The Politics of the Tampon Case

“We have had radio stations refuse to air commercials about them, newspapers refuse to run ads, and stores refuse to sell them.” It would be easy to imagine that Mary Krey was talking about hardcore porn when she said this to me, but she was not. She was talking about the tampon cases that she designs and sells through her online store Ragtotes, and she opens up a Pandora’s Box of menstrual taboo.

You can now choose from an array of cases for your monthly gear, whether it is tampons, sanitary pads or alternatives such as the Keeper. But the cases themselves veer from vigorous expressions of period pride to the discreet and anonymous.

The most visible of the tampon cases is undoubtedly Vinnie’s – a brash red and blue case made for women by a man, emblazoned with ‘Vinnie’s tampon case’ in a bubbly-retro type face. It’s not pink or girly, and it doesn’t pretend to hide or conceal its purpose. And it is decorated with a picture of a cartoon of Vinnie himself as a greasy, biker dude.

My hope is that men will have a greater respect and appreciation for women ‘s bodies

Vinnie D’Angelo sees the product he designed and marketed as an unashamedly feminist project. “I designed a tampon case with my cartoon face and the words ‘VINNIE’S TAMPON CASE’ as big as I could make them to attract men as much as women. I wanted guys to wonder why a guy named Vinnie is proudly associating himself with tampons and hopefully get them to ask the case-owner about their Vinnie’s Tampon Case.

“My intention was to create a conversation that had never happened before: a man voluntarily asking a woman about her period. My hope is that with the basic facts about a woman’s body, men can generate a greater respect and appreciation for women and their bodies.”

The success of the original case spawned a mini-emporium of products, from a period diary to the CD ‘Music to menstruate by’, suggesting he’s tapping into a trend. D’Angelo admits he thought that people would “freak out” when they found out he made tampon cases, but he was

wrong. “Most folks are so ready to get over the phobia that surrounds menstruation,” he says.

But not all tampon case makers are so enthusiastic, and the debate reveals dissention in the ranks over the message that these cases send out. For example, Krey is not convinced: “I do have one reservation with Vinnie’s Tampon Cases… that they are/were done by a man. Not

because men shouldn’t endorse the positive approach to periods but because it sometimes seems that we, as women, need to have the permission of men in order to take a stand on issues that are exclusively feminine.”

D’Angelo refutes this idea: “Women get it in an instant that my case is a refreshing reversal on the norm. Girls didn’t need my permission they just needed a guy to show other guys a better attitude.”

It sometimes seems that we need the permission of men to take a stand on feminine issues

One of Ragtotes’ own products is the ‘Combpanion’. It is the antithesis to Vinnie’s Tampon Cases – at first glance, it is only a comb but it contains a compartment to conceal your sanitary products. Krey defends the case as a practical solution to a practical problem. “I guess you could say that it is a compromise solution to the juxtaposition of the taboo on addressing menstrual period needs and the need to carry tampons in your purse. And it does take up quite a bit less room than a comb and a tampon case.” When I told him about it, D’Angelo dismissed the concept out of hand. “Any case that is intended to ‘hide’ your period products should be tossed in the trash. Those dark ages of hiding your cycle are way over.”

But although Vinnie’s products have turned into a pop-culture phenomenon, sold in alternative outlets around the world, tampon cases have yet to enter the mainstream. The most obvious indication that tampon cases still suffer from the stigma of association with periods is that they are just so hard to buy. You can find them in hip comic shops, but not in chemists. Like other “alternative” period products such as re-usable cotton pads or the Diva cup, they may be popular with thousands of right-on ladies, but most women have never heard of them let alone bought one.

Another case designer, Karyn Cantor, also describes how men in particular shy away from anything labelled with the dreaded “t” word. “Often I have seen men notice our cases and not want to touch them once they see the sign that says ‘Tampon Case’. It’s as if the case

itself scares them. I really hope society can grow beyond the stigma associated with a women’s period, we seem so advanced in so many ways yet so in the dark ages with unimportant things. So if a tampon case can bring a smile to someone’s face, because it says something funny or it’s a nice image to look at, then so be it!”

I really hope society can grow beyond the stigma associated with a women’s period

But although tampon cases are hard to find, they are not a new phenomenon. Probably one of the earliest versions was produced by Pursettes, a brand of tampon marketed in the US from the 1950s to the 1980s. As the name suggests, one of its selling points was the “purse” that came with the tampons.

One comic-strip advert from 1974 shows a cheerleader telling one of her pals how the small tampons and “neat compact” prevent the embarrassment of tampons spilling out of your bag. Henry Finley, curator of the Museum of Menstruation, which displays the advert on its website, says that this message carries through to 2006: “The ad certainly nails our culture’s attitude about menstruation.”

A recent Tampax advertising campaign sits uneasily between two camps: the selling point is that its tampons now come in extra plastic wrapping, which makes a series of clueless men mistake them for sweets. On the other hand, the high-profile campaign must have made

those yellow packets instantly recognisable as tampons to everyone. Any woman who, as Finley puts it, feels the need for “hypersecrecy” about her period is unlikely to casually take out her Tampax-branded “sweets” in the office, a cafe or a bar.

So what can we surmise? Not only are D’Angelo’s products advertised inside the pages of magazines like Bust, making them as mainstream as the feminist movement gets, you can buy them in at least some stores catering for alternative sections of society like comic stores. And this most visible face of the tampon trade is undoubtedly its most overtly feminist face. But it conceals a far more ambivalent picture – in short, the trade in tampon cases is a barometer of our attitudes to menstruation. While some of us are racing ahead brandishing our period pride tampon cases, still others of us feel we want to hide away our tampons. Have times changed since that advert in 1974 instructed girls on a better way to hide their shame? Perhaps not enough.

Jess McCabe also writes regularly on the F Word blog.