Sexuality in Color: The Latinx Tampon Taboo
I've heard horror stories of awkward conversations and tampons under tables between white American mothers and daughters. Periods in my Latinx family, however, were no such thing: they were cause for celebration. My mom told me her sister had biked to a drugstore the day she first got hers, bringing back chocolate and a box of pads to celebrate what she perceived as her oncoming womanhood. She continued the ritual by doing the same to me, passing me a chocolate bar like a relay baton as I sat on the toilet experiencing my first period.
We examined pads together. My mom said they used to be thicker, like diapers—we laughed. It was nice that they'd waned, becoming elegantly thin. I didn't know about tampons then. When I'd ask her about them a few weeks later after hearing about them from classmates, I'd be greeted with a look of confusion.
"I never use those unless I have to," she'd said. "They sound so uncomfortable, having something inside all day, right?" Tampons, I sensed from these curt, awkward conversations, were for somebody else. Mature women, perhaps—married women. The rest was a mystery.
A couple years later, I used my first tampon, fumbling to unwrap it in a concert venue bathroom. My friend dictated the steps of insertion through a crack in the stall. After that, tampons became an open secret between my mom and I; we both knew I used them, but I was discreet, embarrassed for reasons I didn't understand.
Why? Growing up in the States, tampons seemed to be everywhere. My classmates in early high school looked at pads like they looked at training bras. Artifacts of an embarrassing past.
It wouldn't be until many years later, after my sister sent me an essay by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros giving voice to this tampon taboo, that I'd realize I wasn't alone. Growing up in Washington, I knew few Latinx people. I'd never discussed my experiences with anyone before so I chalked them up to familial oddity. But at the age of 22, with Cisneros's story in my hands, I was suddenly offered a different reality.
Among Latinas in the states, this cultural trend is even more obvious: one study says that only two percent of Spanish-speaking Latinas and 22 percent of English-speaking Latinas use tampons, a lower rate than their European American and African American counterparts (a trend that's been shown in past studies, too). And like me, many report maternal disapproval of tampon use. What gives?
The topic of periods, a hush-hush "womanly" secret for decades, hasn't broken into mainstream conversation until recent years. In many ways, we're still globally slogging through the basics. It's only recently that we've voiced realities that have long been silenced or ignored, like the fact that not all women have periods and women aren't the only ones having them in the first place.
Texas State Associate Professor and Anthropologist Ana Juárez, who has taught classes on Latinx gender and sexuality for more than 20 years, points to that silence when considering why the conversation about tampons hasn't been an open one. After all, menstruation products often tout extreme secrecy as selling points.
"That's just not a very common kind of public thing and I think that's something that's been true historically in many different societies," she says. Without ways to discuss periods and tampons frankly, misconceptions and concerns aren't surprising.
Take the experience of Procter & Gamble, the corporate head of tampon brand Tampax. Around 2000, P&G noticed low tampon sales abroad and attempted to expand their market by reaching out to Latin American communities. They organized instructional tampon meetups in Monterrey, Mexico, modeled off Tupperware parties, where a group leader would educate local women about tampons and encourage future usage.
The venture revealed a few things. For one, the stigma against tampons was often rooted in misconceptions or lack of knowledge. Some believed, P&G reported, that tampons would get stuck or damage their hymens. They even encountered some local (mostly male) doctors who'd believed the same until being told otherwise.
But anxieties around the guarding of virginity sprout from more than simple misconception or culturally ingrained Roman Catholic teachings, as the P&G marketing team assumed. Gloria González-López, a sociology professor and author of Erotic Journeys: Mexican Immigrants and Their Sex Lives, notes that in some Mexican towns she interviewed, virginity is the currency of freedom. Anxiety around it, then, is inevitable.
"Women are socialized to believe that being a virgin is something that you can exchange for a good marriage…financial stability, etcetera," González-López says. "So it's a form of a social capital, the idea."
If their husbands discover they aren't virgins, they lose that currency. In her own studies and interviews with Mexican women, González-López found this fear of punishment, stigma, and potential recriminations from a future husband to be the driving force behind their desire to be viewed as virgins.
This exact mentality isn't present in all Latinx people, or event most. My own mother didn't grapple with tampons through such misconceptions herself; however, González-López suggests these historically present notions could be what's gradually fed into a broader, widespread discomfort with tampons.
"That's still there, why women make these decisions," she says. "Gender inequality shapes culture."
Then, she adds, "And the other way around: culture shapes gender inequality."
If there's anything true about change, Juárez says it's that "culture change tends to happen very slowly."
In the U.S. at least, menstruation has finally broken into mainstream culture. We've started to dissect gendered stereotypes about menstruation and welcome others who've long been excluded, like trans men and nonbinary people, into these conversations. As for my fellow Latinas, while they report a higher percentage of parental disapproval of tampon usage than other ethnicities in the States, their learned attitudes towards sexuality are also changing with this trend.
Education drives this change, González-López says, as well as exposure to other gender dynamics. Many of the women she spoke with in her research reported growing up learning certain stigmas without planning on passing them forward. You can see this in P&G's findings after their marketing venture in Mexico too, since, after educating women about tampons, they found a much higher percentage of Monterrey women willing to try the product.
But at the end of the day, it's not about the tampon. Everyone who gets a period should feel free to choose pads, tampons, menstrual cups, wads of toilet paper—you name it. Beyond the decision to avoid or accept that controversial swatch of cotton, however, lay deeper questions for me. As a young Latina in a community with few others like me, I often felt a little alien. I grew up with different cultural values, unaware that many others like me experienced the same thing or that these values were a product of culture at all. Knowing what my experiences—good and bad—were predicated upon helped me contextualize my life. Suddenly, I wasn't alone.
These days, my mom's antagonism towards tampons has dwindled. I speak more openly about some aspects of sexuality than when I was a child. In turn, she shelves her discomfort for different topics.
Regardless of these tensions, I'll always be grateful for that first moment with my mother. She, in her own way, wanted me to celebrate my body. And put in the words of Cisneros in her essay, my journey towards doing just that—tampons and all—has taught me this: "I am obsessed with becoming a woman comfortable in skin."
Manola Secaira is a writer with special interest in Latinx and environmental justice. She’s based in Seattle, Washington, and has written for sites like Grist and Seattle Met. You can also find her on Twitter…a lot.
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