A week ago, as the mom of a tween girl, I got some information in the mail from Kotex announcing their new line of sanitary pads (nice euphemism) for tweens. I found no coupon as expected, so I was a little confused. But rather than provide a discount on their products, the folks at Kotex were offering to help me “prepare for the talk” and letting me know that the average age for girls experiencing their first menstrual period (or menarche) has dropped dramatically in recent years, hitting some as early as at the age of eight.
I reacted, briefly, with the horror intended. How do you talk to a second grader about this? How do you tell her to put down the Fairy Secret Barbie and listen to you tell her about the many years of cramps and bleeding that lie ahead of her — without freaking her out? Kotex is there to help and suggests planning a day for the talk and maybe also doing something girly to commemorate it, like a day of mani-pedis and then shopping for Kotex’s new line of tween pads! The three moms on the online video, sponsored by Kotex and Disney, offer lots of other suggestions and stress the importance in no uncertain terms of having the talk (and, presumably, some Kotex pads in the bathroom cabinet) . If your daughter’s hit the age of eight, ladies, she’s ready to blow. And until Mattel introduces Menstrual Barbie, it’s up to you to get her through this.
This corporate suggestion is at least somewhat admirable. Since the days after the female camaraderie of the Red Tent, women have absorbed the idea through various cultural and patriarchal messages that their periods make them unclean, dangerous, and, at best, are just plain icky. Whether it’s the Curse, Your Monthly Friend, or the Visit from Aunt Flow, it’s not something most women look forward to, and the idea of explaining this entry into womanhood to our daughters is quite daunting. (Mine looked at me in disbelief. It seemed like too raw a deal for her to be true, despite my best efforts to make it seem empowering and affirming).
So the good people at Kotex have found a way to make your first period fun, the KotexU tween maxi pad, with a smaller fit, “designed with flair”. These pads, as you can see, sport stars and hearts on their traditional white exterior and the wrappers come in fun colors! The stars are outlined in blue and the hearts in purple.
I don’t know if they change color like the straws at Friendly’s when they contact fluids, but certainly a red hue added by said fluid to the stars will create a patriotic tableau, of sorts, as your tween moves proudly from all American girl to all American woman. But do the purple hearts mark them as casualties of patriarchy?
While Kotex’s website emphasizes the earliest age on the scale of menarche onset — one of the moms in the video has a menstruating eight-year-old, and I don’t doubt that — it also acknowledges that that range actually covers the ages of nine to sixteen. I have heard, as many people have, that periods are coming earlier due to chemicals in our environment and bovine growth hormones in milk. There’s a bit of a mild panic about “precocious puberty”, which Paul B. Kaplowitz and Stephen Kemp, writing for Medscape Reference at emedicine.medscape.com, define as the “appearance of physical and hormonal signs of pubertal development at an earlier age than is considered normal.”
But my search for statistics or studies about menarche hitting early elementary school girls didn’t reveal much evidence of this. According to the sociology site http://www.thesocietypages.org, the average age of menarche is slightly over twelve, and womenshealth.gov agrees that twelve is far more typical than eight for the onset of menstruation. An article on the site for the National Center for Biotechnology and the National Library of Medicine , written by two researchers at Johns Hopkins, also finds menarche occurring most commonly between girls aged twelve to thirteen. And in 1982, the New England Journal of Medicine noted the “secular trend of earlier age of menarche”, but it did not present that age as earlier than twelve.
So is this just a ploy on the part of Kotex, grabbing for a market that may be developing, trying to get brand loyalty for their products as early as possible? That’s quite likely, though there is laudable information on their website concerning information for girls and their moms about the physical changes of puberty and a discussion site about “Demystifying Unhealthy Media Messages” for girls.
I’m not sure how many girls are going to jump on this bandwagon, though. My daughter thought fancy pads are pretty silly, especially when you consider what will happen to them. Maybe younger girls will be attracted to the funky designs and start wishing they were menstruating even earlier than Judy Blume’s Margaret (Are you there God? It’s Me, Kotex). Talking honestly about how our bodies change as we grow is obviously a good thing. However, marketing products like this to mark those changes commodifies them in ways that I can’t imagine are good at all.