For problems you may not have: Do all the sanitary products on the market fulfil a need, or are the manufacturers preying on women's fears about personal hygiene? Jojo Moyes reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I had to put my dirty sanitary towels in my school bag in tissues because there wasn't anywhere to put them. At break time they fell out and all the boys were laughing at me, saying I was dirty.

I keep trying to use tampons but I can't get them in . . . I don't want to go to my doctor because my Mum and Dad don't approve of tampons and don't want me to wear them.

IN SPITE of society's supposedly more enlightened attitudes, menstruation can still be a painful business for teenage girls. A recent survey of agony aunts found that nearly 50 per cent of letters they received were queries about periods and how to deal with them.

Teachers appear to be unwilling to address the subject of the female reproductive cycle, leaving girls to seek information elsewhere. According to women's organisations, this deficiency in education is making them susceptible to marketing, which persuades them to spend money they can ill afford on products they don't need, to hide problems they don't have.

'They're at an age where they're just starting to get discharges and to them it's absolutely revolting,' said Anita Naik, one of the magazine Just Seventeen's agony aunts. Twelve to 14- year-old girls, she said, still feel that periods are 'a bit disgusting' and find coping with them an embarrassing ordeal. 'They feel dirty . . . making them particularly susceptible to marketing hype.'

Marketing has, however, turned sanitary protection into big business. According to the market research organisation Mintel, the value of the sanitary protection market leapt 19 per cent in 1992 to pounds 209m; and it is expected to have risen by another 20 per cent in 1993. As menstruation on average now starts at the age of 13, the under-15 market has become highly lucrative. It also means that girls little older than children are making consumer choices about which products to buy.

According to the Women's Environmental Network, it is to the manufacturers' advantage to capture the first-time user. Once a teenager has found a product she is happy with, she is likely to remain loyal to that brand for a long time.

And the unprecendented pounds 18.4m spent last year on sanitary protection advertising undoubtedly has a huge effect on a market often fearful of tampons (ignorance having blown fears about toxic shock syndrome out of all proportion) and paranoid about personal hygiene.

'Let's be frank,' reads an advertisement in this month's Cosmopolitan magazine. 'Everybody's knickers get a bit damp by the end of the day. It's just the way we're made . . . which is precisely why Carefree makes panty liners. Unlike knickers, you can change them whenever you like.' Despite costing up to double the price of other items, 'ultra' thin towels and panty liners 'for everyday use' have claimed 25 per cent of the market since their introduction last year.

British women bought 490 million panty liners last year, at a cost of pounds 29m. These thin, often deodorised pads of adhesive absorbent material offer 'protection' against supposedly unpleasant discharges, helping women feel 'clean' and 'bathroom fresh'. They are discreet, a key concern among women under 35, and pose none of the health risks of vaginal sprays and douches, the use of which is now generally discouraged by the medical profession.

But according to Ms Naik, the expense of paying for panty liners (one of the highest priced sanitary products) throughout the month represents a big outlay for schoolgirls.

Procter & Gamble's Always brand, for example (which since its launch last year has cornered 15 per cent of the market) offers eight varieties of towel, including a pack of 20 normal absorbancy pads for pounds 2.97 and 26 panty liners for pounds 1.79. 'Manufacturers are trying to target teenage girls who are terrified of leakages or any kind of odour,' said Alison Hedley, a spokeswoman for Brook Advisory Centres.

While acknowledging the usefulness of panty liners before and after periods, she described their promotion for daily use as 'extremely cynical'. 'There's a lot of advertising in teenage magazines for this stuff. But to suggest that girls need sanitary products all through the month is awful,' said Ms Hedley. 'Slimline panty liners aren't actually doing anything. I mean, for goodness sake, what are pants for?

'Basically it's putting ideas into young girls' minds, in particular (because the older women usually know a little more about themselves) that their natural bodily functions are in some way unclean. It's not a very helpful way to get young people to feel good about themselves. It encourages a very negative self-image.' And the increased susceptibility of adolescent girls to marketing is exacerbated by the 'huge level of ignorance' still prevalent in that age group.

According to Ms Naik, 'At school they get taught (female sex education) in a very biological, technical way but it seems to have no relevance to their life. Some of them learn from their mothers - if they're lucky - but a lot of mothers won't explain it

properly.'

Neither the Department of Health nor the Health Education Authority provide written information on menstruation or the use of sanitary products. And many women's organisations believe insufficient education at school helps to shroud the topic in shame and embarrassment.

Such feelings are aggravated by the lack of practical facilities in many schools. In particular, how to dispose of sanitary protection was one of the most common questions asked at Brook Advisory Centres. The potential for embarrassment can be huge, as school toilets are often ill-equipped either for buying or disposing of sanitary products.

'A lot of them have to go to the school office to get tampons and towels,' added Ms Naik. 'Then they can't flush them down the loo, or else sanitary bins aren't always installed in the toilets. It's very embarrassing for the girls.'

This can be especially painful in mixed schools, or where the girl starts her period at a particularly young age. An increasing number of girls begin menstruating at primary school. 'Because it's not discussed openly and because schools bring in outsiders, such as the Tampax lady (a representative of the company who visits schools), to talk about menstruation, you have a vicious circle of people not willing to explain and children feeling there's something wrong with menstruation,' said Bernadette Valleley, director of the Women's Environmental Network.

The lack of information, she added, increases susceptibility to marketing and may increase the risk of teenage pregnancies. 'For many girls the Tampax lady is the only person that will talk to them about menstruation,' she said. 'It's little wonder that girls who do not understand their bodily functions go on to become teenage mothers.'

So what are the benefits of a spiralling sanitary protection market? A spokesman for Procter & Gamble said Always was 'simply responding to consumer needs'. But it is possible that this 'need' has been generated by advertisers and that these products simply make young women feel less 'dirty' - a condition that has been cleverly suggested to them in advertisements by the use of apposite words, such as 'fresh', 'clean', 'Deo(dorant)' and 'dry'. An alternative form of this money-spinning concept can be seen in the recent promotion of 'moist' toilet tissue.

Taking into account the extra strain on their finances, not to mention the toll on the environment of non-biodegradable adhesive strips, it seems that ultimately the manufacturers are the only ones to benefit from the increased sales of sanitary items.

So until they are given adequate, positive sanitary education, with no hint of embarrassment, young girls will be feeling (as the ads proclaim) anything but 'carefree', and taking 'everything in their stride'.

(Photographs omitted)

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