UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Convenience vs. Safety in Consumer Culture

Twentieth century America has brought us many innovative products-from the Model T Ford to the iPod, advertising industries contribute to America’s consumer culture, playing a key role in the decisions people make daily. From the designer jeans you wear to the greasy food you eat, somebody somewhere is making a profit from your decisions-especially if you’re a woman.

Women compose 80 percent of consumers in the United States, aiding the beauty and diet industries in making large sums of money by showing women what to wear, how to look, and what not to eat via media outlets like the glossy ads in Cosmo and invasive television commercials. Despite the beauty and diet industries, women have yet another part of their bodies exploited for the sake of profit-their period. Women in Western culture are forced to choose which product they will use monthly to control their menstrual flow, and many are brand-loyal for life.

According to one UMB professor, large companies like Procter and Gamble who bring women AlwaysTM pads, have indeed been taking advantage of women’s menstruation cycles since the 1930s. Capitalism for the most part has stayed out of menstruation until the 20th century. Much like our choice for this past presidential election, women have been given two choices on which products to use during their periods-tampons or pads.

“The industry takes advantage because we depend on the products. In reality we have options, we are just blind to them. We’ve been trained not to question the industry,” says Chris Bobel, associate professor of women’s studies at UMB.

Believe it or not, a movement regarded as “Menstrual Activism” is building underneath the realm of the mainstream against the sanitary “protection” industry. Bobel has researched this growing movement and composed an in-depth analysis using five web sites and eight paper zines (self-produced and distributed magazines) entitled, Our Revolution Has Style: Menstrual Activists “Doing Feminism” in the Third Wave. According to her analysis, “Menstrual activism is loosely defined as various attempts to expose the hazard of the commercial ‘feminine protection’ to both women’s bodies and the environment and the promotion of healthier, less expensive, and less resource-intensive alternatives.”

So what’s wrong with tampons and pads? One major concern of activists is the question of potential traces of dioxin, an organochlorine left behind in tampons after they have been bleached.

According to Liz Armstrong and Adrienne Scott, authors of the book Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers, “The chlorine bleaching process produces a large class of chemicals called organochlorines, including dioxin. Dioxin has been linked to cancer, toxic shock syndrome (TSS)*, endometriosis, and birth defects among other health problems.”

The Tampax® website, www.tampax.com, will inform women otherwise. According to the FAQ, a question reads, “Do Tampax® tampons contain dioxin?” The answer? “No. The methods we use to analyze for dioxin are the most advanced government-approved testing methods available, and can detect even minute amounts of dioxin, if present. Tampax® contains no dioxin.” So why are women receiving mixed messages about the contents in tampons-is their dioxin in tampons or not? According Bobel’s research, “companies are NOT required to label all of the ingredients in tampons.”

Another significant concern of activists is environmental devastation. According to Bobel, “Not only does the production process generate contaminated wastewater, but also tampon applicators wash up on beaches, and pads and tampons and their packaging clog landfills, sewers and water treatment plants.” A book published by the Women’s Environmental Health Network (WEN), The Sanitary Protection Scandal, described the environmental and health implications of the production, use, and disposal of sanitary products and disposable diapers, especially the negative environmental impact associated with the chlorine gas bleaching process used to make products “whiter than white.”

Bobel asks, “What gets someone interested in menstrual activism? There’s so much going on in the world. Well it’s a combination of environmental awareness, feminism, anti-capitalist ideology, and an active critique of consumer culture.”

According to Bobel’s analysis, “The movement draws on the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s and its promotion of self-help as a means to empower women. Menstrual activism updates and modifies this tradition with the do it yourself ethic and anti corporate philosophy in punk culture…Self help or DIY [Do It Yourself] is the bridge that links the women’s health movement with ‘punk,’ and many menstrual activists identify as ‘punks.'”

By not adhering to the system’s “rules,” Bobel says menstrual activism is reflective of the punk rock movement. “I can make my own music, we don’t need a record label…I knit, I write zines, I fix my own bike, why not make my own rags [menstrual pads]?” Bobel says of the punks.

Bobel became interested in menstrual activism after attending a workshop given by the Blood Sisters, a Montreal based activist group. According to their website, the “Blood sisters is an exciting launching pad girl base fueling action to combat the silence surrounding our female bodies.”

The workshop was called “Ax Tampax”. Bobel says she was “blown away.” The woman conducting the workshop discussed issues ranging from racism, sexism, capitalism and a critique of the sanitary “protection” industry. Bobel was introduced to alternative menstrual products. She commented, “I never thought the stuff I was using was unsafe for me and the planet.”

Alternative menstrual products exist, but are not widely known. Alternatives include but are not limited to: The Keeper Menstrual Cup, which collects-not absorbs- blood, lasts for 10 years and is better for the environment. A newer version of this is called The Diva Cup. Washable pads, similar to the idea behind cloth diapers, are also better for the environment and give women no risk of toxic shock syndrome. Non-chlorine bleached, all cotton tampons are not soaked with pesticides if you buy the organic kind.

Bobel remarks, “These products are not at Wal-Mart and most Americans shop at Wal-Mart. I feel like we need a mass movement to educate consumers.” She adds, “A woman shouldn’t have to choose between convenience and safety.”

*You’ve probably heard of this disease before, and how it may be connected to tampon use. TSS (Toxic Shock Syndrome) is an infection that is very rare, but potentially dangerous. TSS can affect anyone, male or female. However, it occurs most frequently in young women who wear tampons. You will probably never get TSS, but it’s good to know what the symptoms are and how to avoid putting yourself at risk. This information is from the website http://www.youngwomenshealth.org/tampon.html.

(Separate Box)For more information about menstrual activism and related issues, visit these websites: