Legend has it, the modern tampon was created by a man who stuffed cotton into a condom.
According to menstrual mythology, the modern tampon was created by a man named John Williamson who stuffed a condom with cotton-like filling. By that logic, tampons would have been created in the shape of a penis rather than a vagina. And when you stop to think about it, tampons do open cylindrically — but is a vagina cylindrical?
August / Nadya Okamoto
As the story goes, Williamson worked for the manufacturing company Kimberly-Clark in the 1920s. When he presented his menstrual solution to his father, a medical consultant for Kimberly-Clark, his father allegedly shouted, “Never would I put any strange article inside a woman!”
Although, according to patent records, Earle Haas actually invented the tampon as we know it in 1931. The first commercial tampon brand, Tampax, was produced using Haas’ patented design.
Harvard grad Nadya Okamoto, the queer, Asian American co-founder of August, a period care company, brought this question to TikTok — where she went viral — when she explained that she designed tampons with the intention of actually fitting a vagina, and they don’t open cylindrically.
Nadya also co-founded Period, the global non-profit fighting to end period poverty and stigma, and is the author of “Period Power.”
“Our tampons open axially, so they open to the sides,” she explained to me, just as she does in her TikTok videos. “This won’t put pressure on the sides of your vaginal walls. At the same time, it will fill up with blood from the top part, where the cervix opens, but it will still stay slimmer at the bottom so that when you pull it out, it’s more comfortable.”
As the uterus lining is broken down during a period, blood, tissue, and nutrients are released from the uterus, through the opening in the cervix, and out the vagina.
To be clear, vaginas come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Imaging studies have shown that most vaginas are “narrower toward the vaginal opening and wider toward the cervix. This usually forms a ‘V’ shape.”
Kurt T. Barnhart, M.D., M.S.C.E., E. Scott Pretorius, M.D., Daniel Malamud, Ph.D. / 2004 American Society for Reproductive Medicine / Elsevier Inc. / Via fertstert.org
Assuming a vagina is a sort of cylindrical case for a penis is not that far-fetched — the word ‘vagina’ literally means ‘sheath’ in Latin, while ‘gladius,’ Latin slang for ‘penis,’ means ‘sword.’
In addition to their innovative design, August tampons (and pads) are made using 100% organic cotton and are fully biodegradable within 12 months — a stark contrast to a typical pad, which can take 500 to 800 years to decompose, and a pack of pads, which has the plastic equivalent of three to five plastic bags. “We have no plastic in them, and we use food-grade glue so that, even with the stickiness, it’s completely absorbent,” Nadya told me.
Victoria Vouloumanos / BuzzFeed
“Our packaging isn’t plastic. It’s made from the same materials as compostable bags. Our tampon applicators are recyclable and BPA-free. We’re carbon neutral in our supply chain,” Nadya continued. (August even has a traceability page to outline this.)
She also acknowledged that though menstruators like menstrual cups, the August community expressed that they prefer pads and tampons — which Nadya attributes to a lack of conversation around period care, leading many menstruators to use what their parent uses. “A lot of it was that we need to meet people where they’re at with more sustainable versions of that, and then continue iterating on that.”
To demonstrate how August tampons work, Nadya posts videos on TikTok using fake period blood. She even posts content using her own period blood on her personal account. And though Nadya is trying to dispel menstrual stigma and realistically depict periods — when viewers asked about the color of her period blood, she educated them on why period blood can differ in color — August’s first advertisement was taken down by TikTok for ‘violent and graphic content.’
“This biological function is what makes human life possible. It’s a natural thing that over half of our global population experiences,” Nadya said.
“It makes me sad when other young menstruators are like, ‘That’s disgusting,’ because I’m like, ‘But you menstruate, you see this. By you saying that, it’s like you also think that your own menstrual blood is disgusting. And that comes from the societal understanding that periods are gross and periods are shameful.”
As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until 2020 that a period ad (by Kotex) even used red liquid, instead of blue, to demonstrate pad absorbency. So while you may be grossed out by period blood, menstrual stigma and subsequent censorship really speak to larger issues around menstrual care — including poor menstrual education in schools, period poverty, and mental health.
U by Kotex / Via Facebook: ubykotex
“In 2021, we look at this era of period brands that refuse to see the word ‘period;’ that are not gender-inclusive; that use blue liquid instead of red liquid; that use euphemisms like ‘time of the month;’ and that don’t really talk about periods for what they are,” Nadya added, “You know, even in those big global campaigns, they don’t say the word ‘period.’”
By middle school, pre-teens already know to slip a tampon into their sleeves or hide a pad in their waistbands. “We’re conditioned to think that this small wad of cotton is worth so much shame that we have to hide it at all costs — even bringing our whole backpack to the bathroom. No one tells us that, right, specifically?” Nadya noted.
August / Nadya Okamoto
Nadya attributed poor menstrual education to incomprehensive sexual and mental health education in public schools — noting that some schools require permission slips before discussing periods because they’re considered inappropriate.
As a result, Nadya believes the first step is talking about consensual sex, periods, and puberty in a real and comprehensive way — with conversations around period pain, PMS, uterine fibroids, and endometriosis, for example, and without outdated, slut-shaming videos.
(You can get one of these sweatshirts from August for $40.)
While menstrual concealment is standardized, proper and objective menstrual education is not. In 1946, Walt Disney Productions (commissioned by Kimberly-Clark) produced one of the first commercially sponsored films distributed to American high schools called, “The Story of Menstruation.” But rather than emphasize that menstruation is normal and therefore nothing to be ashamed of, the 10-minute animated film normalizes menstrual shame.
View this video on YouTube
Walt Disney Productions / Via youtube.com
Though the film addresses women, it’s important to discern that not all women menstruate and that not all menstruators are women.
Disney consulted a gynecologist for scientific accuracy and addresses “taboos” in the film. Still, the film emphasizes “proper” behavior and cleanliness. In positioning menstruation as an issue of emotional regulation and hygiene, it perpetuates menstrual stigma and misconceptions.
Frankly, menstrual education videos have not improved much since 1946. Of course, Disney was not the first to position menstruation as an issue of hygiene and secrecy — period care companies had and have used the same stigmatic marketing for decades.
Kotex (Cellucotton Products Co.). 1926. Harper’s Bazaar, 59(2561), pp. 135. / Via thecovaproject.com
“Period brands have been responsible for further perpetuating stigmas around periods,” Nadya said. “They’re selling them primarily to women by saying, ‘Buy our products because you need to hide your period and forget you have a period.’”
This stigma and obfuscation surrounding menstruation are problematic in ways beyond principle. For one, they make it difficult for menstruators to clearly communicate with and receive accurate treatment from their health care providers. (As an example, endometriosis takes, on average, seven years to diagnose, in part due to period pain myths.)
Furthermore, despite being a public health crisis, period poverty has no visibility. A 2021 study cites that nearly a quarter of U.S. students have experienced period poverty and, during the pandemic, 16% of students have chosen period products over food or clothes. When she spoke to menstruators experiencing homelessness, Nadya learned that many use toilet paper, socks, paper bags, and cardboard in lieu of period products since food stamps do not cover them.
Contrary to period poverty, another study predicts the “global feminine hygiene products market” will reach more than $51 billion by 2027.
Menstruators who are incarcerated also face period poverty due to a restriction on how many period products they are allotted, forcing them to reuse single-use period products as necessary.
If you’re surprised that food stamps (SNAP, WIC, and Medicaid) don’t cover period products, it’s for the same reason that most states tax them: They’re considered luxury items. To help combat menstrual inequity, August absorbs the tax in the 27 states that currently enforce the tampon tax.
Victoria Vouloumanos / BuzzFeed
Notably, Louisiana, Vermont, and Maine signed laws (starting October 1 in Maine) exempting tampons from being taxed in 2021. In California, tampons are only exempt from being taxed until the end of 2021.
As the New York Times points out, a common question heard when discussing taxes on period items is, “Why are tampons taxed when Viagra is not?”
Naturally, period poverty and stigma are enough to affect mental health, but menstruation itself can impact mental health, too. While usually thought of as just periods, menstruation is actually the full four-phase, 28-day (on average) cycle, during which hormone levels (including estrogen, which has been linked to serotonin) change. And as Nady pointed out, “Hormonal changes equal mental health changes.”
She went on to elaborate, “There’s the anxiety around having a period in general — the PMS, the body changes, the pain, the changes in your acne, etc. We’re all familiar with getting our period, being caught without period products, and the embarrassment from experiencing maybe having to walk in public when you have a blood stain visible.”
Fundamentally, Nadya believes period care companies have a responsibility to improve period care and dispel menstrual stigma. This belief drove her to design better fit and more functional tampons, create sustainable period products, and absorb the tampon tax through August. She even created Ask August, a digital tool and resource, to help create a safe community for menstruators to learn about menstruation.
August / Nadya Okamoto
Ask August contains a database with answers to questions around menstruation. “When you ask someone what they need for their period care, nobody says, ‘Oh, I have a perfect period,’ or, ‘There are no problems,’” Nadya shared.
“If you come to Ask August and you don’t find your answer, you can actually submit your question, and we’ll answer you. We wanted to create a collective, cumulative space where we can keep adding information,” she added.
For her part, Nadya concluded, “Regardless of where my career takes me, I’m completely passionate about and thrilled by the workaround improving quality period care and ending period poverty and stigma.”
Despite the societal acceptance of period care as it is, many issues and stigma surrounding menstruation, from menstrual education to period poverty, need to be confronted — even if it starts just by taking a moment to think about the actual shape of your vagina.
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