Review: The Curse

The Curse

The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation

by Karen Houppert

1999. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NY.


I remember the tampon dioxin scare in the 1990s. It infected the first version of my tampon risks page. I even own a CD with a warning about bleached tampons in the liner notes. Karen Houppert was the writer who broke that scandal with an article in the Village Voice, and this book is an expansion of her article. She writes from a feminist, anti-corporate viewpoint about menstrual taboos and their impact on women, specifically about the menstrual shame promoted by the feminine hygeine industry, and about the medicalization of PMS. Although the book is decidedly one-sided, I found many of Houppert's discussions interesting. Compelling, even.

Houppert begins with the question, “What does it mean for a girl, or woman, to say simply, ‘This happens to me’ and for society to say, ‘No it doesn't.’ Not in movies. Not in books. Not in conversations.” Drawing on research about tampon manufacturers' treatment of TSS and dioxins, teen girls' mental health, and PMS, Houppert makes a pretty convincing case that treating periods as unmentionable compromises consumer safety, contributes to the upsurge in depression seen in girls after they start bleeding, diverts attention from external stresses and problems facing women, and is generally a way of oppressing women. She also does a good job of cataloguing the insidious ways that the feminine hygeine industry promotes this taboo.

All of this comes on pretty thick. Despite my interest in the subject, I had to take breaks from reading The Curse in order to clear my head and avoid getting bogged down in frustration and confusion. I personally feel pretty good about my attitude towards menstruation and its role in my life, at least since I moved out of my parents' house. Most of my friends are comfortable talking about periods and other female concerns in mixed company, and we're all informed about product safety and alternative products (and it isn't all my doing, either). It was easy to forget that while reading The Curse, because Houppert seems so stuck and frustrated. By the end of the book, she still hasn't managed to liberate her own habits from shame. Consequently, a book that could be a guide to a better way of thinking about menstruation has to settle for being an articulate litany of complaints and warnings. It is an interesting book, but not terribly inspiring.

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In case you're still worrying, dioxin-producing bleaching methods are no longer used by major tampon brands. Check out this weird FDA statement: they claim “state of the art” testing confirms tampon safety, but play down the fact that all the research is funded by Tampax et al.

However, dioxin is not the only health risk posed by tampons. For up-to-date information about tampon health, try S.P.O.T.

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