I was standing in a bar in Jerusalem with the newspaper publisher’s wife. Having traveled Israel together for a week, we had run out of things to say a few days earlier. So we silently watched the TV over the bar which, at that moment, was showing a Kotex commercial.
“There’s an interesting story about how Kotex was developed . . . ” I began.
“And I suppose you’re going to tell me,” she said.
That stung. I know I can be a bore. But certain stories fascinate, such as how 100 years ago Kimberly-Clark, the Wisconsin paper mill, ramped up to make Cellucotton, which went into gas mask filters in the First World War. The war ended abruptly, tanking the gas mask market, so Kimberly-Clark had to figure out what to do with all that Cellucotton. They developed two new products, thin sheets they called “Kleenex” and thick pads they called “Kotex.”
The challenge of selling Kleenex tissues was figuring out what to do with them. Originally they were sold as a way for ladies to remove their makeup. But a nurse suggested sneezing into them, and an industry was born.
The challenge of selling Kotex was two-fold: first teaching reluctant women — who up to that point used rags — to try the product. And second to push squeamish retailers into selling it. At first they packaged it in plain white boxes.
This is a long way of saying I understand that commercial acceptability is a constantly receding border. The free-fire zone of the Internet can make you uncertain if what you’re seeing is even a real product. When I first saw a commercial for PooPourri, a “deodorizing toilet spray” designed to be spritzed into toilets before use, I was sure it had to be some Onion-esque parody. It wasn’t. Ten million bottles sold.
You can see the border of acceptability shift before your eyes. My wife and I were watching TV this week, and saw a commercial for a new razor from Schick. Three little green trees — or they could be bushes, I suppose — in three little pots set atop white plinths stand before a shimmering blue pool, surrounded by well-trimmed topiary. A trio of lovely ladies in bikinis walk up and take positions behind the plants. The two on the left pick up scissors and hack away at their vegetation, while the gal on the right sculpts hers into a perfect heart.
“Introducing the new Schick Hydro Silk Trim Style,” a female voice purrs, as the two on the left gaze enviously at the third gal’s tree. “The tool you’ve been waiting for. The only waterproof bikini trimmer and hydrating razor in one.”
You don’t have to be a sociologist to grasp the context here: The sexting that so agitates elders also means that one’s significant other — and, if unlucky, lots of total strangers — are getting eyefuls of areas that heretofore were seen only glancingly. Psychology Today points out that before 2000, most centerfolds in Playboy were, ah, au natural, while after 2000 they were mostly shaved. Last year, Psychology Today probed this issue, finding it age-related: 88 percent of women under 24 engage in some kind of trimming, while 52 percent of women over 50 leave well enough alone.
Nor is rearrangement of that area left to shaving, alas. Last week the College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued guidelines to plastic surgeons, who are facing increased demand among teenage girls to have plastic surgery on their . . . ah . . . external genitalia so that they can be in line with whatever airbrushed feminine ideal they’re seeing on the Internet. The heart breaks.
After the Schick commercial ended, my wife and I gaped at each other. O brave new world . . . I thought, but did not say; I try not to bore people by quoting stuff. “We’re old,” I said, or maybe she said it.