What’s the first thing you notice when you walk down the “feminine necessities” aisle of any supermarket or pharmacy? Everything on the shelves suddenly becomes a very distinct shade of pink, baby blue, and soft yellow—the favored colors for the flowers, hearts, and bows typically used to decorate boxes of tampons and pads. This is the visual language of feminine clichés, and none of it actually relates to the product’s intent.
In response, Bodyform recently released “Femojis,” a set of emojis that illustrate period-related symptoms. They’re nearly a good thing, but is it written somewhere that all menstrual images—even ones that promote an open (and humorous) dialogue around periods—have to be cute and pink? And does this kind of sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice visual language really speak to women who are old enough to actually have periods?
Tampon packaging hasn’t always been so patronizing, but perhaps it was doomed from the very start. Historically, concealing the product’s true intent has been the main message communicated by menstruation-related design. Kotex, one of the first self-service items in American retail history, was placed on discreetly on countertops with its own special payment box so women didn’t have to feel embarrassed about buying them. And during WWII, newly launched Tampax—available for .35 cents and delivered by mail—came in inconspicuous, plain-paper wrapped boxes of 10.
Today, Tampax tampons come in a purple and pink box bedecked with swirls, pearls, and sparkles. These details are elaborate, distracting, and even misleading, suggesting that Tampax is in fact selling something sickeningly saccharine, maybe a sugary perfume aimed at preteen girls. In actuality, a tampon has more in common with practical toiletry items like toothpaste or shampoo than a beauty product or a cheap scent.
As recent discussions about the tampon tax have iterated over and over again, sanitary products like tampons are functional, necessary, and practical. Shouldn’t its packaging design reflect that?
More importantly, if tampon packaging was more honest and straightforward, wouldn’t it communicate that buying sanitary products isn’t something to be ashamed of? That getting your period shouldn’t mean hiding behind a field of flowers, pearls, and sparkles so no one will know that it’s your time of the month? Instead, a neutral aesthetic would not only convey that buying tampons is as normal as buying toothpaste and that having your period is as everyday as brushing your teeth (well, every month), but it would also make the act of purchasing sanitary products embarrassment-free for any woman averse to all things sickly sweet and pink, a.k.a. anyone with an actual sense of taste.
That said, there are handful of companies changing things up. The packaging design of LOLA, one of many new startups that delivers tampons of three different strengths to your door, is an example of the kind of clean and clear design I’d like to see adopted by the big brands that dominate supermarket shelves.
Change is coming in other forms, too. In 2014 two high school girls from New York created an endless 8-bit video game called Tampon Run with the aim to destigmatize menstruation. Fed up with the way periods and PMS are often the subject of jokes and everyday sexism, and by the fact that many women still feel the need to hide their sanitary products when going to the bathroom, the two high schoolers created a heroine who shoots tampons at her foe instead of bullets. Bonus points: the aesthetic of the game is refreshingly flower-free.
Recently, BuzzFeed’s in-house cartoonist and staff writer Flo Perry imagined a world where men had periods, too, with tongue-in-cheek illustrations that are incredibly on-point from a packaging design point of view. In Perry’s imaginary world, men’s sanitary towels wouldn’t shy away from blood, but rather blood would be celebrated and worn as a badge of pride.
Perry’s grey and red “manpon” boxes take cues from the branding for “men’s” razors as opposed to “women’s” razors. Even though they’re the exact same product, men’s packaging exaggerates the intent, emphasizing qualities like the sharpness of a blade, while women’s razors are often adorned with pearlescent swirls and promises of comfort, diverting the consumer from the idea that women, like men, might actually have body hair they want to shave.
I’m not suggesting that we should cover tampon boxes in blood red instead of pink, but I am suggesting that we don’t shy away from what a tampon is and does through superfluous ornament. The fact that we feel the need to decorate is a dangerous distraction: why can’t we have tampon boxes that look as classic as a jar of Nivea night cream—a simple box with the brand name printed in a strong, clear typeface?
Personally, I like my bathroom products to look mature, not childlike. New brands like LOLA and Cora have it right—their graphic design might not yet be tight enough to become classic like Nivea, but it’s a step in the right direction.
THINX, a line of underwear for women on their periods, uses the kind of imagery that I’m calling for more of, but last year its say-it-like-it-is advertisement campaign was banned from the New York City subway. What was so offensive about the brand’s clean, minimal aesthetic with nary a baby pink flower in sight? The answer: honest visual puns. As many outraged people at the time exclaimed, over-sexualized photographs of half-naked women in public places is okay, but a picture of half a red tangerine apparently is not. Were the images really too suggestive, or did THINX’s campaign simply not jive with the stereotypical male fantasy of women?
THINX’s aesthetic carries over to its website, too, where blood red is used sparingly to offset the elegant black, white, and beige color palette. It’s far from the magical land of sparkles and flowers (which are one step away from princesses and unicorns) and other narrow, patronizing imagery that perpetuates unnecessary embarrassment. Tampons are sanitary products; it’s about time they had a sanitary design language.