Hush-Hush Theme in
The writer, Gesine Kulcke, recounts her personal experience with menstruation in Germany. She also interviewed me for this account about MUM to her German readers. Her story, "Flüsterthema im Museum" ("Hush-Hush Theme in Museum") appeared 10 January 2004 in a conservative German publication, "taz Magazine." The original German follows my translation.
[Many of the media have written about this museum. Read an article in the Italian Marie Claire (in Italian).]
Every child knows about blue liquids, wings and Dri-Weave material. But how did women survive before the tampon was invented?
We were skiing in Austria, the last girls' vacation - afterwards she would be a woman. On a late afternoon, with a full bladder and snow-messed ski boots and heading for the toilet, I stomped by the startled woman who ran the boarding house. The door was closed. My sister had locked herself in and wouldn't open it. I drummed on the door. No results. I started to panic, my bladder pressing me under a huge pile of clothes that I had to somehow free myself from. Ski underwear, ski pants, ski jacket. I drummed.
I don't know any more if she cried, but it sounded tearful when she finally said: "I'm bleeding." This was my moment. Two years younger, I calmly and precociously said, "No problem. Mrs. Behnke told us about it in biology. You're having your period." Then, unmistakably and nonstop: tears.
And with good reason. In spite of wings and ultra absorbent pads: my sister figured out the things Mrs. Behnke, Always Ultra and Johnson & Johnson always hushed up when they prattled on about light days and dripping blue liquid on Dri-Weave surfaces. For 53 years o.b. tampons have allowed women "a completely new quality of life" - so lies the Johnson & Johnson Web site, created especially for the undeserved praise of the without-a-pad palette. Move around without inhibition, feel good. We remember: ride, swim, fly.
Well, maybe not fly, but women a hundred years ago could ride. Without tampons. The first tampon, called fax, was sold in 1930 by Kotex in the U.S.A. [See fax and possibly the first Kotex tampon. The early history of menstrual tampons is unclear, something I'm investigating. Fax's date - fax is always lower case - is uncertain, and it might not be the first tampon.] A cotton-cellulose sausage without a string that was developed as a bandage in World War I. [Kotex developed pads from cellulose bandages in that war - see the first ad here - , only later using cellulose for tampons, probably in the 1930s.] And before then? Livius Fürst described a washable menstrual pad in his 1894 book "The Hygiene of Menstruation in Its Normal and Pathological State": buttons on the front of the waist band, front and back pads filled with a wood-shaving cushion, and a rubber covering for the middle section. In 1899 the products meant to free women were so awful that any of OUR mishaps with tampons or pads look silly.
But they aren't silly. Everyone wants to go to a swimming pool - me too. So relax, which is what appears in the directions for o.b. tampons - simple, certain and you won't feel it. Wash your hands, open the wrapping, take it off, pull the tab, press the end of your index finger in the end of the tampon, and insert it best while sitting on the toilet or with standing with the leg raised. First up, then a little tilted towards the back. The bathroom floor in the swimming pool was wet and slippery, my hands soft and shaky.
The only thing worse is inserting a tampon in a rocking train toilet, the shoes splashing in the puddle of urine left by the last person, pants around the knees, ticket in one hand and the tampon in the other. No such thing as a life without fear that the tampon doesn't stay where it should or drops into the winged pad stuck to the underpants, which is too far forward or too far to the rear for absorbing.
Until 1899 women simply bled into - nothing! "Tight fitting pads or sponges were used almost only in theatre professions, and few women wore underpants or used pads, which they made out of pieces of cloth or linen," write Almut Junker and Eva Stille in their book "Towards a History of Underwear 1700 - 1960" (Frankfurt am Main, out of print). [My feeling is that homemade pads were more common than this suggests, at least in America, but little is known of women's early practice. Read more here.]
But 104 years ago a German woman physician prepared the way for the unbelievable absorption business - women's sanitary protection - with her book "Health in the House," published in Stuttgart. The supermarket next to my office wants 3.99 euros for 32 o.b. normals. That's more than 12 cents for a cotton plug! But the doctor with the impossible name of Hope Bridges Adams Lehmann would have certainly been happy if this specially fashioned piece of cotton with the extra long ridges, which the Stiftung Warentest [German equivalent of Consumer Report] rated "very good," had existed earlier. She wrote, "It's revolting to let the blood run into your dress - and to wear this same dress four to eight days means risks danger of getting an infection."
Harry Finley has information about things that until recently I couldn't even conceive of. How and why, I ask, did a man who studied philosophy get the idea of starting a museum of menstruation in Maryland at the age of 51. "I got interested in menstruation," he replied to my question, "when I was working as the art director for an American magazine in Frankfurt. I was looking for ideas for page layouts. I collected hundreds of magazine ads. I was amazed at the ads for menstrual hygiene. When I asked companies like Tampax and Kotex if there was such a thing as a museum of menstruation, they were shocked. I decided to open one myself. I wanted to do something culturally important. I knew that I would be criticized for it. A relative claimed that I disgraced the family name. The fact that people thought I should keep away from this taboo subject made me even more curious."
The museum in his house doesn't exist any more. "It wore me out." But you can learn at http://www.mum.org what, for example, a menstrual cup is. I haven't found this rubber thing in Germany. It appeared around 1930 but was not successful. But in the middle of the 80s an ecology movement began in the U.S.A. and gave women a bad conscience, even though they were punished enough by sensitive breasts, hair standing on end by static electricity, digestion problems, and death wishes that were not mollified by giant sweet-bitter chocolate bars, stinging nettle tea, foot massages, not to speak of hot water bottles.
Seven billion tampons and 12 billion pads land in North American trash cans according to the seller of The Keeper. One woman alone supposedly uses up to 15,000 pads in her lifetime. By contrast, the rubber bell of natural rubber lasts ten years and is used like a tampon, but is washed out and immediately used again. Just like Sea Pearls natural sponge tampons, usable for eight cycles.
It still puzzles me exactly why the Americans can deal with natural sponges and rubber bells [menstrual cups] and a Harry Finley can display in the Internet art objects showing tampons raining from the ceiling [here] and a red acrylic smiling self-portrait from white underpants [here]. I don't keep a period calendar and every time my female gynecologist asks me when my period ended I blush deep red. I always forget to carry tampons and I have to whisper to women at the next table in the restaurant for one. Gushing periods and pain pills are a legitimate theme, but when I first clicked on the Museum of Menstruation and suddenly tampons rained on the screen, I turned around, shocked and ashamed, worried that a male co-worker could be standing behind me.
"Don't be ashamed," I consoled my sister on that ski trip; I felt armed for anything. When I first got my period I decided to not to tell anyone - not my sister, not my mother. Even my best girlfriend wouldn't know. I held out one day. Then someone brushing my shoulder was enough to make me burst into tears. Since then I've never claimed to have learned anything in biology, much less understood it.
[translation © 2004 Harry Finley]
Gesine Kulcke, 32, is a freelance writer in Stuttgart, Germany. This article, in German (below), appeared in the taz Magazine, No. 7254, 10 January 2004.
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