She experienced her first menstruation in 1960, and after she married, she used gauze as a sanitary pad. After ten years, she began to use several layers of gauze simultaneously. When the top piece got soiled, she removed it. Because the material was hard to obtain, she washed the pieces of gauze and reused them. She didn’t have much material and used two or three pieces of the fabric per week.

The laundering method is worth mentioning, as well. She hid the used gauze in a dark corner, where no one would notice it, and she took it along with her dirty clothing when she did laundry. She rinsed and pre-washed the menstrual pads in running spring water, so the blood was washed away naturally by the current. Because she had been using the gauze for several days, it turned out to be impossible to remove all blood stains with this method, however. So, after rinsing the strips of gauze in running water, she soaked them in lye and pounded them clean.Footnote 1

In this excerpt from an interview with a South Korean woman, the interviewer relates the recollections of sixty-seven-year-old Ohyeon-daek, as she thinks back to her early menstruation experiences. Ohyeon-daek was born in 1944 and had her first period at the age of seventeen. Given that most of her friends of the same age had already begun to menstruate, Ohyeon-daek was unsurprised when she saw blood in her underwear for the first time. At the night school she attended, Ohyeon-daek had already seen bloodstains on her classmates’ clothing. In fact, for some time, she had worried about why her period had not started earlier. She knew that menstruation was a normal phenomenon, a sign of “sexual maturity”—and she was relieved when her first cycle began.

To prevent the menstrual blood from soiling her underwear and skirts, Ohyeon-daek initially received reusable menstrual pads, which her mother made from cotton fabric. Only ten years later did Ohyeon-daek adopt gauze pads, which she fastened to her underwear with a rubber band. While today, the use of recyclable pads may sound like a convenient, sustainable solution, Ohyeon-daek emphasizes the inconvenience of this personal-hygiene technology. Given that she owned only a few of these pads, Ohyeon-daek was forced to use them for several days in a row—and sometimes even an entire week. This caused the patches of dried blood to scratch the sensitive areas around her vulva. In the summer heat especially, pads used for several days tended to produce an unpleasant odor. In general, Ohyeon-daek’s memories of menstruation—and the relevant technologies—are rather unpleasant. She always lacked sufficient sanitary pads, and the pad-washing process was a nuisance. Further, given that menstruation was a taboo topic, Ohyeon-daek refrained from talking about her monthly problems—including her pain—with other women. At one point in the interview, she recalls the intense shame she felt when her mother-in-law caught her with blood on her clothing.Footnote 2

Ohyeon-daek had grown up as the third of six siblings. The family lived in the small village of Bomun-myeon, in the central part of the country, which, in 1948, became South Korea. At the age of nineteen, upon marrying, she moved to Sosan-ri, a village approximately fifteen kilometers south of her home village, and roughly twenty kilometers west of the city of Andong. At age twenty-one, she bore her first child; three more would follow.Footnote 3

This description of Ohyeon-daek’s early menstruation experiences is taken from an interview conducted in 2011 by historical anthropologist Baek Min Jeong. Ohyeon-daek was the youngest of seventeen women (the oldest of whom was ninety) from Sosan-ri whom Baek interviewed for her master’s thesis. The excerpt above represents Baek’s account of Ohyeon-daek’s experience.

Baek’s interviews suggest that Ohyeon-daek’s struggle to come to terms with her period was typical of Korean women of her generation. In fact, Ohyeon-daek’s approach to her menstruation experience may well represent the experience of earlier—and later—generations, as well. According to a survey from 1970, about one-third of Korean girls in Seoul did not know anything about menstruation before their periods began.Footnote 4 Further, menstruation was a topic seldom mentioned, and menstrual blood was something to be hidden. In her role as a housewife, Ohyeon-daek was expected to carry out her daily chores without complaining, regardless of whether she had her period.Footnote 5 In addition, Ohyeon-daek was responsible for washing her sanitary pads discreetly if not secretly—without anyone else noticing.

In some ways, however, Ohyeon-daek differed from the majority of girls who came of age in mid-twentieth-century South Korea. She expected menarche (the first onset of menstruation), and she was prepared for it. Ohyeon-daek also understood the connection between menstruation and pregnancy. In contrast to Ohyeon-daek, Chilgok-daek, Baek’s oldest interviewee, knew only that grown-up women experience bleeding—but she had no concept of the physiological processes behind this phenomenon; nor did Chilgok-daek comprehend that menstruation is a prerequisite to childbearing.Footnote 6 Although Chilgok-daek had heard about menstruation, the onset of her first menstrual cycle, at age seventeen, still shocked her: she “put her blood-stained underwear in the furnace and burned it.”Footnote 7 Most of Baek’s interviewees told similarly harrowing stories about their menstruation experiences.

Another historian, Youngju Lee, interviewed Korean women born in the 1950s and 1960s.Footnote 8 For these women, the occurrence of their first period was also a shocking, frightening event. In most cases, neither their mothers nor other female relatives had prepared them for this dramatic rite of passage into womanhood; they did not know how to cope with the first sight of blood—and the attendant problem of bloodstains on their clothing. Some girls tried to dry or congeal the blood in front of the fireplace; others drank alcohol in the hope that it would stop the bleeding. Some women thought they had been badly hurt and had sustained a serious internal injury. They understood that menstruation was not a topic to be discussed openly; this gave rise to feelings of shame. To avoid being scolded by relatives and teachers, early on girls learned to hide their menstruation pads and blood-stained strips of cloth; they washed their clothes in secret, at night—or during the day, in places where they would not be seen. Those who were most desperate even went so far as to bury their underwear in the ground.Footnote 9

To what extent do Ohyeon-daek and Chilgok-daek’s narratives represent the feelings and beliefs of other women in South Korea? Were their feelings of shame—and the techniques they used to manage menstruation—typical?

Industrialization and the Taboo of Menstruation

Anthropologists and researchers in other disciplines have found taboos around menstruation throughout the world; historians throughout the centuries have documented negative associations with menstruating women. In a classic book titled The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, scholars Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth present a comprehensive discussion on the taboo of menstruation.Footnote 10 According to the authors, in most “native” cultures around the world, young girls are kept isolated for long stretches of time after their menarche, for example. The authors of The Curse talk about “Taboos of Exclusion.”Footnote 11 In the Old Testament, Jehovah explains to Moses that a menstruating woman is unclean and must be separated from the rest of society for seven days; this notion of uncleanliness has persisted in many cultures. It is not merely the blood that must be hidden; the menstruating woman herself is also considered taboo.

Such taboos have been slow to fade. In the industrializing world of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, the taboos around menstruation continued to present women with almost insurmountable problems. As more and more women entered the workforce and gained access to higher levels of education, they spent a larger portion of their time outside the home. The question of how to hide the evidence of their menstruation—let alone how to handle their menstrual flow during long hours at work or in school—became pressing problems for women in both North America and Europe.Footnote 12 Designed to alleviate the situation for menstruating women at work and in educational settings, legal measures and human-resources policies often proved counterproductive. Although meant to protect women, the era’s “modern menstrual politics”―as the authors of The Curse call it―turned them into second-class citizens, and frequently relegated them to the category of temporarily disabled workers or students.Footnote 13 Clearly, legal and policy protections for women were ineffective.

Given the need to draw on women as part of the workforce, US and European manufacturers were spurred to devise products that would enable women to better manage their menstrual flow. A “technology” was urgently needed—a means by which menstruating women could spend hours away from home without having to worry about losing their jobs or finding themselves in awkward or embarrassing situations. The practical challenge was clear: outside the home, it was impossible to wash and dry any item used to absorb menstrual flow, whether that item was a cloth sanitary pad, an adult “diaper,” or a sponge, for example. The optimal industrial solution was a disposable product. Fortunately for manufacturers, medical doctors and nurses recommended disposable products, citing hygienic concerns.Footnote 14

The first commercial sanitary pads and belts were introduced on the US market in the late 1880s, and in 1896 the consumer-products giant Johnson & Johnson launched Lister’s Towel. Made of gauze-covered cotton, this mass-produced product was designed to be thrown away after use. Twenty-five years later, Kimberly-Clark followed with “Kotex,” a pad made of a cotton-like cellulose product called Cellucotton.Footnote 15

In the United States, the disposable sanitary pad was by no means an immediate success. The price-point for disposable pads was one deterrent; taboos against frankly advertising the product in newspapers and magazines was another obstacle. Even if a woman had learned about Lister’s Towels or Kotex from friends or relatives, it took some self-confidence to ask for these products at the local drugstore, or at a department store.Footnote 16 The less-courageous could order both disposable and nondisposable menstruation products from mail-order companies.

Perhaps as an outcome of women’s increased participation in political and economic life in the 1920s, some of these taboos were relaxed. For example, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and other US print media began to publish advertisements for Kotex and other brands of disposable pads. Kotex’s biggest competitor was Modess, a “sanitary napkin” manufactured by the Personal Products Corporation, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson. Both images and text reveal that these ads were geared toward White, middle-class and upper-middle-class women.Footnote 17

In a 1929 ad, the manufacturer Kimberly-Clark extolls Kotex’s “advantages”: “it is disposable, just like tissue … easily, quickly; wrapped in soft, specially treated gauze.” Rather than adopting potentially offensive words like “menstruation” or “blood,” the ad uses a combination of euphemisms and quasi-scientific language: “science has found a solution to woman’s oldest hygienic problem.” In addition, the 1929 advertising copy implies that Kotex has solved the menstruation problem worldwide: “the hygienic habits of women have changed all over the world.”Footnote 18 This statement was patently false: it would be forty years before Kotex entered the South Korean market.Footnote 19

A US-Style Consumer Culture in South Korea?

In 1945, as the Second World War ended, the Korean peninsula was practically divided in half. The Soviet Union took control of the North, and the US Army installed a military administration in the South. In 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) were officially created. The Korean War (1950–1953) cemented this division between the communist North and the capitalist-leaning South.

The US military presence in South Korea remained strong until the early 1970s; this extended presence implied that the young republic would become heavily Americanized. Indeed, US administrators played a key role in Americanizing the country’s educational system, for example; rallying to the slogan “New Education” (sae kyoyuk), six years of elementary schooling became compulsory for both boys and girls. In addition, access to higher levels of education became less dependent on social status.Footnote 20

In her highly regarded book Irresistible Empire, historian Victoria de Grazia documents the increasing US influence in Europe. Focusing on economic and cultural matters, de Grazia illustrates how, in the postwar period, Europeans—particularly in Western Europe—adopted lifestyles and consumer patterns from the United States. US manufacturers and retailers deliberately—and effectively—promoted the image of “America” as a cultural export. Advertisements and films contributed to the circulation of US ideals—and to the acceptance of US products. Consumer-products behemoth Procter & Gamble was just one of several US companies that used aggressive marketing methods to sell their products in Europe.Footnote 21

De Grazia concludes that the image of the United States had such a strong impact on European citizens that they came to regard the United States as an “irresistible empire.” US consumer culture was the vehicle for convincing Europeans to strive for “the American way of life.” The question remains whether this process of Americanization was similar in the case of South Korea. To what extent were the people of South Korea tempted by US consumer products and cultural symbols? Focusing on technologies applied by Korean women to accommodate their monthly periods, I question whether consumers associated disposable sanitary pads and tampons with “America.”

Historian Deok-ho Kim has analyzed the impact of the United States on Korean society and culture. In the early twentieth century, “America” was already successfully projecting a positive image in Korea. During the Japanese occupation (1910–1945) and thereafter, US influence increased dramatically. After the Second World War, many American products entered the country via so-called US Army and Air Force post exchange (PX) stores. Frequently, these products—from coffee and cigarettes, to cameras, cosmetics, and Coca-Cola—found their way onto the black market. Meanwhile, propaganda reels and Hollywood movies provided South Koreans, including those in rural areas, with concrete images of what constituted the “American way of life.” As income levels rose, people in South Korea also adopted more expensive symbols of modern consumer culture: television sets, refrigerators, and washing machines, for example.Footnote 22

Economic statistics support the idea that South Korea was moving rapidly toward becoming a consumer society. In the 1960s and 1970s, as Gross Domestic Product increased by an average of nearly eight percent annually, private consumption tripled, in real terms.Footnote 23 In addition, consumers doubled the amount of money spent on entertainment, “beauty” products, and health products—including disposable sanitary pads. Indeed, imported products from the West, such as blue jeans, beer, and guitars, came to symbolize this purported consumer-oriented leisure culture.Footnote 24 The influence of American culture was also evident in the growing popularity of leisure sports, including bowling, golf, and tennis.Footnote 25

The rise of South Korea’s consumer culture was a thorn in the side of Park Chung-hee, the country’s president from 1963 to 1979. From the start, the Park administration prioritized the manufacturing sector, particularly the export industry. To restrict consumption, the government levied high import tariffs and, in the 1970s, introduced value-added tax.Footnote 26 The government also increased the tax on luxury goods such as Western liquor, automobiles, television sets, and electric household appliances.Footnote 27 At every opportunity, Park criticized the emerging leisure culture, as well as the excessive consumption of goods deemed unnecessary. Preaching frugality and the value of hard work, Park criticized young urbanites, for example. Park’s logic: by spending their weekends “dancing go-go,” young urbanites demoralized farmers and other diligent citizens.Footnote 28

The Park government’s economic policy was influenced by US economist Walt Whitman Rostow, who argued that “underdeveloped countries”—as South Korea and similar countries in the “Third World” in those days were called—must prioritize investment in heavy industry and the production of capital goods. Invoking Rostow’s model of economic development, Park believed South Korea was not yet ready to enter the stage of mass consumption. In line with this thinking, the government continued to support traditional markets and sought to inhibit the expansion of department stores. Park’s economic policy, then, suggests that South Korea was not as heavily Americanized as Western Europe. While many individuals in South Korea embraced US products and US cultural symbols, Park, apparently, did not find “America” to be “irresistible”—unlike, for example, the West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, the so-called father of the West German “economic wonder” of the 1950s and 1960s.Footnote 29 A liberal economist at heart, Erhard believed open markets would guarantee “welfare for everyone” and—as in the United States—subsequent access to automobiles and other consumer products.Footnote 30

Techniques for Self-made Sanitary Pads

At least on the political level, then, South Korea was staving off the process of full-fledged Americanization in the 1960s and 1970s. However, to what extent were Korean women still tempted by American attitudes toward menstruation and the products marketed to menstruating women?

For this chapter, in addition to relying on interviews conducted by Korean scholars, I have sourced material from South Korean magazines and newspapers. The primary-source material includes advertisements, articles written by journalists and self-proclaimed experts, as well as letters to the editors written by women readers. At first glance, these sources corroborate the hypothesis that women in South Korea tended to associate disposable menstruation products with “America.” For example, in 1966, when the Mughunghwa Hygiene Cosmetic Paper Manufacturing Company first promoted its “Clean Pad” in South Korea, it claimed that its sanitary pad was “very popular in the United States and several European countries.” Footnote 31 Ten years later, in advertising to the Korean market, the Hawgang Trading Company likewise referenced the tampon as a technology already in use for quite some time in Western countries.Footnote 32

As the interview with Ohyeon-daek indicates, mass-produced sanitary pads and tampons entered a context rife with options for South Korean women: these would-be consumers fashioned menstruation pads in various shapes, from different materials. The techniques used by women to fold and to fasten the pads were also highly individual.Footnote 33 The pads were referred to by different nouns, depending on the region of Korea and the extent of the taboo around menstruation in that region. Perhaps the most telling of these denominations was, simply, “laundry” (sŏdap; 서답); the generic nature of the terms underscores the fact that it was often considered inappropriate and embarrassing to refer directly to the technology in question.Footnote 34 Linguists call this common phenomenon “word taboo.”Footnote 35

Women experimented with various kinds of fabric to achieve the goal of absorbing menstrual blood. As mentioned, Ohyeon-daek first received from her mother pads made of cotton; later, she used layers of gauze, which she attached to her underwear with rubber bands. Whereas some women used woven cotton to make specially designed pads, other women simply recycled old pieces of cloth or rags. Apparently, wool was less common. Hemp had the benefit of being comparatively easy to wash, though it had lower absorbency than either cotton or wool.Footnote 36 Most women designed their own solutions or relied on close relatives for pads.Footnote 37 Despite the taboos around the topic, it is likely that mothers, grandmothers, and older sisters, for example, helped girls cut, sew, fold, and fasten the pads.

In this context, in which mass production and mass consumption did not rule the economy, self-made artifacts were paramount. Fittingly, de Grazia refers to the mass-producing economy as the Fordist consumption regime.Footnote 38 According to standard academic thinking, Henry Ford—and Fordism—are associated with product standardization and large-scale manufacturing. De Grazia takes this concept further, pointing out that the “Fordist consumption regime” relies on well-established distribution and retailing networks if it is to succeed. When we apply this concept to the mass consumption of disposable sanitary pads and tampons, we realize that mass production is logical only if “the distribution problem,” as de Grazia calls it, has been resolved. The Park administration strove to restrict the expansion of department stores and chain stores—and thus the emergence of a Ford-like mass-consumption regime.

The do-it-yourself (DIY) culture around sanitary pads in Korea continued throughout the 1960s. The availability of mass-produced, disposable pads did not appeal to large numbers of women. Occasional, early newspaper advertisements indicate that reusable (non-disposable) feminine-hygiene products were already available during the period of Japanese occupation (1910–1945). Despite this, historian Youngju Lee observes that, well into the 1960s, even wealthy women continued to use home-made menstruation technologies.Footnote 39

To turn a piece of cloth into a useful menstruation napkin requires experience and skill. Through a series of six photographs, Baek documents how one of her interviewees, Bonghwa-daek, uses her experienced hands to transform a rectangular piece of cotton into a thick and stable pad. For those who would like to try it out, Baek provides a series of thirteen sketches which in detail depicts the complicated folding technique. To make sure the sanitary pad stays in position and does not fall out of the underwear, Bonghwa-daek makes two holes in the piece of cloth and leads a rubber band through them.Footnote 40

Gopyeong-daek, another interviewee of Baek’s, illustrates an alternative folding technique. Gopyeong-daek uses an almost square piece of fabric and folds it to create an elongated pad. Compared to Bonghwa-daek’s fairly thick napkin, Gopyeong’s design is much thinner and has a form that reminds us more of today’s disposable pantyliners—with the important difference that it is kept in place by a rubber band rather than by an adhesive layer.

Other sources indicate that some women folded their pads in such a way that it was thicker in the front part and thinner at the back.Footnote 41 Some women inserted extra cotton or a piece of cloth into a pocket in the middle, to increase absorbency.

Why did the majority of women in Korea decline to adopt disposable sanitary pads in the 1960s and 1970s? The answer relates to the prevailing fashion: at the time, women in Korea preferred skirts and dresses to trousers. Accordingly, women were comfortable wearing traditional underpants that were baggy and loose, rather than form-fitting—and, the use of self-adhesive pads does not work well in baggy underpants. Only when women began to adopt US-style blue jeans, for example, was it necessary to consider wearing form-fitting panties.Footnote 42 And only then would it be worth considering the use of Western-style sanitary pads. Traditional underwear was incompatible with disposable pads. So, other technologies were required. Typically, rubber bands or thread was used to fix the sanitary pad to the underpants. Another option was to use buttons to attach the pads to the baggy underwear. Rubber bands and string could also be sewn into the pad to keep it in place. Safety pins were also used. To make the pad more easily attachable, one solution was to sew small hooks or rings into the underpants, allowing for thread or rubber bands to be used.Footnote 43 A minority of women chose to invest in a commercially available, reusable menstruation belt, to which the self-made pads could be attached. Newspaper advertisements feature such belts—mostly made of a rubber-like material—from the 1920s onward.Footnote 44

Women who used self-made sanitary pads faced the monthly problem of laundering them. Those who lived in rural areas could go to a stream outside the village to do the laundry, as Ohyeon-daek did. Others did their laundry at home, surreptitiously, hanging the pads to dry between other items of clothing, to hide them from view. In 1955, a medical doctor recommended using an iron to disinfect sanitary pads after they had been washed.Footnote 45

Research conducted with women in Taiwan during the mid-1980s is consistent with the research on menstruation technologies carried out with women in South Korea. Nurses and anthropologists in Taiwan found that it was just as important for women there to conceal menstrual blood as it was for women in Korea to do so. Washing sanitary pads was a difficult, burdensome task, especially for those who lacked access to running water. Older women from Taiwan recall how, in the 1930s, women washed their self-made sanitary pads “in ditches and streams.” Whereas many of the women in extremely low-income, rural areas appear not to have used any specialized menstruation technologies at all, women of means “liked grass paper because it could be thrown away.” The disadvantage was that grass paper, which can be made from hay or grass clippings, was “stiff” and scratchy.Footnote 46 The use of grass paper in Taiwan is noteworthy, as it shows that disposability is not a feature exclusive to industrially manufactured products.

Comparisons between feminine-hygiene products in South Korea and those other East Asian countries yield some unexpected differences. For example, consumers in the (then) Republic of China had the option to buy Kotex, Modess, and other disposable sanitary pads as early as the second half of the 1920s, shortly after these products first appeared on the US market.Footnote 47 It would be forty years before these items reached the South Korean market, and another decade would pass before Kotex became available in Taiwan.Footnote 48

In interwar China, when disposable pads were on the market, articles that openly discussed “female hygiene” also appeared in various magazines.Footnote 49 According to historian Shing-ting Lin, medical doctors, journalists, and readers in the 1920s broached “bleeding, cramps, sex and sanitary napkins with all the frankness long devoted to digestion and respiration.”Footnote 50 The Shanghai-based “Ladies’ Journal” not only accepted advertisements for Kotex and other disposable sanitary pads, but the publication also allocated editorial space to an increasingly Western discourse on health and hygiene. Obliquely referencing Western knowledge and expertise, promoters of Kotex claimed the disposable pad was “born out of scientific advances and tested by medical professionals.”Footnote 51 A 1928 Kotex ad juxtaposes these industrially manufactured pads with so-called “unhygienic rags,” creating a comparison that apparently resonated with many readers. In letters to the editor, readers often described traditional menstruation technologies as “filthy” and “coarse.”Footnote 52 Not everyone shared this view, however. In one letter, Zhen San criticized the industrially produced pads, instructing readers on how to make their own version:

Use sterilised or salicylic acid cotton wool, three or four centimetres long, to press against the part [i.e. the vulva]. Fasten it in the crotch with a cotton belt folded into a T-shape. Fix the device at the waist, using lengths of string at front and rear. […] When experiencing an excessive loss of blood, change [the pad] two or three times a day. The used pad [is] discarded.Footnote 53

Interestingly, Zhen’s solution represents a middle-ground between recyclability and disposability. The cotton belt, which probably resembled Gopyeong-daek’s design, was washed and reused repeatedly, whereas the small piece of absorbent cotton wool was thrown away.

Mass-Produced Pads: A Hard Sell

As we have seen, advertisements for the first disposable sanitary pads in South Korea referred explicitly to their Western origins. Decision-makers in marketing departments appear to have been convinced that the association with the United States and Europe would persuade potential users—especially young, urban women—to abandon self-made pads in favor of “modern” products. The time seemed right: people’s discretionary income was surging, and many young men and women were willing to spend more on products considered luxuries by their parents. Stoked in part by television and other mass media, a Western-inspired version of consumer culture was emerging.Footnote 54 Increasingly, more women in Korea entered the workforce; in the 1960s and 1970s, their numbers more than doubled.Footnote 55 To enable women to withstand many consecutive hours of working on production lines and in offices, disposable pads proved their convenience. In most cases, it was more difficult to hide or wash sanitary pads in the workplace than it was to do so at home.Footnote 56

As mentioned, the Clean Pad brand was one of the first on the South Korean market. “Anemone” was another, manufactured and marketed by the Seoul Paper Manufacturing Corporation. A 1970 advertisement published in a Korean women’s magazine does not mention any connection between the product and the United States or Europe; rather, the ad highlights Anemone’s comfort and convenience, claiming, “It is easy to use”; “soft”; “small”; and “you can throw it away in the WC.” The ad also touts Anemone as industrially produced—not made by hand.Footnote 57

Although the Anemone ad does not refer explicitly to the West, it does reflect trends found in North America and Europe at the time. When the philosopher Herbert Marcuse in 1964 published his groundbreaking book One-dimensional Man, he chastised what he calls (in the subtitle) Advanced Industrial Society for preventing us from being active, politically aware citizens, and turning us all into passive consumers. Claiming that the Western world had given in to the ideals of consumerism and convenience, Marcuse refers to both the constant stream of trivial entertainment—symbolized by the emerging medium of television—and to the “capacity” of “industrial civilization … to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need.”Footnote 58 The consumption of disposable products (“waste”), likely belongs to the comforts Marcuse and later thinkers had in mind.Footnote 59 In the context of menstruation technologies, the relevant question is whether women in South Korea were swayed by the promises about disposable pads—and later, tampons—made in advertisements.

In fact, most women in Korea were not immediately convinced of the advantages of the Clean Pad, Anemone, nor other disposable sanitary pads. The companies’ arguments—that their products were “healthy,” “easy,” and “safe” to use—failed to persuade.Footnote 60 Youngju Lee presents research from the late 1960s indicating that, calculated per-capita, a Korean woman in her reproductive years used only 2.5 disposable pads annually. This may suggest that less than one percent of women had adopted this new, disposable-pad technology. Not even Kotex—launched in Korea fifty years after its introduction in the United States—was an immediate market success. Yuhan-Kimberly was a joint venture between Kimberly-Clark (US) and the Yuhan Yangheang Corporation (South Korea), which produced pharmaceutical and chemical products. In 1970, in a factory near Seoul (Anyang-si), Yuhan-Kimberly manufactured both Kotex sanitary pads and Kleenex tissues. To comply with the Park administration’s economic policy, the company was obliged to export a substantial proportion of its products. In a corporate history of the Yuhan-Kimberly company, an employee remembers how difficult it was to market the mass-produced sanitary pad in South Korea. It took considerable effort to convince pharmacists to carry the new product. Similarly, when a company representative attempted to hand out free samples of the sanitary pad to women on a bus, the driver forced the salesperson off the vehicle.Footnote 61

To generate sales, Yuhan-Kimberly from the start attempted to influence women by referencing the international success of Kotex. One of the company’s first advertisements, from 1971, shows a young Korean woman with a globe of the world in the background; the accompanying text informs would-be consumers that women in 129 countries were already using Kotex.Footnote 62 Soon after, the company produced an ad that posed the seemingly rhetorical question of why women in Korea persisted in using their “traditional” sanitary pads. The text of a 1973 advertisement questions why not all women in Korea have abandoned the “uncomfortable” task of washing bloodstained fabric every month. Apparently, the company was betting on the idea that laundering self-made sanitary pads was onerous, as well as too intimate a task to be delegated to others—so they would soon realize that Kotex pads were far more “convenient and safe.” Featuring a photograph of a women styled as a housewife, the ad implies that only women in traditional roles would insist on using self-made sanitary solutions, which required washing.Footnote 63

On a conceptual level, then, the Yuhan-Kimberly marketing department reflected Marcuse’s values of an advanced industrial society. The question is, why were women in Korea largely relatively indifferent to the promise of “comfort” and “convenience” as it related to industrially produced menstruation products?

How did financial constraints play a role in women’s consumption (or non-consumption) of disposable sanitary pads in Korea? One theory is that, to economize, women bought disposable pads to use only for outdoor activities; on holidays; and while traveling. In a 1970 article in the magazine Yŏsŏngdonga (“East Asian Women”), Kang Ji-yong, a medical doctor at the Ewha Womans [sic] University, recommends using traditional, self-made sanitary pads at home and at work, and switching to disposable pads only when standard routines cannot be followed. Given her belief that “conventional” pads are safer and more efficient than industrially produced ones, Dr. Kang—a teacher at the College of Medicine—suggests refraining from using disposable pads while asleep.Footnote 64 This recommendation may relate to the fact that the disposable pads available at the time lacked an adhesive strip to keep it in place.Footnote 65

Further sources corroborate the observation that, for a long interval, disposable sanitary pads failed to render obsolete the traditional self-made options; the new and old technologies existed side by side, often complementing each other. In 1968, the editors of Yŏsŏngdonga presented readers with a service-oriented article on how to wash sanitary napkins “easily.”Footnote 66 One of the magazine’s readers submitted a letter in which she shares her advice: in the absence of access to boiling water, one can wash the sanitary napkins in lukewarm water to which sodium carbonate (washing soda) has been added. Notably, three years later, an Ewha Womans University textbook on “sex education,” written for middle- and high-school pupils, refrains from recommending the use of either self-made or store-bought, disposable pads. While they deem disposable pads “convenient,” the authors go on to encourage every girl to decide for herself which kind of pad to use.Footnote 67 (Not considered a serious option, tampons are mentioned only in passing.) One of Lee’s interviewees, whose menstrual cycle first began in 1980, explained that she used disposable pads only when she was away from home; otherwise, she reverted to self-made sanitary pads. This was primarily for financial reasons.Footnote 68

Moral concerns made it difficult for manufacturers of disposable pads to reach large consumer groups. For example, a 1973 article in Women Dong-A sharply criticizes Yuhan-Kimberly’s television commercials for Kotex. The article’s author, a self-described housewife named Kim Sŏng-suk, reports finding it highly embarrassing to be compelled to watch such advertisements together with male and female relatives. She notes that the commercial caused discomfort to everyone in her company.Footnote 69 Criticism of the commercials continued, and in 1980, television commercials for menstruation products were, in fact, banned in South Korea.

Despite these public concerns, textbook authors gradually accepted disposable sanitary pads as a standard technology. A nicely illustrated book, published in 1984 and aimed at children in fifth and sixth grade, includes a romanticized drawing of an industrially produced pad. Focusing on cleanliness and hygiene, the author advises girls to change pads frequently and to make sure to keep the genital area clean. The author also states that, to reduce the risk of bacteria entering the vagina, menstrual pads should be put in place from front to back. Further advice: hard work and swimming should be avoided during the girl’s period.Footnote 70

Freedom to Consume

Like Baek Min Jeong’s master’s thesis, Youngju Lee’s thesis is based on interviews with women in South Korea.Footnote 71 Notably, one of Lee’s thirteen interviewees, who is quoted anonymously, explains that she used recyclable cloth pads well into the 1990s. This interviewee was born in 1953 and got her period for the first time at age seventeen. After working in the fields and in the home for roughly two decades, at the age of forty she became a factory worker. It was only after one of her coworkers had showed her the advantages of disposable pads that she decided to adopt this technology. In the interview, she states that, had she continued to stay at home, she would not have turned to disposable pads. At the workplace, the disposable pads were more convenient, though she found cloth pads to be softer and smoother.Footnote 72

In general, women in Korea began to accept disposable sanitary pads in the second half of the 1970s. One of Lee’s interviewees states that, in the small town where she grew up, disposable sanitary pads were still unavailable throughout the early 1970s. In 1975, newspapers continued to associate disposable pads with urban areas, and cloth pads with rural areas—although disposables by that time had begun to make inroads even in the countryside.Footnote 73 Hailing a new “openness” and the “fresh air” in Korean villages, a journalist in 1977 observes that disposable sanitary pads had become a bestseller at local markets. In an interview, a woman pharmacist from Hwaseong County reports that rural women would walk for hours to the nearest small town to buy disposable pads.Footnote 74

Apparently, this new “openness” was widespread in South Korea. Another of Lee’s anonymous interviewees, who was born in 1961 in the southeastern part of the country but had grown up in Seoul, relates that she had no problem talking to her mother about her period and various personal-hygiene techniques.Footnote 75 Meanwhile, public criticism continued, with some people citing the negative impact of TV commercials—for sanitary pads and contraceptives—on children and youth.Footnote 76 This criticism did not staunch the trend toward more candid treatment of these formerly taboo topics. Commercial interests were only partly responsible for the changes; the Park administration also had a hand in this shift. The textbook mentioned above, Sex Education for Middle- and High-School Pupils: Plan and Practice, had been supported by the Ministry of Culture and Education; the book reproduces many of the arguments found in the government’s so-called Family Planning Program. Supported by a number of international organizations, this program aimed to reduce the number of births in South Korea. To this end, it was deemed essential that young citizens receive the relevant information about the biology of reproduction and the technology of contraception. Knowledge about menstruation and personal-hygiene technologies was a part of this package.Footnote 77

Throughout the 1970s, manufacturers of disposable personal-hygiene products, including tampons, intensified their marketing efforts. New companies entered the market. Yungjin Pharm introduced a pad named Sophia, and the Ilyang Pharmaceutical Industry Corporation, in collaboration with a Japanese company, developed a product called Charming Chanel. The Hawgang Trading Company was the first manufacturer of tampons in South Korea. Its Mon Clean was soon followed by the Amore tampon, manufactured by the Pacific Chemical Company (now the Amore Pacific Corporation) and the Tempo tampon, made by the Dong-A Pharmaceutical Company.

Intense competition followed. To raise awareness of their products among women, company representatives canvassed workplaces and distributed free samples.Footnote 78 To cultivate future customers, companies also offered schools across the country special classes in sex education, an offer many teachers happily accepted.Footnote 79 Advertisements in magazines and newspapers, as well as television commercials (up to 1980), reproduced the Western image of disposable pads. Yuhan-Kimberly picked up this trope—the association of sanitary pads and tampons with a Western lifestyle—in several advertisements for its disposable pad named New Freedom. In one ad, to reinforce the association with the United States, the name of the product is written in English—in capital letters, no less. In another ad, a well-known Korean actress appears in a stars-and-stripes sleeveless shirt.Footnote 80 Engaging another famous actress in Korea to promote Sophia, the Yungjin Company explicitly labeled its product “European.” To highlight the sanitary pad’s identity as European, the featured actress’s style was unmistakably inspired by Western fashion: brown, curly hair; dark eyeshadow; and a turtleneck.Footnote 81

The Yuhan-Kimberly and Yungjin companies appear to have been particularly successful in achieving brand recognition in the market. One of Lee’s interviewees recalls that she and her friends seldom used the Korean word for menstruation or sanitary pad (saengnidae; 생리대). Instead, they simply referred, respectively, to “Sophia” and “Freedom.”Footnote 82

The brand name New Freedom was not meant to be understood in the political context of Western democratic rights; after all, the Park administration was a military regime that monitored closely people’s lives as well as the country’s companies. Rather, manufacturers aimed to highlight the freedom to enjoy newfound leisure activities. This marketing strategy squared well with the growing importance of domestic tourism and weekend excursions in the 1970s.Footnote 83 One Yuhan-Kimberly ad states that New Freedom enables a “Gentle Life”; another ad makes the grandiose claim that the Maxi version of the pad will “MAXIMIZE new freedom.”Footnote 84 Interestingly, both ads make partial use of the English language—and Latin alphabet—to strengthen the association with the West. Similarly, an ad for Kotex pads suggests the product enables Korean women to enjoy “Hip Fashion”—written in English.Footnote 85 In some ads, Yuhan-Kimberly emphasizes the connection with the cultures of the United States and Europe in the 1970s by using Flower Power–inspired drawings commonly associated with Western pop music and alternative, hippie lifestyles.Footnote 86 To ensure freedom of movement, New Freedom was the first disposable pad with an adhesive strip. This design was meant to secure the pad in the underwear, obviating the need for hooks, buttons, or rubber bands. The new pad design implied that women would be able to go to the movies and to concerts, to play sports, and more. Thus, disposable pads were not simply Western; they gave women the opportunity to carry out their daily activities, even during their periods. With the adhesive-strip pad, women would be relieved of worry about having accidents with their sanitary pads, both at work and during their leisure time. The self-adhesive pad dovetailed nicely with South Korea’s US-style consumer-society-in-the-making.

In a history of feminine-hygiene-product advertising, Feminist Studies scholar Jieun Roh relates disposable sanitary pads to changes in leisure activities and fashion. Citing further examples in the magazine Yŏsŏngdonga, Roh references manufacturers’ claims that, with their products, women could enjoy freedom of travel—throughout the month.Footnote 87 The idea was that women were free of leaky cloth pads that could prevent them from taking vacations and other trips, as well as playing a range of sports. For example, Yungjin Pharm’s ads for the Sophia pad feature images of women playing baseball; fencing; and riding horseback.Footnote 88 Advertisements by various other manufacturers associate disposable pads with bicycling and sailing, roller-skating and skiing, for example.Footnote 89

In the mid-1970s, when tampons were introduced to the Korean market, advertising for the product featured sports and other leisure activities even more prominently than ever; Roh demonstrates that this continued well into the 1990s.Footnote 90 For example, ads sponsored by the Dong-A Pharmaceutical Company purport that tampon use allows girls and women to play tennis and to engage in mountain climbing.Footnote 91 Featuring six photos of young, White women from Western European as well as Anglo-Saxon countries, one Dong-A ad suggests that tampon use will enable Korean women to enjoy activities associated with a Western lifestyle; women can now go swimming and skating during their periods. In this ad as in others, the company uses the English slogan “TEMPO DAY” to highlight how tampons give women the freedom to plan their daily activities as they like.Footnote 92 Manufacturers targeted girls and young women in particular, urging them to seize the day before traditional, adult responsibilities curtailed their freedom.Footnote 93

Tampon ads repeated the same promises as the advertising for disposable pads: comfortable and convenient to use, tampons gave women a new kind of freedom. In addition, tampons were reputed to be hygienic and leak-proof, as well as to provide protection against unpleasant odors.Footnote 94 Tampons were the perfect technology for women who wanted to live an “active” life.Footnote 95 Supposedly, this was a life already attained by tampon-using women all over the world. To support this marketing strategy, the magazine Yŏhaksaeng (“Female Students”) ran ads accompanied by illustrated articles on how to use tampons.Footnote 96

An advertisement for Amore tampons also exemplifies the tampons-equal-freedom narrative. A color photo shows a young woman on a bicycle, coasting through a puddle, her legs in the air to avoid getting splashed. The ad copy tells us it is early morning, the dew is still in the fields, and it promises to be a beautiful day. The reason for the young woman’s good mood is also addressed: she is using a tampon, so she can enjoy the beauty of nature via bicycle—without having to worry about her period. The ad also boasts two unusual features of the Amore tampon. First, it does not require an applicator. Second, it comes from West Germany (manufactured by Dr. Carl Hahn Ltd., known in Germany under the brand name o.b., ohne Binde, i.e., “without pad”) rather than the United States.Footnote 97

Although the oral contraceptive pill (“the pill”) was, of course, intended primarily to prevent pregnancy, it was also marketed as a technology to control menstruation, thereby affording users more freedom. The Chongkundang Pharmaceutical Corporation claimed that its oral contraceptive pill Norinil would help women to “normalize” menstruation.Footnote 98 Presumably, this referred to the idea that, at least for some women, taking the pill would ensure their menstrual cycle occurred every twenty-eight days. The idea of normalizing menstruation may also refer to the fact that, for most women, the pill reduces bleeding considerably.

Resisting “The American Empire”

Undoubtedly, the United States exerted considerable influence on consumer culture in South Korea. Magazines published ads for several US (and other Western) products, including Coca-Cola and Fanta.Footnote 99 To help sell their refrigerators, General Electric’s ads sported a modified American flag.Footnote 100 The US actresses Katharine Ross, Deborah Raffin, and Sydne Rome, appeared in Yuhan-Kimberly advertisements for disposable sanitary pads.Footnote 101

Indeed, manufacturers of sanitary pads and tampons used as a key selling point the assertion that women in the United States, in European countries, and elsewhere had already adopted the products. Although it was repeated frequently in advertisements and television commercials, the message slowly lost its persuasive power; marketers began to realize that target customers might well be more susceptible to other campaign messages. While many advertisements and commercials for the Korean market reproduced US media campaigns based on the benefits of freedom, safety, and comfort, some marketing strategies were based on the needs of the Korean market.Footnote 102 For example, a 1979 advertisement proclaimed that the Tempo tampon had been redesigned to better fit women in Korea. In particular, the company shortened the tampon and softened the applicator, claiming that these changes would make the tampon easier to insert.Footnote 103 By touting the tampon as customized to Korean consumers, marketing people apparently tried to make tampons look and feel less “foreign,” as it were. This strategy did not succeed, however.Footnote 104 Statistics show that the tampon market began to take off only around 2010—more than thirty years after the product was first introduced in South Korea.Footnote 105

The subtext of a 1978 Tempo advertisement indicates another reason for the slow acceptance of tampons by women in Korea. The ad, sponsored by Dong-A Pharmaceutical, mentions that “even unmarried women” can use Tempo.Footnote 106 This statement addresses the fear, believed to exist among young women, that tampon use would damage the hymen. As letters to the editor of the magazine “Female Students” show, this fear was indeed real. In 1985, for example, a “middle-school student” claims to have heard from a friend that “wrong usage” of a tampon might hurt the hymen. In a worried tone, she asks if a damaged hymen would make it impossible for her “to bear a baby” later in life.Footnote 107 It is impossible to know the extent to which this anxiety was a motivating factor in young women rejecting the tampon. Jieun Roh claims that the rejection of tampons by unmarried women reflects a paternalistic ideology. According to this thinking, a bridegroom would expect his bride to be a virgin on their wedding night, and an intact hymen supposedly represented proof of virginity. Although this ideological interpretation may well have played a role, Youngju Lee cites several other reasons why many women in Korea—regardless of age and marital status—chose not to adopt the use of tampons. As we have seen from their marketing campaigns, tampon manufacturers suggested tampons would enable women to take part in sports during their period. To the interviewees, however, this “new freedom” to take part in sports every day of the month infringed on their freedom to refrain from intensive physical activity and labor when they were menstruating. For example, some of Lee’s interviewees recall being relieved at the prospect of not having to attend gym classes during the peak of their periods. By rejecting tampons, Lee suggests, women affirmed the specificities of their own bodies and their gender identity, thus rejecting the idea that women need to perform in the same way as men. Women in the 1980s began to embrace the fact that their bodies were distinct and special. By choosing pads over tampons, women in Korea distinguished themselves from what they viewed as Western: rationally performing women’s bodies.Footnote 108

Despite women’s newfound appreciation for their own bodies in the 1980s—according to Lee’s interpretation—manufacturers continued to insist on the rational advantages of sanitary pads in the ensuing decades. In step with the increasing numbers of women in non-manual-labor jobs, advertisements targeted career women rather than girls and athletic women. The ad campaign’s reasoning was: if a woman stayed home during her period, she would have no chance of winning in the fierce competition with her male colleagues. The new disposable sanitary pads and tampons might not erase physical pain and fatigue, but they were promoted as making users feel confident of getting through the entire workday—without awkwardness or embarrassment.Footnote 109

A comprehensive survey organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the mid-1970s supports the argument that women in South Korea followed a different path from their counterparts in the West. Whereas in the UK, almost half of women of reproductive age used tampons, in Korea, the proportion of tampon users was so low that it failed to show up in the WHO statistics; the US figures were comparable to those in Britain.Footnote 110 A plausible explanation for the reported low tampon use in Korea is that only three percent of the WHO interviewees were under twenty-four years of age. Although more than half of the 500 Korean women who took part in the survey lived in urban areas, seventy-one percent of the entire sample used homemade sanitary pads; only twenty-six percent of the women interviewed used “store-bought” pads.Footnote 111

In summary, considering the behavioral trends of women in South Korea, the United States was not viewed as an “irresistible empire.” US-designed personal-hygiene products such as disposable sanitary pads and tampons became available to Korean consumers only in the 1960s (sanitary pads) and 1970s (tampons)―an era in which a Western-inspired consumer culture began to emerge. To establish their products on the Korean market, some US companies entered joint ventures with Korean partners, establishing domestic-production facilities. Although these efforts were modestly successful, the market for disposable products did not reach the levels Western companies were accustomed to achieving in North America and Europe.

Finally, we must answer the question of why women in South Korea “resisted”―or at least did not wholeheartedly accept―US consumer culture when it came to grappling with menstruation. The answer, which complements Lee’s conclusion, can be extrapolated from yet more WHO data: four out of five of the interviewees in Korea interpreted menstruation as a sign of femininity, whereas only a small minority regarded menstruation as “dirty” or as a “sickness.” In contrast to Baek’s observations about the taboo nature of menstruation as a topic, two out of three interviewees claimed to discuss issues around menstruation with their female friends.Footnote 112 Thus, consistent with Lee’s interpretation, the majority of women in Korea regarded menstruation as a normal, natural event, which they accepted and affirmed. For these interviewees, using a convenient technological fix, such as a tampon, was tantamount to negating their femininity by “hiding” their periods. To embrace the identity of a “Korean woman” was apparently more desirable than to become an “American lady.” In a 2004 journal article, feminist scholar Soojung Kim expresses a similar idea. Kim argues in favor of returning to the use of washable sanitary pads—a practice that, by then, had become what she calls an “alternative technology.”Footnote 113

The story of self-made, reusable sanitary pads in Korea runs contrary to the evolutionary theory of technological development; products that were once discarded in the name of convenience or rationality may well return—regardless of whether we call them “old,” as David Edgerton once did, or “alternative,” as Kim does.Footnote 114