How can I possibly choose between Super, Super Plus, Ultra Plus, Ultra Super, Ultra Super Plus, not to mention Normal and Ultra Normal?
Saturday morning and I'm in Sainsbury's. I've remembered to bring a plastic bag full of empty bottles. I've successfully fought for the last bag of pre-washed spinach. I've resisted the temptation to buy six chocolate croissants. I've even identified the right Hoover bags. It was all going so well. But now I've got to negotiate Feminine Hygiene.

For some reason, my head is spinning with the "Wooaaah Bodyform! Bodyformed for yoooo..." theme tune, that accompanies the strange ad where a hotel guest invites her chambermaid to try one of her new sanitary towels. I head for the Bodyform section.

At first, I reach for a light blue pack of New Bodyform Plus Supers - shaped press-ons with wings. But then my eye is caught by a green pack of Bodyform Ultra Supers. Are these Ultra Supers better than the Plus Supers? Are the wings longer? Better? More secure? And what about that pack of Bodyform Solo Regulars? Perhaps they have something different to offer (comfort? reliability?) even though they're not New?

Feeling a little confused, I decide I might be better off with a pack of New! Nouveau! Nuovo! Neu! Nieuw! Always Plus. Sadly, the Always selection turns out to be even more overwhelming. How can I possibly choose between Super, Super Plus, Ultra Plus, Ultra Super, Ultra Super Plus, not to mention Normal and Ultra Normal? There isn't even any branding to help me: Always superwoman, perhaps, versus Bodyform sex goddess.

Meanwhile, over at Kotex, there are New Improved! Now Softer More Comfort! Ultra Plus Normals, not to mention Maxi Normals, Maxi Supers, Maxi Nightime Pluses, the truly confusing Dun/Slim (brown?) variety, plus (or do I mean ultra plus?) Curved Normal and Curved Super. Are curved different from shaped towels, I wonder, still no closer to a decision. Are Johnson & Johnson Silhouette New Wrap Around Wings different from other wings?

Buying sanitary towels used to be easy. Well, not exactly easy. There was the furtive pre-purchase shop survey to make sure there were no (a) boys from school (b) girls from school (c) teachers (d) men inside. There was the casual strolling down the feminine hygiene aisle, as if oblivious to its contents, followed by 11th-hour snatching of required product. There was the interminable wait for the till, shameful package hidden under duffel coat. There was another long wait when I had to change till, having realised that the first cashier was a man. And there was the terrible moment between inching the package from under my coat, the cashier hiding it safely in a bag and me rehiding it under my coat. But otherwise, if I had several hours to spare, and if I wasn't arrested by the store detective, buying sanitary towels was easy. There were old-fashioned looped ones or nice modern stick-ons. Small, medium or large. Packs of 10 or 20. That was it.

The end of innocence began in 1988, when the IBA relaxed the rules prohibiting advertising on behalf of undertaking services, solicitors, condoms and sanitary protection. Hence all those confident girls in white shorts who, instead of staying in bed with a hot water bottle and a copy of Vogue, would spend their period playing volleyball, rollerskating down the boardwalk, and doing perfect high dives. For the older viewer, Claire Rayner hosted an Oprah-style studio discussion (until she was banned) on the subject of wings.

At the same time, there was a technological revolution. Sanitary towels, like cars, became "high performance". First came Claire Rayner's wings, which banished riding up with wear. Then a plethora of extras: individually wrapped towels, which slipped discreetly into your high-performance handbag. "Stay-dry technology", which used the same silicon gels used in nappies and allowed towels to get thinner while staying strong. Then shaped, curved, wider, extra-long, "laundry fresh", special grooves, concentrated protection in the middle and, coming soon, towels that can do 0-60 mph in three seconds (just kidding). Everything was New! Nouveau! Nuovo! Neu! Nieuw! Some companies decided to baffle consumers with science. Always used a "one-way dri-weave topsheet". And, confusingly, nobody used the same jargon: at J&J, Super means extra-long, while at Always it means thick.

Other companies attempted to wow consumers with simplicity. Bodyform Goodnights have "unique leakage barriers for even greater security" and are "thinner for added discretion and comfort" (though why anyone would require "added discretion" in bed is beyond me). J&J have a unique "Stay Dry" cover (not to be confused with the "unique Kotex Stay Dry System" or the Bodyform "dry sensation cover") which pulls wetness through and, can you believe it, "helps lock it away".

Both strategies worked: by 1992, the UK "san pro" market (now there's a phrase that needs some Always jargon) was worth pounds 209 million, up 19 per cent on the previous year. In 1993, when an unprecedented pounds 18.4 million was spent on advertising, sales rose by 20 per cent. In the same year, Silhouettes were placed second in Marketing magazine's survey of top-growing brands.

Saturday afternoon and I'm home. I've forgotten to recycle my bottles. The bag of spinach has burst. I regret not buying six chocolate croissants. I've bought the wrong Hoover bags. And I haven't dealt with the feminine hygiene issue.

The good news is that, this year, the sanitary towel market began (to use an unfortunate phrase) to bottom out. Instead, attention is being turned to the odious "pantyliner" market, designed to make women spend a lot of money on the brand new "problem" - in an ad devised by Carefree - of "Everybody's knickers get a bit damp by the end of the day." Now there's a supermarket aisle I can confidently ignore

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