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Period power: Talking to girls about 'Aunt Flo'

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 12:12 PM EDT, Thu August 8, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Moms and girls are raving about a new ad focusing on a girl's first period
  • The ad has been seen nearly 5 million times in just a week
  • Moms share how they talk to their girls about their periods
  • Alternatives to tampons and pads are still not widely discussed

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- A few weeks ago, I was looking for tampons at a drugstore. I couldn't find any, so I approached a store employee.

Then something bizarre happened.

I lowered my voice, almost to a whisper, and asked, "The aisle for feminine products?"

"Feminine products"? The words just came out of the mouth. I'm 46, have had my period for more than 30 years and couldn't say the word "tampon."

I laughed at myself and thought about that moment when I saw "the Camp Gyno," the ad that has taken the Internet by storm, with nearly 5 million views on You Tube in one week alone.

In it, a tween is the first girl to get her period at camp, what she calls her "red badge of courage," and proudly sets out to teach her pals about this milestone. "For these campers, I was their Joan of Arc," she says. "It's like I'm Joan, and their vag is the arc."

Did she just say "vag" in an ad?

"I wasn't setting out with this incredible feminist agenda," said Naama Bloom, the creator of the ad and founder of a company called HelloFlo, which offers women a subscription service for monthly supplies of tampons and pads, and period starter kits for young girls.

Photos: 'Feminine hygiene' ads

"I just wanted to talk the way women talked and the way I talk and talk the way I am teaching my daughter to talk," said the mom of two.

Tired of running to the drugstore for another "emergency box of tampons" and then walking through her office with a "practically see-through plastic bag," Bloom declared on her website that her goal is to make the experience of a woman's period easier for women and less embarrassing and traumatic for girls.

"You found a way to make something that for years has been making girls feel shameful and turned it into a celebration," Bloom said, paraphrasing to me one of the countless "thank you" e-mails she has received.

Talking to your kids about sex

'Camp Gyno' ad about periods goes viral
'Camp Gyno' ad goes viral
This 1970s-era magazine advertisement for Modess sanitary napkins asks women to reconsider the feminine protection options their mothers passed along. Johnson & Johnson's Modess ads ran for decades. The campaign is best known for its "Modess because" ads, which featured glamorous models wearing evening gowns. This 1970s-era magazine advertisement for Modess sanitary napkins asks women to reconsider the feminine protection options their mothers passed along. Johnson & Johnson's Modess ads ran for decades. The campaign is best known for its "Modess because" ads, which featured glamorous models wearing evening gowns.
'Feminine hygiene' ads
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Photos: \'Feminine hygiene\' ads Photos: 'Feminine hygiene' ads
Study: Boys starting puberty sooner

Shannon Bradley-Colleary, host of the hilarious blog the Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful, has watched the ad nearly a dozen times with her girls, ages 9 and 11, neither of whom has gotten her period.

"As I was watching this, I just thought what's great about it is that it demystifies and destigmatizes 'Flo' coming to town and that the girl's period is a source of pride and power," she said.

The ad is a great contrast to how she felt when she got her first period on a camping trip with her grandparents, Bradley-Colleary said, describing her grandfather as an "old cowboy from Utah."

"I literally ... smuggled my pads in, and I desperately hoped he wouldn't notice, because I was embarrassed."

Bradley-Colleary has talked to her girls about getting their periods, using the book "Asking About Sex and Growing Up" by Joanna Cole, author of the popular "Magic School Bus" series for kids, as a guide.

YA literature queen Judy Blume still draws a crowd

She wants them to know "all the facts," unlike her experience growing up and how she assumed you only get your period once.

"I said to my mother, 'I'm bleeding again.' And she said, 'Oh, OK, get your stuff.' And I said, 'But why? It was only supposed to happen one time.' And she started laughing. 'I'm sorry, honey, but it happens once a month.' "

Rebekah, who wanted to use only her first name to shield her daughter from any embarrassment by talking about her periods, started the conversation when her daughter was 8 because she comes from a "long line of early bloomers."

"I also came from a long line of people who didn't talk about any of those things whatsoever," said Rebekah, who got her period at 10. "When I had my daughter, I very much wanted to be sure that I didn't do the same thing to her. I wanted her to be completely prepared for it to happen even, to the point where she said to me, 'Will you please stop? You are freaking me out.' "

Study: More U.S. girls starting puberty early

Rebekah heard through the mom grapevine that the American Girl book "The Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls" was a good resource. So she gave that book to her daughter and had a number of talks with her before and after she got her period, also at age 10.

"It amazes me how many people I have had this conversation with who haven't even started the conversation with their daughters," she said. "I mean, it's mind-boggling, because I look at their daughters, and I'm thinking, 'You are going to start your period.' "

Rachel Vail, author of a number of books for young teens including her latest, "Kiss Me Again," wrote an essay in an anthology about first periods called "My Little Red Book."

Her story was about "waiting and waiting" for it, she said. "And all of my friends had it, and I kept not growing, and I had no boobs," she remembers feeling at the time.

The mom of two boys says that based on what she hears from her young readers, people are a bit more comfortable nowadays talking about the subject.

"It's a little bit less of a taboo than it used to be, but as the mother of boys, I talk about it with them too because I think mothers of boys used to not talk (about it) ... and I think still moms of boys don't talk about it with their kids a lot," she said, remembering something a boy once asked her in high school.

" 'So if a boy started bleeding for a week, he'd be dead. Why don't you people die?' " Vail said.

Boys -- like girls -- hitting puberty earlier

As I was working on this story, I wondered why we, as grown women, don't really talk about our periods all that much either, other than to announce that "our friend" has arrived or to lament about PMS symptoms and the early signs of menopause.

For instance, have you ever asked your friends whether they use alternatives to tampons and pads, like cups and sponges -- products I didn't even know existed, I admit, before writing this story?

Theresa Albert, a 48-year-old food and health writer, said she learned there was life beyond tampons and pads only a year or two ago from a friend who was planning a weekend away. "She's like, 'I am going to have to pick up some soft cups, because I can use them and keep the flow from making the hotel messy.' And I was like, 'What's a soft cup?' "

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The subject just doesn't come up that much, says Vail, because we, as women, have moved on to other concerns.

"As women, we feel like, 'All right, so I got tampons, and I'm good."

But just because women think we've got it all figured out doesn't mean our girls do -- and hopefully, we can share with them the range of period-related options.

And, who knows? Maybe ads like "Camp Gyno" will mean more of our girls won't be embarrassed to have "the talk."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

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