The Virginity Myth: A Hurdle in Tampon Marketing
Companies promised not to affect women’s purity
Tampons are so ubiquitous in the US today that it’s hard to imagine a time when girls and women weren’t using them to manage their periods. However, it wasn’t always so. Though the innovation of disposable sanitary pads were adored by the public who wanted to be free of things like “period bloomers” and cotton rags, the tampon was not wildly accepted upon its arrival in the 1930s.
This had quite a bit to do with the intimacy of knowing one’s own lady parts. Let’s not forget most women had no idea what it really looked like down there, nor were they encouraged to prod around. Then one 1930s inventor cleverly created an applicator for easier insertion. Plus ads succeeded in using fashion to clear the way, pointing out how “invisible” the product would be beneath modern clothing. Still, sales wouldn’t start to pick up until the WWII started and the idea of easier mobility, especially while wearing pants, was a salable point.
Unfortunately, there was still one hurdle tampon companies had to clear: Virginity.
The puritanical notion that a woman should be pure until marriage had not faded by the 1940s. A nasty rumor was going around that using a tampon would cause a girl to lose that most valued virginity. Can you imagine your husband not thinking you were a true virgin on your wedding day? The horror! Yet that expectation existed, as it still does in many cultures. So tampon sales were almost solely for married women.
When women were married earlier this wasn’t so much of a problem. But by the 1960s girls were getting wed later, meaning they were less likely to purchase a box of Kotex reliably in their 20s. Tampon companies needed to act swiftly to capture a market who feared using the product due to baseless rumors. With a slew of new advertisements they set out to prove that tampons were for women in all walks of life.
Here is pretty common example of their campaign. Look at where they put that emphasis. “Internal” is the key word here and this ad is not wasting time in getting to it. The “pre-lubricated tip” assuages those worries that a tampon will hurt. The “no larger than a lipstick” comment emphasizes how small it is. Unlike a husband, it won’t be tearing any hymens by inserting it inside oneself.
This ad sells the same brand of very small tampons. In this one they go on to explain how even single girls (virgins) can use the product. According to the text the tampon is designed to “blossom” slowly and not ram into one’s precious intact membrane. Because it is “governed by each girl’s needs” it can expand for those with more room or keep small to accommodate the less experienced young woman who uses it.
When all else fails why not try good old-fashioned negging? A little blurb insinuating that only old backwards-thinking ladies don’t use tampons was probably enough to get young people to grab a box. It also cemented the age divide in period products. This would be the decade where period belts would fade into obscurity.
Tampons would start to infiltrate mainstream culture, being shown for the first time on television in 1972. Courteney Cox (of Friend’s fame) would be the first to use the word “period” in a national tampon commercial in 1985. Making the period and the products less taboo would increase tampon sales as more girls talked about what they used and depended less on their moms.
Yet as you can see from the 1990 ad below, tampons would still have to convince some consumers that their desire to remain a virgin would not be hindered by their products.
From the 90s onward, tampons would be the dominate form of period protection in the US, due in large part to advertising that dissuaded rumors hymen breakage. While not all countries were on board — China and India still notably using exterior protection — the American and European markets were happy to embrace the flexibility that tampons offered.
Now in 2020 tampons and pads are being challenged by improvements to period technology. Questions about sustainability are replacing worries over virginity. Next time you see an ad for the Diva Cup perhaps there might be a disclaimer that it won’t make one’s vaginal canal larger. Whatever happens, I just hope we never go back to wearing period bloomers!