I can’t let the summer end without commenting on the latest video from Hello Flo, a “reminder service” for feminine hygiene products that “was born to deliver just what a woman needs when she needs it.”
The video, “The Camp Gyno” was featured on Buzzfeed at the end of July and has now reached over 5 million views. For those who haven’t seen it (or those who want to watch it again), here it is:
The video features a pre-teen girl who gets her period at the beginning of summer camp. Unlike the Mad Men character, Sally Draper, this girl doesn’t freak out. She considers her period “the red badge of honor.” Since she’s the first girl in camp to get her period, she becomes a source of advice — and tampons and pads — for her fellow campers. Eventually, the campers’ mothers learn about Hello Flo and start sending their daughters Period Starter Kits, which include candy and other goodies along with tampons and pads. The Camp Gyno gleefully declares the kit is “like Santa for your vagina.” Unfortunately, this also means the Camp Gyno is out of a job, as the campers prefer to get their supplies in care packages from home.
This video appeared after a heated debate over a post by Sonya Roberts at The Daily Beast titled ‘Are Tampons Anti-Feminist’. Jezebel attacked the post with ‘Not Everything is a Feminist Issue for Chissakes,’ to which Roberts countered, ‘I Do Not Think Tampons Are Anti-Feminist, for Chrissakes.’ At the same time, we had “tampongate” — prompted when women had their tampons and pads seized by security guards at the Texas Senate as they entered to protest a restrictive abortion law. Meanwhile, anyone with a concealed carry permit was allowed to bring their firearms into the Senate hall. Maine progressives has a round-up of the hilarious tweets and memes that arose in response to this hypocrisy (such as the illustration at right).
So, “The Camp Gyno” was a refreshing tonic to all this unpleasantness. When I first saw this video, I asked bloggers from the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research blog, re:Cycling what they thought about the ad. The reply was, “It’s period positive but too much emphasis on discrete packaging.” Theresa Shechter expands on this in a re:Cycling post. She says the video is “period positive” in that “it’s a totally exuberant and delightful story of tween/teen girls and periods and camp and tampons.” On the other hand, says Shechter, “Hello Flo sells their service with lines that suggest the same old shaming we’ve been hearing for years:
‘I didn’t want to trek through my office with a practically see-through plastic bag with tampons.’
‘We do it with care and appreciation for the sensitivity of this purchase.’
‘All your tampons and feminine supplies delivered right to your door in a discreet box.’
You know, like back when your druggist wrapped your sanitary pad purchases in brown paper so you wouldn’t be embarrassed taking it home from the store. ”
The illustration at right, courtesy of Duke University Libraries Digital Collections, is an example of this kind of modest packaging for feminine hygiene products.
In an update to her post, Shechter explains why the company chose this dual strategy:
“The Hairpin just did an interview with the creators of the video. Commenter ChevyVan, with whom I’ve been talking, put it well: “They want as many customers as possible. The ones that think the video is awesome, and the ones who want discreet packaging, and they’re betting on most people not paying attention to the contradictory messages those 2 approaches are sending. And again, it’s the sales pitch out both sides of the mouth that’s the icky part to people like you and me.”
The “Camp Gyno” is not the first advertisement aimed at adolescent girls and their mothers. In her book The Body Project, Cornell Professor emerita Joan Jacobs Brumberg explores how, during the twentieth century, “American girls learned to menstruate in a clean modern way,” as menstruation became a “hygienic crisis” rather than a “maturational event.” By the 1950s, girls were “routinely prepared for menstruation” through conversations with mothers and peers, as well as “reading materials and corporate-sponsored films provided in home in school.” Educational divisions within various personal product companies “began to supply mothers, teachers, parent-teacher associations, and also the Girl Scouts with free, ready-made programs of instruction on ‘menstrual health.'”
Even Walt Disney got into the act with the animated short, “The Story of Menstruation” (1946).
The film was commissioned by International Cello-Cotton Company (now Kimberly-Clark), the manufacturers of the Kotex line of feminine hygiene products. Like “Camp Gyno,” “The Story of Menstruation” matter-of-factly used the word “vagina” (and is rumored to be the first U.S. film to do so, or at least the first one aimed a young audience).
Nevertheless, frank talk about menstruation “is still relatively new,” says Brumberg. Louise Fitzhugh’s book, The Long Secret (1965), the sequel to her better-known Harriet the Spy, provoked criticism from reviewers because “Harriet’s friend Beth got her period, and. . . Fitzhugh allowed the girls to talk about it.” Five years later, tolerance for such delicate topics had increased considerably: Judy Blume’s Are you There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), soon became a beloved “coming-of-age story” that “put menarche and menstruation at its center.”
Brumberg shows that while these trends gave girls the freedom to talk about menstruation openly and honestly, there was a down side to this “surrender of a life event such as menarche to the sanitary products industry.” Instead of engaging girls “in the kind of frank, intimate talk about sexuality or reproduction that modern adolescents need,” says Brumberg, “the availability of so much free, corporate-sponsored teaching material meant that many mothers and teachers simply gave out pamphlets and samples rather than provide individual advice and counsel about growing up female.”
Now, some would say that it’s hard enough to talk to young girls about menstruation, let alone sex. In fact, some criticisms of “The Camp Gyno” have expressed discomfort with endorsing tampon use for ‘tweens because if they use a tampon, they won’t be virgins anymore. Really? As I point out here, the myth that tampon use could deflower girls was busted long ago. Looks like Tampax needs to resurrect this ad from the 1980s (right).
Overall, I find “The Camp Gyno” cute and funny, but I have qualms about the Hello Flo product. The “Period Starter Kit” is pricey. Each kit costs $35.95 ($39.95 for organic products) and contains
- a handful of light and regular Tampax Pearl tampons
- Enough Always pads and liners to get her through her first cycle
- Get Ready Guide for Parents
- Get Ready Guide for Girls
- A cute canvas pouch for taking supplies on the go
- A Do-it-yourself Feby Kit
- Surprise Gifts and Goodies
Now, you could probably buy most of this for less than $10 at your local pharmacy or discount store. Some women and girls have trouble coming up with even that modest amount of money. In this article in the Huffington Post, Sue Kerr reported “one of the most shocking (and humbling) moments of my life was when the women volunteering at the thrift store that I ran asked me for the rags. I assumed that they used them as I did — cleaning, messes, etc. But they kept taking them and taking them. I was perplexed, so they assumed I was angry. Finally, one of the women (her name was Shirley) took pity on me and explained. The women used the rags for menstrual garments. So, they buried or burned them each month and needed more. (In really bad months, they used the rags as toilet paper. Not making that up at all.)”
Feminine hygiene products, like diapers and other non-food items can’t be purchased with SNAP money. There is data from the developing world that girls who can’t afford feminine hygiene products miss school when they have their periods.
Kerr says that same thing is happening in the U.S. “Young women in the local high schools [in Pittsburgh] . . . miss school because they do not have supplies. A mom with two daughters of child-bearing age cannot just magically come up with $30 or $40 in cash even if she is working and accessing resources and services. Today. In Pittsburgh. In your neighborhood. Girls and women are using rags. They are missing work and school because of the shame and stigma of being poor women, of being women.”
Every year, local charities ask for donations of backpacks and other school supplies for underprivileged children so they can be ready for the first day of school. Instead of buying a Period Starter kit for their daughters, I suggest parents donate feminine hygiene products to needy girls so they aren’t caught “off guard.” Hey, it worked for diapers — why not have drives for tampons and pads too?
Update: The creative team behind “The Camp Gyno” will be answering questions on Google hangouts today at noon EST. You can submit your questions on Twitter with #askhelloflo
For Further Reading:
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls. New York: Random House, 1997.
Freidenfelds, Lara. The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Prescott, Heather Munro. “Guides to Womanhood: Gynecology and Adolescent Sexuality in the Post World War II Era.” In Georgina Feldberg, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Alison Li, and Kathryn McPherson, ed. Women, Health, and Nation: Canada and the United States since 1945. Montreal, CA: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003.
Stein, Elissa, and Susan Kim. Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.