The Secret Kotex Club
Since the meetings were held in my basement, I suspect that the whole thing was my idea. As I set folding card chairs around the ping-pong table, I could hear girls arriving upstairs and my mother directing them to the basement. One by one, they clomped down the wooden steps, pulling off their jackets as they walked. The snow had melted, but the grass hadn’t revived yet, and nobody wanted to be outside. Downstairs was away from parental prying eyes, and we needed the privacy for our club. I’d informed my mother that I was having girls over for crafting. That explained the art supplies.
The previous year, my teacher had led all the girls in my fifth-grade class into the hallway. Under the guidance of one of the office ladies, the boys stayed behind at their desks, their faces mirroring our confusion. Out in the hall, we met up with the girls and their teacher from the other fifth-grade class and, in silence, we followed the women in pairs to the gym.
A movie screen and projector were ready to go, and the gym teacher passed out a mint green pamphlet, Very Personally Yours. “We’re here to talk about something private that will be happening to all of you young ladies in the next few years.”
As I glanced through the Kimberly-Clark company advertising pamphlet that pretended to be an educational text, I spotted a diagram of a girl’s inner organs leading down to an exit between her legs. At the time, I didn’t know the word vagina existed. I imagined that area as shadowy and unformed. I felt too embarrassed to glance around at the other girls. When I entered the gym, I knew nothing about menstruation, but by the time I left, after my indoctrination through pamphlet and movie, I wanted it. More precisely, I wanted the accoutrements that went with it—the feminine pads and belts in all their pretty packaging.
But part of me was terrified of the physical change that would happen to me. What would it be like having blood flowing out of me? Would I faint? I wasn’t used to thinking about down there. When I tried to imagine what it would be like, my mind curled up at the edges as if it were recoiling. How could I know what awaited me?
This hour in the darkened gym was to be my only warning from the establishment. Well, it was my only warning unless you counted the two earlier clues. First, there was the science book about bird and bee reproduction my mother had given me without uttering a word. I’d learned not to question my parents about secrets, as they didn’t respond well when I veered too close to one. My mother’s coy attempt at sex education reinforced that sex and reproduction were secrets—and big ones.
My second clue arrived with the family-sized box of Modess Mom secreted into the house every month or two. What was it and what was it for? When I saw the way my mother furtively sneaked it into the bathroom under the sink, I didn’t have the courage to ask.
I don’t remember how we got from that hour in the gym to the establishment of The Secret Kotex Club, but most likely it was triggered by the ads in the magazines we read. Now that we knew what we were seeing, they were everywhere. Kotex ads, by Kimberly-Clark, were better than Modess, which were staid, sophisticated, and old-fashioned. The slogan for Modess pads was meant to reinforce the secrecy surrounding menstruation: “Modess . . . because.” Underneath a beautiful model in a stunning outfit, these were the only words. A lady, the ad implied, knew what Modess was and why a woman would want to purchase it. A lady also knew that her need for Modess was to be kept secret.
The ads of the more youthful company had box images of every size Kotex sanitary napkin. According to the ad text, the pads varied in length, depth, and absorbency. The company even offered a delicate pink and white called “Miss Deb” made for the young beginner.
I was terrified of “becoming a woman,” as Kimberly-Clark described it. I didn’t want a bothersome curvy figure or to be the object of the male gaze. I was scared of boys who seemed already sexually interested in girls. I repressed those thoughts and worries; instead, I harvested inklings of urges that came with the onset of puberty into a desire for the trappings of puberty itself, namely the products offered by Kimberly-Clark. As much as I craved dangly earrings and Evening in Paris eau de toilette, I dreamed of a pink package of pads in my dresser drawer. Kotex became part of the landscape of desire within every drugstore.
Maybe I wasn’t the only girl suffering from the advertising culture, because at that first meeting on a Saturday morning in April 1967, every neighborhood sixth-grade girl ended up in my basement, toting magazines targeted at women and teen girls. The girls seemed to pour down the stairs, one after another. I had gathered every pair of scissors I could find, including my mother’s kitchen shears and the blunt toddler pair from my old crayon tin.
“Gosh, I don’t think I have enough scissors for everybody,” I mumbled, trying to push aside my second thoughts about this meeting. I worried such a private topic might blow up in my face.
Lori, the high school principal’s daughter, shook her head. “Never fear. Lori’s here.” She pulled four pairs of scissors, as well as several magazines and some construction paper, out of the grocery bag she carried.
We constructed scrapbooks by stringing together paper, then we clipped sanitary napkin ads and glued them into the books. I arranged my clippings by colors, lovingly putting all the pink boxes and models wearing pink on pages facing each other—and doing the same for blue. My next-door neighbor Karen filled in her ads with colored pencils.
Throughout the meeting, we kept pretty quiet, only erupting in unrestrained laughter at a few lame period jokes. When I glanced up to ask Karen to pass me a full bottle of glue, the other girls’ faces were intent on the task.
I suspect we whispered most of the time because we were embarrassed about a fixation on periods we hadn’t yet experienced. Maybe more than that, the emphasis on privacy during the movie at school translated into secret for us. We had had to keep the secret about the movie from our classmates, the boys. We were told that menstruation was a private affair.
For these reasons, nobody ever questioned why we were keeping our club a secret. After all, our mothers had kept their secrets very well. The teachers and the school conspired with them. The only member of the establishment that gave a public face to the secret were the companies making money from feminine hygiene products, and even that was subtle—pretty faces with chic makeup, girly packaging, and no hint that a product as crude and insinuating as a tampon even existed. We wanted the new Monkees album, a padded bra, fishnet stockings, and Kotex—and not in that order.
When my mother opened the basement door and started to shuffle down the stairs carrying a full laundry basket during our first meeting, we were seized with panic and swept all our supplies onto our laps, hidden under the ping-pong table. “What are you girls doing?” my mother asked, her eyes scanning the rec room. We assured her that we were doing nothing. But then the prize that Karen had brought over, the item we had been silently examining one by one, slid off Karen’s lap and onto the floor directly in front of my mother. My mother gazed down at the yellowed and stretched-out-of-shape sanitary belt Karen had found in her mother’s drawer.
I’m pretty sure we all sucked in our breath at the same time. But my mother’s eyes must have been troubling her that day because they continued past the belt and up toward the laundry area against the wall where they rested on the washing machine. “Better get this laundry done.” Mom didn’t give us a backward glance.
That was the first and last meeting of The Secret Kotex Club. It was as if it had never existed. Instead, I clipped the ads on my own, keeping the notebook in my drawer, hidden under my sweaters. One meeting had been enough to discover that I wasn’t the only girl fascinated with Kotex products. I felt a sense of relief that the female secret in the form of my notebook could be hidden away from sight. I would continue to dream of pink pads until the morning I woke up and discovered the shocking onset of my period. The bloodstained pajamas and sheet assured me that my fantasies of a pleasant and pretty puberty were behind me.
Luanne Castle‘s Kin Types (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook of poetry and flash nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Her first collection of poetry, Doll God, winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, was published by Aldrich Press. Luanne has been a Fellow at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and Stanford University. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Copper Nickel, Verse Daily, Lunch Ticket, Grist, River Teeth, The Review Review, Phoebe, and other journals. An avid blogger, she can be found at luannecastle.com. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Find her on Twitter: @WriterSiteTweet and on Facebook: Luanne Castle.