Jay Critchley and the Environmenstrual1 Movement
by Camilla Mørk Røstvik
In the 1980s, when menstruation was generally considered taboo, artist Jay Critchley made art out of discarded plastic tampon applicators washed up and collected on local beaches. With no idea what the items were used for, Critchley could not have known that his curiosity would lead to a decades-long quest to understand and improve issues surrounding menstrual product waste.
First, it is necessary to understand where Critchley began finding and collecting discarded applicators in the late 1970s. Greeting the Atlantic Ocean, on the East Coast of the United States, Massachusetts’ Cape Cod covers over 640 miles of shoreline, and, at its extreme tip, ends in a curled section of land known as Provincetown. In this historic whaling and fishing port, artists, the LGBTQ+ community, and outsiders have worked, holidayed and found refuge.2 Artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Edward Hopper, and Robert Motherwell made the town a micro epicentre of Modernism in the twentieth century, painting alongside drag queens, kings, and poets. Provincetown’s extreme position at the tip of the Cape has made it a safe haven for some, but it was also where the Mayflower first set anchor, and where settler colonists quickly squeezed out the Nauset tribe and renamed the Meeshawn settlement. Today, its inhabitants are still actively engaged in protecting the landscape’s beauty and all the aspects of the location that has made it a home and tourist destination for many.
It was here, on one of the many sparkling beaches, that Critchley first came across a plastic item in the sand. And another one, and another one. And then hundreds, and, within years, thousands upon thousands.
Not knowing what the items were at first, Critchley began collecting the locally called ‘beach whistles’ systematically, and quickly incorporating them into his artistic practice.3 Being an artist with a long-standing interest in activism, Critchley was no stranger to working with stigmatised material, but, in the start, he was unaware that the plastic cylinders were controversial. Had it been someone who knew that the items were connected to menstruation, they would perhaps have been left until volunteers cleaned the beach (or not). However, Critchley’s lack of knowledge made him curious and enabled him to see beyond the history, value, or discourse surrounding tampons and menstruation.
Soon, Critchley was making artworks and performance pieces with the applicators, showing up as Miss Tampon Liberty and Captain TACKI (Tampon Applicator Creative Klubs International) at the Boston State Houses and legislative bodies in the region, presenting a bill to end the production of plastic, non-biodegradable tampon applicators once and for all.
Critchley did not succeed legislatively, but his artworks document a history of protest through creativity and solidarity nonetheless. It is a timely story that predates the current interest in menstrual environmentalism by decades, linking the contemporary movement to a history of collective action against marine debris, consumer boycott, and protest against corporations.4
Furthermore, this story underlines the important role artists and art have in modern environmentalist history. Artists have been part of changing the public perception of plastic tampons applicators from an unspeakable topic to an issue worthy of political and policy intervention. Breaking down boundaries between men and women, menstruators and non-menstruators, environmentalists and policy-makers, artists and the public, the story of Miss Tampon Liberty and Jay Critchley is one that challenges corporate and political amnesia regarding pollution in differently than other forms of activism, but in a complimentary way.
So, what did Critchley find on the beach, exactly?
The items Critchley found were stripped clean by sea salt and sand, but retained their pinkish hues from the original colouring process of the hard plastic: notes of champagne, rose, cherry blossom, beige, cotton candy, coral, lavender, and bubble-gum. Colours with names invoking a whole host of other consumer items also increasingly being spotted on the Provincetown beaches in the mid- to late-twentieth century, and heavily gendered by association.
Sold to be easily disposed and discreet, tampons ended up in toilets, drainage systems and oceans across the world in the late-twentieth century.5 Plastic tampon applicators were part of the plastic turn in consumer items manufacturing begun in the late 1960s.6 Before this, tampons made by the dominating US brand Tambrands Incorporated, Tampax, had been inserted into the body by cardboard applicators, which were later flushed down the drain.7 These cardboard items also often ended up in the ocean, but would dissolve into smaller pieces much faster and not leave visible traces on beaches. Cardboard was unreliable to acquire, and the level of hardness could vary greatly across brands.8 Plastic, meanwhile, could be streamlined and quality assured easily, creating identical products across the world. For consumers, it was argued that insertion could be more comfortable, as cardboard quickly turned soggy and difficult to insert into the vagina, whereas plastic was non-absorptive and remained smooth.9
Visually, the cardboard system was much more suited to the prevalent menstrual taboos of twentieth-century North America and beyond, in which most menstruators were committed to keeping blood stains completely invisible, aided by commercial products.10 In contrast, the turn to plastic applicators did not uphold the menstrual secrecy system in the same way. Plastic items stay intact after use and washed up with a recognizable structural integrity different to that of other flotsam. It is likely that menstrual stigma contributed to the relatively lax environmental attitude to these items, as even people who knew what they were seeing turned away.
By the late-1970s, Critchley could easily monitor the popularity of plastic applicators by the number of items increasing on local beaches year by year.11 With no idea of their use-value, he nevertheless grew concerned about the increase in volume. What were these strange ‘beach whistles’ and why were they proliferating? Where did they come from? Who manufactured them, and did the manufacturer know that their plastic items ended up here, in Provincetown, crowding the protected sand dunes and water?
After being enlightened as to their use by a friend, Critchley became even more intrigued. Around the world, artists were making similar discoveries about the creative potential of the iconic forms of tampons and pads. Beginning with feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, Judy Clark, and Shigeko Kubota, menstrual products often featured in the earliest works about menstruation and gendered tropes.12 Critchley, likewise, became fascinated by the semiotic potential of menstrual products, and the ways in which they invoked many intersectional issues. Like other artists, he read the influential 1976 book The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, and began accumulating information about the intersected economic, cultural, and medical aspects of the cycle.13
His research led him to question the corporate responsibility of companies like Tambrands Inc. Increasingly, concerns about plastic items were also being raised by the emerging feminist environmentalist movement in the 1970s, and Critchley was therefore able to read about the intertwined issues of cotton bleaching, dioxins, Toxic-Shock Syndrome, and package waste. The movement had been finding applicators on beaches worldwide, and Critchley collected material from several beaches, and had friends send him more. Understanding the industry also helped the artist focus his attention. There were only a handful of tampon producers large enough to inflict so much plastic on oceans and Provincetown’s beaches. Knowing who created the products and what they were used for helped him sharpen his ideas regarding turning the items into works of art, and soon after the Tampon Application Creative Klubs International (TACKI) was born – with Miss Tampon Liberty taking on the role as the mission’s global ambassador.
Miss Tampon Liberty
Critchley has only performed as Miss Tampon Liberty four times. First, he had to make the costume, sewing together 3,000 plastic applicators by hand. Wrapped around his body like a cape echoing the Statue of Liberty, the pink and coral colours blended into a moving tapestry of sound. Each plastic item bounced against its neighbours, creating an arresting rattling sound as Critchley moves.14 In his hand, a torch made of applicators, and on his head, a crown. Singing and dancing, his performance was designed to invoke sacred rituals from across the world, and the sound can create a trance-like atmosphere for listeners.
Miss Tampon Liberty is loud and visible, but she is certainly not in charge. The title ‘Miss’ was chosen by Critchley as a contrast to the increasingly popular ‘Ms’ of the 1970s, suggesting strict gender roles, as well as beauty contests and aesthetic discipline. Transgressing these boundaries as a cis-man, Critchley’s gender-bending performance was shocking to the onlookers who understood what the items covering his body symbolised. A police officer told him to leave the Boston State Capital, while others called him a ‘pervert’. Some asked questions, others laughed, while others delighted in his work and thanked him for bringing attention to the issue.
All the while, Critchley sought to spread awareness of the plastic applicator issue, keeping an eye on legislative change. Setting out to find the answers about corporate responsibility, Critchley connected with the Women’s Environmental Networks in the UK, Canada, and US.15 Critchley became an ally and his art a visual symbol of the movement.
His next two performances as Miss Tampon Liberty were conducted in a legislative and political settings alongside activists. The first such appearance was at the Massachusetts State Legislature to petition the state to ban plastic applicators (they did not), and then protesting the new Boston Sewage Outfall Pipe where applicators first entered the local water ecosystem. His site-specific performances and installations as Miss Tampon Liberty during the 1970s, 80s and 1990s were also captured in photographs, one of which shows the artist dressed in costume in front of the Statue of Liberty, saluting the larger artwork in a similar pose. People surrounding him are grinning, staring, or photographing the unusual scene, but the artist is dead serious. Miss Tampon Liberty is not funny, simply a political protest, nor a provocation. As a work of art, it inhabits a different realm. Activist art can empower communities, and is often created when an artist works with a community on a politically tense issue.16Critchley worked with environmentalists and menstrual activists, but he also worked with the community in the form of the physical environment around him.
Tampax Environmental Women of Action
While Critchley performed, the accumulative pressure from activists and consumers regarding the environmental damage of plastic applicators forced key companies to respond. In the early 1990s, Tambrands created the Tampax Environmental Women of Action program to “recognize US women who, through their creativity and determination have initiated environmental action in their communities.”17 In August 1992, Critchley received a letter informing him that he was nominated for the prize, and that he might become the “Women of Action” of the year. He had been nominated by Liz Armstrong (Women’s Environmental Network), whose book about the industry, Whitewash (co-authored with Adrienne Scott), was published in the same year.18 But Tambrands had not understood that Armstrong had nominated a man, instead addressing the letter to “Ms. Jaye Critchley.”
Perhaps the letter from Tampax was the poetic conclusion of Miss Tampon Liberty’s work, fleshing out the character with a first name and the more modern title of “Ms.” At any rate, “Jaye” was informed that “she” could win a $1,000 donation to a school of “her” choice to further environmental education, and a trip to New York for an awards ceremony. As a recognition for being nominated, “Jaye” received a free box of Tampax applicator tampons. Jay was left in stunned silence with another box of beach whistles. Needless to say, he did not win.
The history of menstrual waste continues to evolve. The Women’s Environmental Network still organises an Environmenstrual week of awareness every year, and governments across the world have recently started collecting data about the issue and suggesting solutions.19 Menstrual products still wash up on shores all around the world, spurring volunteers, activists and local politicians into action. Corporations have responded with more reusable menstrual products, although plastic applicator tampons remain more popular than cloth pads or cups.20
For Critchley, these recent changes are not enough. “Petroleum,” he answers, when people want to know what the real problem is.21 It was always about petroleum. In the activist and legislative work on plastics, it is easy to forget that the applicators themselves originate deep within the land, from the oil fields and natural gas their material is made of. Critchley is angered by the clever way corporations and politicians have bowed to the petrochemical industry, even in the midst of a climate crisis, to continue producing more products that are not bio-degradable and labelling them with what he perceives to be the more familiar and sociable term ‘plastic’.22 Critchley points out that the pressure to change is now on the individual menstrual consumer to recycle and make better choices, but the choices are often limited to different types of petroleum products.23 Meanwhile, plastic menstrual products are still very popular.24
By exploring the menstrual product industry in his art for the last forty years, Miss Tampon Liberty and Critchley have reconfigured the maligned object of menstrual waste several times. From his discovery of innocent “beach whistles” in the 1970s, to the realisation about their practical use as plastic tampon applicators, and, to the call for a more precise definition of plastics as “petroleum items.” While he finds less applicators on shorelines these days (Boston Sewage Outfall Pipe installed a filter in the 1990s that stopped products entering the sea), the odd applicator still turns up on Provincetown’s beaches, where Critchley continues to live and work.
Dr. Camilla Mørk Røstvik (she/her) is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds and Co-PI with the Menstruation Research Network. Her publications include “Mother Nature as Brand Strategy: Gender and Creativity in Tampax Advertising 2007–2009″ (2020) and “Blood in the shower: a visual history of menstruation and clean bodies” (2018) among other works.
- The word ‘Environmenstrual’ was most likely coined by the Women’s Environmental Network in the late-twentieth century. On the history of the network, see ‘Our History’, WEN: https://www.wen.org.uk/history/
- Karen Christel Krahulik, Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2007).
- Artist website: http://www.jaycritchley.com/tacki.html (all websites accessed 20 April 2021).
- On the history of menstrual activism, see Chris Bobel, New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (Rutgers, 2010).
- Cecilia Alda-Vidal, Alison L. Browne, Claire Hoolohan, ‘”Unflushables”: Establishing a Global Agenda for Action on Everyday Practices Associated with Sewer Blockages, Water Quality, and Plastic Pollution’, WIREs Water Vol 7, No 4 (2020), e1452.
- On the early history of the industry, see Sharra L. Vostral, Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology (New York, NY: Lexington Books, 2008); Karen Houppert, The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000); Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006).
- On the history of Tambrands from the 1930s to 1980s see Ronald H Bailey, Small Wonder: How Tambrands Began, Prospered and Grew. Tambrands Incorporated, 1987. In 1997, Procter & Gamble acquired the business, see Dyer, Davis; Frederick Dalzell, Rowena Olegario. Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter and Gamble. Harvard, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2004.
- Author interview with General Manager of Tambrands plant in Ukraine (during 1980s-1990s, now retired), Yury Saakov, 28 October 2019; Author interview with Essity Product Developer Monica Kjellberg (during 1990s, now retired), 24 March 2018.
- ‘The Benefits of Tampax Pearl Plastic Applicator’, Tampax website: https://tampax.co.uk/en-gb/tampax-articles/my-first-tampon/the-benefits-of-tampax-pearl-plastic-applicator-tampons (accessed 4 May 2021).
- Jill Wood, ‘(In)Visible Bleeding: The Menstrual Concealment Imperative’ in Bobel et al (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, pp 319-336.
- On menstrual products and marine pollution see for example Resource Futures, Mapping Economic, Behavioural and Social Factors within the Plastic Value Chain that lead to Marine Litter in Scotland, The Scottish Government (September 2019); Plastic Periods: Menstrual Products and Plastic Pollution, Friends of the Earth (15 October 2018): https://friendsoftheearth.uk/sustainable-living/plastic-periods-menstrual-products-and-plastic-pollution; European Commission, Reducing Marine Litter: Action on Single Use Plastics and Fishing Gear (2018); London Assembly Environment Committee, ‘Single-use Plastics: Unflushables. Submitted Evidence’ (August 2019): https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/plastics_unflushables_-_submited_evidence.pdf
- Ruth Green-Cole, ‘Painting Blood: Visualizing Menstrual Blood in Art’ in Chris Bobel et al (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).
- Emily Toth, Janice Delaney, Mary Lupton, The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation (University of Illinois Press, 1976).
- Critchley was captured on camera while performing in Teresa MacInnes 1998 documentary about menstruation Under Wraps (55 min): https://www.nfb.ca/film/under_wraps/
- Later, a small number of important books on environmental pollution and menstrual products were published on the basis of the activist work done in the 1970s: Liz Armstrong, Adrienne Scott, Whitewash: Exposing the Health and Environmental Dangers of Women’s Sanitary Products and Disposable Diapers: What You Can Do about It (Harper Perennial, 1992); Alison Costello, The Sanitary Protection Scandal: Sanitary Towels, Tampons, and Babies’ Nappies: Environmental and Health Hazards of Production, Use and Disposal (Women’s Environmental Network, 1989); Lori Katz, Barb Meyer, 101 Super Uses for tampon Applicators: A Helpful Guide for the Environmentally Conscious Consumer of Feminine Hygiene Products (Sourcebook, 1995).
- Marit Dewhurst, Social Justice Art: A Framework for Activist Art Pedagogy (Harvard Education Press, 2014); Nina Felshin, But is it Art? Spirit of Art as Activism (Bay Press, 1995).
- Letter to Ms Jaye Critchley from Tambrands Inc. Marketing Manager Beth DiNardo regarding Tampax Environmental Women of Action, 13 August 1992. Artist’s personal collection. Courtesy of Jay Critchley.
- Armstrong, Scott, Whitewash.
- ‘Environmenstrual’, Women’s Environmental Network UK website: https://www.wen.org.uk/our-work/environmenstrual/
- Potdar, Mugdha. Feminine Hygiene Products Market by Type and Distribution Channel – Global Opportunities Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2015-2020. Allied Market Research, April 2016. https://www.alliedmarketresearch.com/feminine-hygiene-market
- Author interview with Critchley via Zoom, 12 February 2021.
- Resource Futures, Mapping Economic, Behavioural and Social Factors within the Plastic Value Chain that lead to Marine Litter in Scotland (The Scottish Government, September 2019): https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/research-and-analysis/2020/02/mapping-economic-behavioural-social-factors-within-marine-plastic-value-chain-scotland/documents/menstrual-products/menstrual-products/govscot%3Adocument/menstrual-products.pdf (accessed 4 May 2021), 15; Rajanbir Kaur, Kanwalijit Kaur, Rajinder Kaur, ‘Menstrual Hygiene, Management, and Waste Disposal: Practices and Challenges Faced by Girls/Women of Developing Countries’, Journal of Environmental and Public Health (2018): doi: 10.1155/2018/1730964