Society’s use of feminine hygiene products oppresses women

(Marya Kuratova / McDaniel Free Press).

For many women, menstruation is the epitome of femininity and the ultimate celebration of womanhood. Unfortunately, the portrayal of menstruation in society is also a major cause for anxiety, discomfort, and oppression.

Even with the start of a new year, menstruation is still very much stigmatized in today’s America, especially through the handling of feminine hygiene products. Society oppresses women by its fascination with instilling embarrassment and a feeling of taboo in the way women regard their bodies.

The average woman will use over 16,800 tampons and pads in her lifetime. And with roughly 40 million American women using tampons each year, this makes the tampon industry worth $2 billion in the U.S. alone. All those tampons can become pricey over the years. And the additional tax on these necessary hygiene products is especially frustrating for women.

“Of the 45 states which impose statewide sales taxes, [only] seven specifically exempt feminine hygiene products from the sales tax base” said Nicole Kaeding, author of an article on the tampon tax. However, items labelled as “medical devices” are exempt from the state tax. In some states, this includes products such as dandruff shampoo and lip balm. But when taking an even closer look at some of the ridiculous tax-exempt items in some states – M&M’S candies, lattes, and even luxury yachts and jets – one can see the inherent, unreasonable double standard. These items do not require consumers to pay the additional cost of tax, and yet women across the nation are forced to hand over more of their paycheck for necessary hygiene products.

According to Victoria Hartman, another author renouncing the tampon tax, “most states tax all personal non-real property through their respective sales taxes but carve out exemptions for certain goods, which are usually whatever the state defines as a medical appliance or a necessity. Sales-taxed items thus carry the inherent implication that they are luxury, non-necessary goods.”

This shows that lawmakers believe women can go without feminine hygiene products each month, or choose to purchase the luxury good for better comfort. They fail to see how this hurts women, especially those with lower incomes. In an article describing tampon costs as they relate to reproductive justice, Abigail Durkin argues that “when menstruation is taxed, it puts the majority of the population at an economic disadvantage. Women suffer due to the high cost of feminine hygiene products [and] are put at risk for infection and disease simply for having healthy reproductive systems.”

Not only are the tampons unnecessarily expensive, but they are also not always good for women. This means lawmakers make it more difficult for women to obtain a necessary product that manufacturers fail to make safe in the first place.

The vagina is incredibly absorbent and sensitive, so leftover rayon fibers from tampons can cause tears in the vaginal walls, and cotton tampons that have been bleached for impurities can transfer the resulting dioxins and chemicals to the vagina. Shockingly enough, tampon manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients found in a commercially available feminine hygiene product on the packaging, including any harmful chemicals. This lack of transparency silences women and strips them of basic knowledge of their health.

This is also where the true double standard shines through. The manufacturers are not required to disclose tampon ingredients because the products are considered “medical devices,” yet they are not exempt from taxes because, legally, they are not true medical devices!

Activists have called for more independent research in determining the effects of rayon and cotton – which are manufactured using harsh chemicals – in tampons, especially in their connection to toxic shock syndrome. Several studies have been conducted to test potential links between dioxins found in tampons and onsets of endometriosis, a painful condition that results from tissue growing outside the uterus. Despite an increase in measures such as revised bleaching practices to improve tampon safety in the past few decades, one study found that seven brands of tampons still revealed traces of dioxins and furans, typically at or just below the detection limit for toxic equivalency factor values set by the World Health Organization.

As a result, many female-led businesses have been created to focus on organic, chemical-free cotton for tampons. Companies such as Cora, Lola, and Sustain have garnered recent support as women look for alternative options.  Many of these products are created with environmental sustainability and better worker conditions in mind, and they are gentler on vaginas and give women agency over their health.

Finally, although tampons cost more money than necessary and contain harmful substances, they are still crucial in order for the modern woman to survive her time of the month. But unfortunately, public restrooms, schools, and work places do not make tampons nearly as accessible as they should be. Forcing a woman to frantically search for a tampon in a time of need makes her even more ashamed of her body.

In addition to adding stress, anxiety, and panic, refusing to offer public dispensaries can cause further health problems. Tampons need to be changed at least every eight hours. Otherwise, a woman could fall victim to deadly toxic shock syndrome. “Doctors note that tampons left in for too long provide an environment that facilitates the growth of bacteria, potentially leading to the contraction of an infection” said Durkin.

Failing to provide easily accessible tampon dispensaries in public restrooms is equivalent to telling women “this is not society’s problem.” Seeing menstruation as taboo and shameful forces women to hide their tampons deep in their purses, or not pack them at all.

In sum, it is important to expose the many unfair ways legislature, the economy, and society in general treat this natural bodily function in order to promote change. Society has collectively failed in ensuring the comfort of women in their own bodies, minds, homes, and public spaces. Other countries, such as Canada, have moved to get rid of the tampon tax, demand ingredient transparency, and offer distribution programs to make products more accessible, especially geared towards poorer communities. America should follow suit and make strides towards helping women feel more comfortable and accepted.