Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Ending Women's Greatest Hygienic Mistake": Modernity and the Mortification of Menstruation in Kotex Advertising, 1921-1926

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Ending Women's Greatest Hygienic Mistake": Modernity and the Mortification of Menstruation in Kotex Advertising, 1921-1926

Article excerpt

Contemporary American discourses about menstruation sustain a fine balance between the realms of freedom and prohibition, a combination that constitutes a potent ideological mixture defining women's cultural membership within limitations defined by their bodily processes.1 As Dorothy Dinnerstein describes this cultural terrain, the province of the female becomes that of the "mucky limitations of the flesh" (1976, 133). Medicine contributes the impression that menstruation renders women offensive and incomplete; advertising discourses, in turn, offer products to compensate for this inadequacy, women's perpetual "problem." Both function to suppress women's ability to control the cultural definition and meaning of menses, insinuating that menstruation is shameful, a personal source of mortification that must be hidden, and a force that, because it conspires against women, must be controlled by the latest technologically sophisticated product.

To understand the ideological patterns in contemporary cultural discourse about menstruation, particularly as developed in advertisements about "feminine hygiene products," it is instructive to examine the historical circumstances in which the intersection of social, medical, and commercial interests first manifested itself, specifically in the major American magazine advertising campaign that introduced Kotex sanitary pads to American women in 1921. The early years of the Kotex campaign mark a historical nexus where consumerism merged with medical authority, and it is these initial ideological appeals that persist in contemporary discourse about menstruation. By enticing women to enact and reproduce Western culture's proscriptions against their own bodies, Kotex set into circulation a "modem" understanding of menstruation in which women's cultural participation is encouraged yet circumscribed by their inevitable biological incapacitation.

This essay critiques the strategies employed in the first five years of Kotex advertisements by focusing on those published in Good Housekeeping magazine from 1921 to 1926. While Kotex advertisements also ran concurrently in other popular magazines, focusing largely upon this specific sample allows a close critical scrutiny of how the Kotex campaign developed its discursive strategies from its beginnings and the ways in which it directly addressed the one million relatively affluent young homemakers who by 1920 constituted the readership of this magazine (Endress and Lueck 1995; Nasaw 2000). The complete set of twenty-four different advertisements published in Good Housekeeping reveals how quickly the ideological patterns used by Kotex were set, particularly those related to modernity and the marketplace. By invoking their anxiety in the face of cultural change, the advertisements functioned to define for women a distinctly active yet inconsequential social role by reinforcing the contradictory expectations that women exhibit their bodies yet cloak their menstrual processes. The resulting equation of menstruation with public display consumer savvy and shame produced a powerful cultural myth that continues to constitute our contemporary discourse about menstruation and persists in its disciplinary power over women.

Menstruation and Modernity: Two Brief Histories

Western culture witnessed sweeping social, economic, technological, and psychological changes in the relatively short period between 1880 and 1930. A number of cultural authorities diminished in importance as the modern and the new ascended in their place; this left a void soon filled by advertising and its advocacy of consumerism as a new way of life. For women, the potential for these new social relations to offer a lib erato ry path initially seemed great, yet such demands were deflected into the illusory cultural participation held out to women via consumption. The powerful forces of consumer culture, accentuated by the new professionalization of women's health, conspired to maintain the old social relations precisely as they were, only now repackaged in shiny "modern" wrappings. …

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