The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation

Village Voice reporter Karen Houppert intrepidly attacks the laissez-faire attitude of many "personal products" companies with The Curse, and her investigations should rabble-rouse women to action. Most notable is her pointed discussion of dioxin, a class A (most toxic of the toxins) carcinogen, and how studies have shown traces of it in tampons from every major U.S. manufacturer. Dioxin is a chemical that's been given "zero tolerance" status by the Environmental Protection Agency because of its strongly suspected link "to lower sperm counts in men, a higher probability of endometriosis in women, and a depressed immune system in both." However, Houppert quotes tampon spokespeople who deny any problem, even though a Food and Drug Administration memo mentions that "the risk of dioxin in tampons 'can be quite high.'" This is exceptionally creepy when you consider that the average American woman spends 36 years menstruating, and if she uses tampons, she'll eventually use more than 11,000 of them. Houppert's amusement with the approaches used by Tambrands and other makers of "female protection" is entertaining at times, but overall, it is purposefully acerbic, especially when it comes to marketing and the damage she claims it has wreaked on women's self-image. Houppert says these corporations have created a pervasive "culture of concealment" surrounding menstruation, perpetuated by advertising and single-sex "puberty education" classes in schools (which, she points out, are usually sponsored by such companies as Procter & Gamble, maker of the infamous Rely tampon that was implicated in 38 toxic shock syndrome-related deaths in 1980). While it seems comical now to see Tampax ads from the 1920s claiming to "permit daintiness at all times" and the campaign of the 1990s that asserts "No one will ever know you've got your period," Houppert successfully argues that the advertisements add a cruel sense of mystery and shame to menstruation. According to a survey from the 1980s that Houppert found during her research, more than 30 percent of adults questioned "thought women should cut down on their physical activities while menstruating" and an even higher percentage of teenage girls didn't know what was happening to them during their first period. And we wonder why teen pregnancy rates are so high. "Because ideas about menstruation tie into prevailing notions that women's bodies are dangerously permeable," Houppert writes, "they become a part of the controlling myths our culture has spun to manipulate our perceptions of ourselves and our sexuality. Menstrual etiquette is an element of a woman's experience that contributes to this disorienting effect." She points out that a woman is more likely to tell a coworker about an affair than walk down the hall to the restroom with a tampon in hand. Her book is a revelation, a brilliant analysis of corporate influence and personal shame and how both are detrimental to the health--physical and mental--of women. --Erica Jorgensen