First Page | Newest
News | FAQs | Directory
The Curse: The Last Unmentionable
Taboo, by Karen Houppert
Review by Kathleen O'Grady, in the Globe and Mail newspaper,
Toronto, Canada, 26 June 1999
The cover of The Curse tells its story nicely: A plain white
dust jacket hides the real goods underneath, like the secretive film that
disguises the true purpose of a sanitary pad. The jacket conceals a picture
that is printed directly onto the hardcover of the book -- the lower torso
of a naked young woman in side profile with one leg slightly raised. This
in itself is not controversial. After all, one can hardly look through a
magazine or at a billboard advertisement without seeing eroticized nudity
used to sell every conceivable product. What makes this picture different
from the others is a tiny white string, no more than two inches long, that
dangles from between the woman's legs.
This photo accompanied a 1995 feature article by Karen Houppert on the
tampon industry for New York's The Village Voice, where Houppert is a resident
reporter. Readers were outraged and quick to complain about the offensive
image; the controversy even spilled onto the pages of Glamour and The New
York Times, where reporters questioned the aim and agenda of such pictorial
shamelessness. Yet Houppert's goal in this early article, which sparked
her book-length study on the topic, was clear from the start: to challenge
head-on "the culture of concealment" that surrounds menstruation.
The Curse is a clearly written summary of the depth of shame
and secrecy that surrounds a wholly ordinary and natural process. She is
not so much interested in the origins and foundations of the menstrual taboo,
or in the cultural construction of women's bodies that has defined menstruation
in negative terms -- a weakness of her study -- but focuses instead on the
way in which the silence that surrounds this physiological process has had
a profound impact on women's health.
So while it might seem natural to link Houppert's book with the excellent
array of recent books on the social history of women's sexuality -- Rachel
P. Maines's The Technology of Orgasm,Marilyn Yalom's A History
of the Breast and Natalie Angier's Woman: An Intimate Geography,
to name just a few -- it is clear that Houppert is no academic or feminist
philosopher interested in gender construction. Her voice is that of an activist
with a visible target.
Houppert volleys a formidable attack on the giants that make up the
"feminine protection industry." She demonstrates how manufacturers
of menstrual products perpetuate the secrecy and shame of menstruation for
their direct profit. Advertisements focus on confidentiality and concealment
-- pads that fit in the palm of your hand, scented products, camouflaged
flower packaging -- and emphasize that the "daintiness" of a woman
is contingent upon the use of their product. Her "femininity"
will be "protected" from that which makes her most "unwomanly,"
her menstrual bleeding.
Houppert unravels the complex genealogy of dozens of pad and tampon
brands and finds that only a handful of companies control the whopping $8-billion
(U.S.) menstruation market. (A recent merger between Tambrands, which controls
36 per cent of pad sales, and Procter & Gamble, which has more than
50 per cent of the tampon market, has further reduced this number, giving
the industry almost unparallelled clout in a free-market economy.)
Houppert suggests that this kind of domination by a few goliaths goes
a long way to explain the continued rise in prices for menstrual products.
Too, the culture of "menstrual silence" prevents any consumer
outcry against the increased cost. Such a significant rise in the price
of other staples -- paper, milk, diapers -- would surely have met some resistance,
but tampon and pad-wearers remain mute and continue to buy.
This same veil of secrecy, Houppert argues, prevents women from raising
their voice against the continued taxation of menstrual products, in both
Canada and the United States, where they are classified by the governments
as "non-essential" items.
Yet a much more troubling side effect of menstrual secrecy is the reluctance
of government bodies to involve themselves with menstrual product safety.
While tongue depressors are classified "medical" and must be regulated
as such, menstrual products are considered "cosmetic," and regular
testing and research is largely left to the companies that produce them.
This remains the case even after the "toxic shock syndrome"
(TSS) deaths of the 1980s, which were related to tampon use. While the synthetics
found responsible for breeding the deadly bacterium -- staphyloccoccus aureus
-- have been banned from tampon manufacturing, governments continue to allow
tampon manufacturers to do their own testing. Houppert's research indicates
that TSS continues to be a serious health problem for women, causing thousands
of nonfatal illnesses each year.
The unfashionable nature of menstruation also means that medical foundations
and university and government studies deal with other health concerns, and
rarely with menstrual health. Further, the insider testing of the menstrual-product
industries does not have to be made available to the public. This makes
it difficult, if not impossible, to come to an independent assessment of
the health risks of tampon or pad use.
Houppert indicates that the dioxin levels found in pads and tampons
may be the next major menstrual concern. The few independent studies undertaken
indicate that even trace amounts of dioxins affect the reproductive and
immune system in humans, and is linked to infertility and endometriosis
in women. But without further testing and without the accountability of
the industries who profit from menstrual products, we cannot be certain.
Any woman reading Houppert's book will bristle with anger at almost
every page, but the intellectual rigour and vivacity that mark The Curse
throughout come with a good dose of humour. The inside cover is an assemblage
of all the "secret" names for a women's menstruation, bespeaking
a cultural history in itself. Houppert also signs her book with a flourish;
on the unadorned white dust jacket, her surname is listed in black and white
letters, containing a single vibrant and very red "O."