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”.

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