“You know I’ve got the curse!”: Disney and others tackle menarche

In keeping with this archives theme I have going, today’s post is about past educational videos on menarche. To help contextualize the history of menarche in the U.S. I read Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s article “‘Something Happens to Girls’: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative.”** Brumberg focuses on how menarche came to be seen as less of a “maturational event” and more of a “hygiene crisis” (101). In her article Brumberg stresses that:

“Although our contemporary response to menarche seems rational and altogether commonplace, the American girl experiences her first display of menstrual blood in a way that is shaped by her own body but also by family, friends, economic forces, and values at work in the larger society. So even though menarche appears to be one of those inevitable, natural, and develop- mental progressions that is “hard-wired” into the female organism, its meaning, and even its pattern, is derived from the particular culture that surrounds the body of the sexually maturing girl” (102)

In tracing this development in the U.S. Brumberg touches on class differences in how mothers and daughters respond(ed) to menarche, while also addressing the increasing medicalization and commercialization of menstruation.

Brumberg argues that prior to the industrialization and urbanization of the U.S. information about menarche (and childbirth) was passed from mother (or aunt, grandmother) to daughter. Surrounded by close knit communities of women, girls adopted the techniques these women shared with one another. Yet Brumberg notes that within the late 1800s women’s and girls’ biological functions became increasingly handled by those in the medical and scientific fields – fields largely dominated by men. As the tradition of women passing on information to their daughters faded away, there was a concern that more and more girls were unprepared for menarche. In the late 1870s after studies suggested that more and more girls knew nothing about menstruation at the time they experienced menarche, several male doctors and biologists openly chastised mothers for failing to adequately teach and train their daughters about female biological functions.

Ad for Kotex sanitary napkins featured in a 1921 newspaper (image courtesy of http://www.mum.org)

Contextualizing mother-daughter relationships at this time, Brumberg suggests that mothers rarely talked to their daughters about menarche and that their “reluctance to talk appears to have been a pervasive maternal strategy related to the middle-class mother’s desire to preserve her daughter’s innocence for as long as possible” since “most middle-class Victorian mothers believed that menarche initiated their daughter’s sexuality” (108). In these scenarios mothers might not divulge information to their daughters until after they became married. However, as time went on this became highly problematic as girls began menarche earlier and earlier, until the average age of menarche for a girl was 13 and the average age of marriage was 22. This extended period of adolescence, and the increasing number of menstrual cycles a girl would experience in her lifetime, meant that girls would need information about their bodies and their monthlies.

Brumberg contends that medical professionals used this issue of extended adolescence to essentially takeover menarche and childbirth, in which male doctors became the “experts” on women’s bodies and their maturation. Though male professionals wrote the manuals and guides girls consulted to learn about their bodies, mothers were expected to stay on top of their daughter’s hygiene during their menstrual cycles and instill in them the do’s and don’ts associated with that time of the month. One crucial part about hygiene involved what type of product to use during menstruation and how to use it.

In her article Brumberg traces the evolution of the sanitary napkin. She notes that menstrual rags were originally reused, in which they were soaked and hung out to dry with the rest of the laundry. However, in the 1880s due to the fear of germs and bacteria – which could be anywhere – there was greater emphasis placed on cleanliness. As a result middle class women rejected the reusable napkins in favor of sanitary napkins, which were commercially made and could be tossed out or burned in order to avoid the spread of germs and disease. This is where Kotex comes in. Kotex was one of the first companies to create and advertise sanitary napkins and for the longest time they dominated the market by working with the professionals creating manuals – so that a girl could pick up a guide to her menstrual cycle along with a complimentary Kotex napkin – (possibly) ensuring that she would be a long time Kotex user.

A 1941 ad for Kotex (image courtesy of the chicecologist.com)

Brumberg notes that working-class families generally could not afford to purchase commercially produced napkins and relied on making their own out of old underwear and flour sacks. Moreover, many of these same families still washed and reused their napkins. Brumberg discusses the importance of the family “wash” in relation to menarche, in which mothers would not broach the topic with their daughters until the daughter’s clothes and/or bedsheets signaled the arrival of menarche. She also notes that mothers could keep track of their daughters’ cycles by doing the household laundry. Another class difference in relation to menarche involved the dissemination of information, in which working-class girls often relied on their female peers and friends to inform them about menarche and what to do each cycle as opposed to a guide or manual. In one autobiographical account a woman recalls the girls’ lavatory as being the place to learn about menarche, since older girls would often talk and maybe even brag about their cycles while younger girls listened in.

The commercialization of menarche didn’t erase class differences, but eventually the majority of girls began to rely on commercially made sanitary products. Eventually educational films were created to disseminate information about menarche. These films were typically shown in classrooms and at gatherings for such organizations as the Girl Scouts. Often times manuals or guides were handed out so that girls could have materials to take home and discuss with their parents or refer to outside of the classroom. Between the films and guides, girls began learning a particular “American” (and modern) way to menstruate, in which the number one concern was hygiene (104).

Here are two examples of educational films that circulated around the 1940s and 1950s:

Disney’s The Story of Menstruation (1946)

The Disney film underscores the importance of cleanliness, but also reminds girls that maintaining proper posture and keeping up appearances help to alleviate some of the pain or discomfort experienced during the monthlies (for reals?!). The film ends with our protagonist growing up, getting married, and giving birth to her own daughter – suggesting that menarche is just one small part of this heteronormative path mapped out for girls’ lives. Note that the film is “Presented with the Compliments of” Kotex – suggesting an all too cozy relationship between those creating the guides and films and those creating the products recommended in them.

Discussing the lasting effects of these types of films, Brumberg argues that “although the industry’s educational efforts undoubtedly were part of the important demystification of menstruation, the long-term consequences for girls at puberty may not be so benign. In fact, surrendering menarche to Walt Disney probably contributed in some measure to the difficulties we face today in the realm of female adolescent sexuality. As the industry became an ever-present third party in mother-daughter, doctor-patient, and teacher-student discussions, personal experience and testimony from older women became even less authoritative” (126). In this respect, Brumberg argues, it was seen as unnecessary for mothers to talk to their daughters about menarche, when the subject could easily be handled in the classroom or through the purchase of a menstrual guide for girls.

Here’s another educational film I found courtesy of the Internet Archive. This film opens with our protagonist, 13-year-old Molly, who talks about the very first wedding she’s ever attended – seriously we can’t get away from discussing menarche and weddings (but skipping any kind of a sex talk) in the same sentence in this time period.

Molly Grows Up (1953) Part 1

Part 2

The video suggests that Molly’s growing interest in traditional femininity (fancy hats, lipstick, dressing up) is a sign of her oncoming menarche – though I’m not sure how or if the two really go hand in  hand. In this video Molly is able to talk to her sister and her friend about menstruation, but it is her mother and the school nurse who provide the most information. As with Disney’s The Story of Menstruation, Molly Grows Up also reinforces the need for girls to exhibit excellent posture, which Molly’s mother tells her will help straighten out her organs and relieve cramping (though the words cramping or cramps are never used). In part 1 of the film Molly’s best friend Peggy calls and invites her over for swimming. Molly asks her mother if she can go, but her mother warns that swimming during the first 2 or 3 days of her period might cause Peggy to get chills and catch a cold. Molly gets back on the phone with Peggy and gives the famous line: “Of course I can’t go swimming, you know I’ve got the curse.”

In Part 2 the school nurse explains that menstruation is the “natural normal process leading up to being a mother” – in which it is assumed that a girl will already be married off. Again we have these leaps from menarche to wedding to motherhood – in which these films simply deny the fact that the gap between childhood and adulthood (the gap called adolescence) is widening. Mrs. Jansen’s talk turns into a list of things to do when menstruating, which include changing tampons and napkins 5 to 6 times a day, changing underwear multiple times a day, wearing deodorant, painting one’s nails, doing one’s hair, and wearing that special dress to be “your most attractive self” – heaven forbid you look frumpy during your cycle.

Ultimately, Brumberg argues that while young girls needed basic information about menarche and their bodies, they also “wanted (and continue to want) meaningful exchanges about female sexuality and womanhood,” but that since the twentieth century girls have “grown up equating the experience of menarche and menstruation with a hygiene product” (126 – emphasis added). Brumberg’s final observations suggest that while girls may have access to (a particular kind of) information on menarche and menstruation, these films, books, and guides cannot replace the values and lessons girls learned from being a member of close-knit female communities – that in many respects older girls and women provide a deeper context for understanding menarche, a context that goes beyond hygiene and addresses what this maturational event may signal in a young girl’s life.

This makes me wonder – when Kotex talks about being open and honest with their new line of hygiene products and their new ads for them – how much of this is yet another marketing campaign to get girls to equate menarche with a hygiene product – and how much of this is a response to the fact they, Kotex – along with Disney and others – shaped how girls and women respond to menstruation nowadays . . .

Also given this historical context where do Menarche Parties R’Us fit into this? Is this yet another example of the commercialization of menstruation? . . .

** Citation for the article: Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. “‘Something Happens to Girls’: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative.” Journal of the History of Sexuality. Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jul., 1993), pp. 99-127.

~ by actyourage09 on June 10, 2010.

2 Responses to ““You know I’ve got the curse!”: Disney and others tackle menarche”

  1. Yay second menarche post. In honor of it, let’s jam to Heavens to Betsy’s “My Red Self”:

    This was so fascinating — thanks for putting all this info together. I was especially interested in the Disney educational program and wonder how animated female girl bodies and drawn diagrams potentially distance the viewer from the biological/anatomical processes of embodying menarche, in addition to enforcing the gender roles societally ascribed to young women once their monthlies begin.

    • Good point Alyx! I would suggest that neither film encourages girls to embody – or even embrace – their menstrual cycles, since both focus so heavily on containment and cleanliness.

      In terms of using animated girls and animated bodies – I almost wonder if animation would allow working-class girls and girls of color to see themselves more in the Disney film as opposed to being asked to identify with Molly in the second film. Granted both films discuss menarche from white, classed positions, but I’d be interested to see how girls reacted to both films or which one was more popular.

      Also thanks for the Heavens to Betsy song!

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