'Don't tell, dear': The material culture of tampons and napkins

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Feminine hygiene products challenge traditional approaches to material culture. Far from being items of conspicuous usage that might assist in the expression of identity or status, tampons and napkins rarely form part of the visual landscape. Menstrual etiquette requires that women hide the fact of their periods, both in the general and in the particular, from others, especially from men. Accordingly, they take great pains to keep hygiene products out of sight Study of over 150 boxes of sanitary goods reveals how the design of the objects and of their packaging can be read as encouraging private, discreet consumption. Taking as my starting point the premise that what is missing from the environment is as significant as what is present, I argue that through users' efforts to comply with the apparent necessity of hiding these objects and their attempts to justify such absences, tampons and napkins participate in the ordering of their worlds. Specifically, compliance with menstrual etiquette recalls to women their status as objects, diverts their attention, and compels them to participate in the male gaze. Sanitary products' significance as material culture lies in their helping to delineate and affirm the dominant ideology of womanhood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)365-375
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Material Culture
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 1996
Externally publishedYes


  • Discretion
  • Feminine hygiene
  • Menstruation
  • Sanitary napkins
  • Tampons

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology


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