Monday, December 1, 2008

Where Have All The Tampons Gone?

Ok, so I was telling my mom about this paper that I wrote for my ethnography (a fancy word for cultural anthropology) class. Our second paper we had to write on something about Greece that was bothering us so I chose Tampons. I am posting the paper because I feel like e-mailing to all my friends and family might be out of context. In this respect if you're not interested you can simply skip this entry (as I am sure Chris and Conor will do). No worries boys, this is more for the girls then it is for the guys. Enjoy.. I hope it gives you a good laugh. I have thought of maybe using it to apply to grad school.. thoughts?? I am sure it would have to be an all woman's college with a touch of feminism, but hey whatever it takes right? : )

...When prompted with the question, “what’s bugging you?” about Greek culture, there are a few distinct things that come to mind. I am working through my disgust for cigarette smoke everywhere. I have also gotten over the fact that my debit card is virtually unusable when it comes to purchases. However, there is one issue that I can not seem to overcome.

Every month, like most women ages 14-60, I experience a week long period of menstruation. My issue is not menstruation in itself because lets be honest, I do not really have choice in the matter. It is part of being a woman, like it or not. My issue is with Athens and even Greece at large, hostility towards tampons. During my first week here in Athens I found myself wandering the aisles of the Extra grocery store in search of ever elusive tampons. What I found was not my prized possession but instead shelves upon shelves of sanitary napkins.

I was surprised by my discovery. Growing up in the United States, my only other point of comparison, there is an entire aisle dedicated to women’s products. This includes a multitude of products with many different kinds of tampons and sanitary napkins. Whatever your menstruation pleasure, it has found its way on to the shelves of a typical American grocery store or pharmacy.

Leaving the grocery store behind, I took my quest to the nearest pharmacy. To my delight the woman at the pharmacy showed me right to the tampon shelf. This is where the second part of my issue with Athens hostility towards tampons comes to a head. Tampons are only sold in small twelve packs and the majority of the time they only carry Tampax regulars.

I am annoyed not only by the lack of variety provided but also by the inconvenience. It is not out of my way to go to the pharmacy but it is unnecessary to have to buy multiple twelve packs, when I know bigger boxes exist. Also, I would not have such an issue with the lack of tampons in Greece if the same prejudice was accorded to sanitary napkins. This is not the case. Those who use sanitary napkins have a distinct advantage. They get to choose from different brands and styles, while I do not.

So, what is the deal? After speaking about my conundrum to three different groups of Athenian women, I have come to understand (partly) what is going on. My first stop was the pharmacy. Choosing Kolonaki square as my target destination, I entered a pharmacy right outside the square with a handful of questions. Maria, the pharmacist, informed me that “young girls like to use tampons during the summer months and when they go on trips.” Maria also said that older women see tampons as “foreign, funny objects”. While this classified who the tampon users were vs. the non-users, it still did not offer me any insight in to why they are so elusive. When asked to delve further, Maria said “they are just not as popular, so we do not carry them as much the other products.”

My next inquiry was a group of three young women ages 22-24, who I approached as they enjoyed their late night gossip session at one of the many cafes in Pangrati square. All three shared a similar opinion to Maria, agreeing that it was more acceptable for women their age to use tampons. Angela, the most outspoken of the group, even offered further proof of older women’s distrust of tampons. Speaking in regard to her grandmother, Angela said, “When I began menstruating my mother told my grandmother and the next time I went to visit her, she handed a package of [pads]. She sees tampons as dirty, saying they are bad for your body.”

Angela and the other girls could not explain the reasoning behind ya-ya’s thinking tampons are “bad for your body.” There only explanation was a basic “that’s just the way it is” here. My only thought was one of religious connotation. Some women do not use tampons because they believe that nothing should enter the vagina until they are married and consummate their marriage with their husband. The Greek woman gave this explanation some thought and said “Oxi. They just do not like it.”

Seeking another opinion on this issue, I looked to a Rony. A male, whom I know has a sister and has been in serious relationships in the past. After looking at me quizzically for a minute or so, he opened up. While, Rony has never purchased feminine hygiene products for his sister, he is fairly certain she uses tampons. His sister is in her early 30s. Rony has bought products for his past girlfriends and says that while most use tampons, some have asked him to buy sanitary napkins. He also noted that since he dates women who are usually “10 years younger” then him, that could also be a factor.

It seems to me that I am at a crossroad between the traditional and the modern. Maria’s comments about young girls using tampons during the summer and on trips suggest that tampons are still not the norm. The traditional being that which is followed by the older women, seems to still have an effect on the younger generation of today. My opinion is that this relates back to familial relations. Family life in Greece is of the utmost importance. The relationship between grandmother and granddaughter and mother and daughter is much more intimates that is within the United States.

Puberty and sexuality are topics covered within the school walls in the United States. While parents are encouraged to have a conversation with their child about their sexual health, one would be hard pressed to find how many times this actually takes place. Sometimes, that relationship does not even exist. While estranged parent-child relations are not the norm for every child in the United States, it is fair to say that familial relations are not as strong as they are in Greece.
It is my belief that the closer the family, the more traditional beliefs are valued and kept alive. Example: Angela accepted her grandmother’s kind gesture and classified it as “the norm.” She knows that most women in her family prefer to use sanitary napkins. That is what she grew up learning about. As a result, she has incorporated both tampons and sanitary napkins in to her routine. She uses the traditional and the modern interchangeably.

This explanation provides valid reasoning for why there is little variety. It also explains why the shelves are stacked from floor to ceiling with sanitary napkins and not tampons. However, it still does not explain the small package. Why only twelve?
My only explanation for the small boxes as the solo option is Greek culture. Yes, that is a broad statement so let me clarify. As I mentioned before, there are whole aisles in grocery stores devoted to these products in the States. America sells convenience (think Sam’s Club). We (Americans) crave one stop shopping. The same is not true in Greece, where it is quality over quantity. There is a different cultural mentality. An average American woman would hate to have to go buy tampons every time she had used twelve of them, where as the Greeks do not mind. Daily shopping is not seen as an inconvenience but rather a part of their daily routine. If you run out, you just go get more. Simple enough.

What I originally viewed as a mere annoyance has turned in to an interesting cultural study. I was surprised to hear that age determined which feminine hygiene product Greek women were likely to use. Part of living in a different culture is adapting to the ways of that culture. Prior to living in Greece, I had prepared myself to be open to all changes, ones that I knew would happen and ones that I did not. However, to be honest, tampons are the last thing I would have thought I would have an issue with. So, yeah it bugs me but I am slowly realizing that “that is just the way it is.” I am sure I will laugh at the irony of it all when I walk in to Rite Aid or CVS for the first time back home. Plus, in the end, change is a part of life.

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