Why the 40cm-long sanitary pad prevails in China
“You place the pad between your legs and tie your sanitary belt around your waist, then you wear your underwear over it. It keeps your pad in place and stops it from leaking,” she explained.
For the next few years, every time there was a leak (and there were many), I wondered if I was doing something wrong. It was years before I understood that it was the product that was unable to prevent a monthly massacre, and that I shouldn’t have to change my lifestyle or limit my movements to help menstrual pads do their job.
My early experiences were typical of Chinese girls, but unlike me (and more than 80 percent of American women of menstruating age), many Chinese women still haven’t abandoned the pad.
In 1982, disposable menstrual pads were first imported to China from Japan. Before that it was all handmade sanitary belts and rolled up rags. Currently there are approximately 340 million women in China who use feminine hygiene products, and pads hold the overwhelming majority of market share.
For many Chinese women, their only tactic against pads that leak is to pile on thicker pads. Sufei, one of the leading brands in China, boasts a popular 41cm-long pad, which looks and feels like a diaper, complete with a “trough” surrounded by an elasticised border like a fitted sheet. Still, some women claim to wear two of these to bed. Others, thoroughly defeated in their search for a product that reliably catches blood and preserves their dignity, say they wear diapers at night.
Despite the bleak state of feminine hygiene products in China, the trend is towards thinner, more absorbent pads that help busy women stay confident and unencumbered whatever they’re doing or wearing. An article ranking 16 different popular brands proclaimed that a winning product must be “thin, absorbent, soft, and breathable”, quite a tall order.
The bad news is that nothing short of chemical engineering could produce the miraculously absorbent and paper-thin product that fits the bill, and women balk at the idea of anything other than natural fibres pressed up against their privates. Given these limitations, pads new to the Chinese market have more or less stopped shrinking.
There are more effective products — tampons and menstrual cups — but misconceptions and misgivings about them are rife. Johnson & Johnson introduced their o.b. tampons to China way back in 1993, but Chinese consumers still have serious concerns, often stemming from a lack of understanding. Today, Chinese women share their worries about tampons on forums such as Baidu Knowledge (百度知道).
“This is huge! It would surely stretch me out!”
“How can virgins use this product without damaging themselves?”
“I saw somewhere that European and American women have a higher rate of cervical cancer due to use of tampons!”
“I can’t use tampons. Pads may be inconvenient, but they are much safer.”
But there is a growing population of women who are speaking up about their positive tampon experiences.
“I’m no longer sitting on a wet, sticky pile of stuff every time I’m on my period. This fresh, dry comfort is too wonderful, 100 likes!”
“When I have my period, I don’t worry about leaks anymore, and I’ve said goodbye to washing bloody sheets. This joy is universal to anyone who’s used tampons!”
(There’s no evidence that tampons cause cervical cancer. While toxic shock syndrome is associated with tampon use, it affects fewer than 10 out of 100,000 tampon users, and nine times out of ten is not fatal.)
But convincing Chinese women to start using an insertable menstrual product remains an uphill battle. The shabby state of the country’s sex education shows no sign of improving, and centuries-old attitudes and beliefs about female reproductive health are numerous and deep-seated. It may take years of aggressive campaigning before tampons gain parity with pads. But the process may be sped along by the consumers themselves as Chinese women increasingly become active and empowered in everyday life.
Incidentally, a new American product called Thinx may be able to provide a comfortable middle ground. Marketed as “for women, by women”, Thinx has launched a chic line of panties designed to absorb blood, prevent leaks, wick moisture, and fight microbial activity. Could this be the next big thing for Chinese women?
Article by Frankie Huang