Adolescence has always been a bipolar time. Girls and boys with the minds of children and the rapidly developing bodies of adults must try to reconcile those opposing pulls—with all the psychic turbulence that characteristically results. In recent years, the struggle has been especially hard for girls, for whom the age at which puberty begins has gone into free fall. As I reported in 2011, up to 40% of African-American girls, 30% of Latinas and 20% of Caucasian girls are now showing some breast development—typically the first indicator of puberty—by age eight. In the U.S., puberty in girls is not even technically considered premature unless it begins before the eighth birthday.
Kudos then to HelloFlo, for launching a service and, much more important, a buzzworthy Internet ad that makes the hardest part of early puberty—the first period—not merely OK and unthreatening, but actually cool. HelloFlo’s product is straightforward enough—a monthly, mail-order shipment of tampons and panty liners to make sure girls who are not yet in the habit of tracking their cycles don’t get caught out. A few pieces of candy are included in the box because, well, who doesn’t like candy?
Much more important is the spokeskid who pitches the product. The 1 min and 47 sec. ad is set at a summer camp and features a girl who looks no older than 10 or 11, a self-described “big random loser” who does not yet fit in. “And then,” she beams, “things changed. I got my period.” She is the first in her bunk to be awarded what she delightedly calls “the red badge of courage,” and in a blink, her status soars. She becomes a combination teacher, drill seargent, and life coach—the “camp gyno,” as she puts it. “For these campers, I was their Joan of Arc,” she boasts, as she hands one girl a tampon and a hand mirror. “It’s like, I’m Joan and their vadge is the arc.” Ultimately, she concedes, “The power got to my head a little bit. Popularity can do that.” Finally, it all comes crashing down when the other girls discover HelloFlo and don’t need her help anymore.
OK, so there are lots of ways to argue with the ad—though none of them concern the star, who has become a sensation. Plenty of teen and preteen girls feel like “big random losers” and may be disappointed to find that that existential angst does not go away at the moment of first menses. In an online discussion on theAtlantic.com, under the headline, “There Has to Be a Better Way to Sell Tampons,” two editors also argue that the inclusion of candy in the shipments makes a period out to be something harder than it is, “As though women somehow just can’t handle getting their period without a side of chocolate,” writes one. She adds that the breezy language on the company’s website (using the term “when you flo” as opposed to “when you get your period”) is “infantilizing.”
All of that would be true enough for a woman—even an older teen—who has been around the track a few times, who has become familiar with the menstrual routine and has reached the developmental point at which body changes and the larger life changes they imply aren’t the seismically thrilling and seismically scary things they can be to a kid. But that’s not the target audience of this ad. “Infantilizing” is surely too strong a word when you’re dealing with people who in some ways are still infants—at least compared to the grownups they’re rapidly becoming. Simple biology will always make adolescence a more difficult transition for girls than it is for boys—and the medical trend lines means that they will be facing it when they’re younger and younger. It’s hard to argue with something that tries to make the passage a little easier.
(MORE: Is PMS a Myth?)