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Changing Times Bring Greater Candor, Period

July 6, 2008

By Joanne Weintraub, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jul. 6–Between the 1920s and the 1990s, the makers of what are rather primly called “feminine hygiene products” released a blizzard of booklets for the American girl.

The titles were discreet, if not downright puzzling. “Marjorie May’s Twelfth Birthday.”"Growing Up and Liking It.”"From One Girl to Another.”"Very Personally Yours.”

No one published more of these pamphlets, which carefully blended education and product promotion, than Neenah’s Kimberly-Clark. The Wisconsin paper giant even commissioned a 1946 Walt Disney animated short, “The Story of Menstruation,” which was a classroom mainstay for more than 25 years.

But sometime in the last couple of years, notes Kimberly-Clark’s Deborah Hannah, the last of these booklets, “It’s a Girl Thing,” quietly went out of print.

“With the advent of the Internet, of course,” says Hannah, senior brand manager for Kotex products, “it was only natural.”

Girls surf the Net for games, gossip and help with their history homework, so why not for information about their periods? And to oblige them, www.kotex.com offers page after Web page of instruction, advice and good old-fashioned marketing aimed at turning young consumers into lifelong brand loyalists.

Ultra Thin Overnight Pads with Wings provide “all-night protection worth dreaming about,” while triangular Kotex Lightdays Pantiliners/Thong promise “light protection designed to fit thongs, (with) no bunching, no panty lines, no holding back.”

But even the replacement of the awkward belt-and-napkin apparatus of another generation with stick-on pads and tampons is no more significant than a pronounced change in tone over the decades.

The 1948 edition of “Very Personally Yours,” for instance, told girls to expect nothing more than “a touch of backache” and perhaps “a session of the glooms” during or just before menstruation. In the event of sudden gloominess, the young reader was advised: “Don’t dramatize yourself! Smile, Sister, smile!”

By comparison, the Web site is quite candid about the sensations that often accompany a teen’s periods.

“Your stomach hurts, you want to cry and you can’t fit into your favorite jeans,” girls read today. “Find out what causes these symptoms and what you can do to get rid of them and get on with your life.”

Then there’s the question of color.

In terms of skin tone, not surprisingly, the white-on-white look of the girls of ’48 has yielded to the usual suspects of today: the dark-skinned mom, the peaches-and-cream preteen with her cafe-au-lait friend, et al.

More interesting, though, is that the soft, ultrafeminine background colors of the ’40s and ’50s — a prime example of “Pink Think,” as Milwaukee-born social historian Lynn Peril called the era’s female ideal in her 2002 book of the same name — are now brightened by the addition of a forthright crimson. It is almost, but not quite, the color of blood.

What made Kotex abandon its better-dead-than-red design philosophy?

“Our ‘red dot’ campaign started in 2000,” Hannah says. And when she reminds me of the associated tag line — “Kotex Fits. Period” — I realize how familiar both the words and the red dot have become.

With the ad campaign, as with the still-evolving Web site, Hannah says, “we felt that, as important as it is to be discreet, there’s an opportunity for honesty, too.” A contemporary candor, she adds, is part of the Kotex “brand personality.”

Candor is what Molly O’Connell aims for, too, when she introduces girls to the subject of menstruation.

A former education director of the nonprofit Family Services of Milwaukee, O’Connell has been teaching about puberty since the ’80s, first in the Milwaukee Public Schools and later for the Girl Scouts.

O’Connell, who now speaks at the request of individual church groups, schools and youth organizations, doesn’t promote one brand over another.

Instead, she has a collection of “just about every kind of pad and tampon I can find, in every size,” for girls and their mothers to look at.

The questions from 10-year-old girls, the age of O’Connell’s usual audience, haven’t changed much in 20 years, she notes.

“They want to know if they can go swimming, and what to do if their clothes get stained, and whether it’s OK to wear tampons,” she says.

Unlike the old pamphlets, which referred to childbearing in terms almost guaranteed to mystify a preteen, O’Connell’s program is designed to explain “how babies get in and how they get out,” as she puts it, as well as how to understand the effects that hormones may have on a teen’s emotions.

She teaches a similar program for 11-year-old boys and their fathers that touches on menstruation but is devoted mostly to changes in the male body and psyche.

Both programs, O’Connell says, “cover everything from drugs and alcohol to emotions and pimples.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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