color on the panel beyond Mai. One of our moms, for example, is the author of the Mocha Momma blog (I’m hoping that the name of the blog is self-explanatory). I don’t think it would be appropriate or respectful for me to call everyone out, since how someone self-identifies is personal, but I would ask you to look again.

    –Mai provided that photo to us. I happen to like it! I think she looks great.

    –As for gender issues, we actually had a user whose comments were flagged by another user because they mentioned her trans-gender boyfriend. We immediately had the comments put back up, and I contacted her personally to make sure that she knew that she was welcome (and encouraged her to write her story in our Mission section). I would love to see more story submissions from people of varied gender identification and assignment.

    I’m proud of the team that we’ve assembled, and I also recognize that there is always room for more and varied voices. I would welcome any constructive suggestions for what women would like to see from our team.

    Thank you,
    Jordan Miller
    U by Kotex Community Leader
    Twitter: @jordangetsreal

  3. Not Guilty says:

    Damnit! I got suckered into buying their stuff with their new ad campaign. And it was on sale. I’m still not sold on the menstrual cup, but I am more seriously considering it…

  4. Nicole Luna says:

    I realize that how one identifies is a personal matter, whether it is reace, gender, etc… however, I could not help but notice that all of the faces of the women on the Advocacy Panel and the Real Answers Team were, well, not very diverse. At all. To be honest, it took some serious digging on my part until I realized that one of the moms is, in fact, part black. This should not matter- race and gender should be a non-issue, and this mom should not have to declare her race in order to have a voice.

    However, if the goal of the Advocacy Panel and the Real Answers Team is to supply women with whom menstruators can identify with, then you have failed. I asked a few of my girlfriends of color if they could identify with any of these women, and they had the same reaction that I did. No, they said. Why are all these women white?

    I also realize that I probably opened up the flood gates with the topic of race, but racism will continue unabaited until it is addressed. I wonder if the one mom who is part black has wondered why she and Mai are the only women of color out of the 18 women on the Kotex web site.

    I think that the inclusion of this particular mom (I am, like you, Jordan, unwilling to “call her out”) is great, more because of her academic accomplishments as a teen mom than her race. My sister is a teen mom, and this woman’s achievements are a testiment to what a woman can do when she believes in herself, and I will be sure to share her story with my sister.

    You should be proud of the team that you have assembled- they all seem like women who are passionate about women’s issues as well as menstrual activism. The question remains, though.. when will you make “room” for the voices of African American women?

  5. Holly says:

    Fascinating. I’d been pondering on how the feminine hygiene industry was going to deal with the fact that less and less women are having periods – and even less, ‘periods’ that require tampons – and it’s brilliant that you insightfully note the Kotex rebranding as a calculated move to get women wanting to have periods again. Not because it’s healthier, mind, or because they should not feel bad about having them – but because periods can then be ‘accessorized’ with all kinds of consumables. If, in fact, Kotex can get women thinking of their period-time as a ‘special’ time, they can create, along with the beauty industry and so on, a whole new market of things to buy to make this time more comfortable, more special, or however they will spin it. If we start talking about our periods, this part of life can be easily assimilated into consumer culture.

    Also – nice to hear from a rep of Kotex – but I don’t happen to believe corporations such as Kotex have morals, or feelings, or ideals, or thoughts, or views – and particularly not compassionate, considered, intelligent thoughts, ideals or feelings. Corporations do what they need to do to make money. Corporations are not living, breathing entities that can be treated, or act, as individuals. They are made up of people, yes, but Kotex can not claim to have a complex thought pattern as a person might, because Kotex only has one goal – and that is making more money. Kotex only thinks of making money, and if the economy progresses to a point at which Kotex must make women like their periods in order for Kotex to keep making money, that’s what it will do. I know we’ve been diplomatic here, but there’s no need. I don’t buy U by Kotex, and I don’t buy the crap they’re peddling here via a rep.

  6. Holly says:

    Hmmm just thinking – would I rather have my period hidden or assimilated? Difficult one, that.

  7. Re: “If, in fact, Kotex can get women thinking of their period-time as a ’special’ time, they can create, along with the beauty industry and so on, a whole new market of things to buy to make this time more comfortable, more special, or however they will spin it. If we start talking about our periods, this part of life can be easily assimilated into consumer culture.”

    I kind of think of it the other way around: How can feminist entrepreneurs, and specifically women of color feminist entrepreneurs, “create […] a whole new market of things to buy,” that centers on reusable pads and menstrual cups? So in the context of less women menstruating, there can still be an overall shift to eco-responsible (a step up from eco-friendly) menstrual products.

    I used to do customer service for Naturally You! Magazine, focused on chemical-free hairstyles and beauty/health for black women…

    The cover photo in link is of founder, publisher and editor Kaya Casper.

    And here’s a link to an old (2007) article about women of color entrepreneurship –

    I guess I’m just wondering why “someone” doesn’t apply to the Ms. Foundation, for capital for a feminist menstrual product company, with the stated purpose of gaining a lion(ess)’s share of the menstrual product market…it’s like big oil has a stranglehold on energy policy, they don’t want to innovate or switch over to something besides fossil fuels – so you have a similar thing, you’ve got tampon/pad companies deeply resistant to switching over to more eco-responsible products…just to be completely tangential, I’ll throw in “too big to fail” banks alongside these “too big to innovate” companies…so why not grant, er, grab the opportunity to start companies that steal market share away? Isn’t that the way capitalism is supposed to work? Build a better mousetrap, or menstrual cup, and the world will beat a path to your door? Just wondering…

  8. Nicole Luna says:

    Well put, Holly- yes, lets not forget that Kotex is a corperation whose only interst is selling their product to make money, and if they need to put women (and their bios) on their website to make them (the corperation) seem more like a “person”, then they will. Also, I was not attacking the women on the Advocacy Panel or the Real Answers Team, I specifically addressed Kotex, which is a corperation, not a person, and therefore cannot respond like a person, no matter how many reps respond to blog posts.

    Like I said, this is the innovativeness of the U by Kotex ad campaign, but this is a old trick that corperations have used time and time again- what better way to sell your product than to repackage it (literally!) and then market it as an identity. Branding and commodification of ideals are powerful forces that lure people in who think that, through consumption, they are able to create an identity. This is what everything from packaged organic products to $200 jeans do, and now what tampon and pad manufacturers are doing to. Buy this (and be seen with it) and then you will convey their ideology. And we all know how people, especially in a capitalistic society, l-o-v-e to buy stuff, especially stuff they don’t need.

    Old trick, Kotex. Imbue your product with a philosophy that is hard to argue with, and the consumer who desires that identity will follow. But we AREN’T BUYING IT.

  9. Re: “Old trick, Kotex. Imbue your product with a philosophy that is hard to argue with, and the consumer who desires that identity will follow. But we AREN’T BUYING IT.”

    But apparently a lot of women are? Don’t know how U Kotex is/isn’t drawing market share away from Tampax, but I would imagine that was the goal…and that they are meeting with some success…?

    Re: “Branding and commodification of ideals are powerful forces that lure people in who think that, through consumption, they are able to create an identity.”

    We do, in part, create our identities through what we buy – since we don’t grow most of our own food, aren’t making fabric and then making clothes out of it ourselves, making our own “home remedies,” and so on…I buy books (or download them) = I create an identity. I go shopping at Salvation Army – I create my identity. I buy cloth menstrual pads with flowers on them instead of stripes…I create an identity. In addition to, I begin a relationship with X and end one with Y – I create an identity. I vote, donate money, read poetry – I create an identity. etc.

    Again, re: “Imbue your product with a philosophy that is hard to argue with, and the consumer who desires that identity will follow.” Isn’t that what Vagina Monologues has done…turned “vagina” into a brand name, trademark Eve Ensler? I remember back at the beginning of V-Day, I read an interview with (?) one of the V-Day coordinators, and she was saying about Eve Ensler, she of the dark clothing/barefoot/bare-armed on stage alone, with (to my eyes) a “little girl haircut” – this coordinator said words to the effect, “Eve is so elegant and vulnerable. It’s what little girls want to grow up to be.” What? Huh? “Elegant?” “Vulnerable?” No, no, that’s not what little girls want to grow up to be…what are you talking about? But maybe that’s an identity some women are “buying into,” when they organize V-Day events…I guess I’m not seeing how that’s less “commodification” than U by Kotex…

    I guess I’m wondering – are we as feminists not supposed to get into the “commodification game” on principle…even if that would mean menstrual cups, “imbued with a philosophy that is hard to argue with,” would start to erode the market share of Tampax, Kotex, and Playtex???? Because “the consumer who desires that identity” is “following,” and by the millions? I’m guess I’m not seeing why this is a bad thing…any clarification appreciated…


  10. Nicole Luna says:

    Clarification: Kotex’s marketing campaign is trying to make their tampons and pads seem new and different to encourage women who now have the option to suppress their menstrual cycle- and thus threaten their profits- when the only thing different is that the products come in colored packaging. Their marketing move with the U by Kotex campaign has been to align with the ideals with menstrual activism and feminism to keep themselves in business. I mean, there are, of course, worse things that a corporation could be doing…

    I don’t really see menstrual cups as the same kind of commodity as tampons and pads, as menstrual cups are reusable and last for 10 years, where tampons and pads are polluting to the earth and one’s body, and further detach menstruators from their cycle. Commodification, and by virtue products-aren’t inherently bad, but some of them are wasteful and unnecessary.

  11. Thanks for the clarification Nicole. What you pointed out about the good-for-10-years menstrual cup, reminds me now of the clash in philosophy between American and Japanese automakers – American automakers were working from the assumption of, trade your car in every 2 years, get a new car every 2 years, and along come the Japanese carmakers, and their assumption was make cars last 6 years, really pay close attention to quality, parts not wearing out so fast, etc – and the Japanese carmakers have made huge inroads into the American market. (Many other factors too, of course).

    So in terms of menstrual cup gaining a much larger share of menstrual product market, maybe there are some lessons to learn from Japanese automakers? In terms of marketing menstrual cup to “the masses.”

    I’m wondering now if there have been any “menstrual cup scenes” in films, on TV, or anecdotes about celebrities and menstrual cups (I’m thinking along lines of Kardashian sisters and U Kotex).

  12. Nicole Luna says:

    Yes, American manufacturers philosophy seems to be rooted in both one-time-use and planned obsolescence (for the products that we use more than once) and that philosophy doesn’t stop when it comes to the accessories we use to manage our menstrual cycles.

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