The XX Factor

Could Incontinence Become as Cool as Menstruating?

Kimberly-Clark estimates that 1 in 3 women over 18 experiences “light bladder incontinence” at least occasionally—and when you say “1 in 3 women” to Kimberly-Clark, it sees market opportunity. It “coined the term ‘light bladder leakage’ as a less stigmatizing alternative to ‘incontinence,’ ” and introduced “Poise Hourglass,” a new line of bladder-protection product that it will advertise in women’s magazines. In an incredible understatement, the director of the National Association for Incontinence notes that women who are “leaking urine from their bladders can feel very uncomfortable, very unclean, and they certainly don’t feel sexy.”

With Poise Hourglass, marketers hope to convince women that “light bladder leakage” (their new term) can be feminine and thus, less stigmatized. It sees an opportunity in convincing women that bladder protection can be (quoting a market analyst) “as accessible, consumer-friendly and embarrassment-free as, for example, women’s sanitary protection.” And as in-need of a specific, separate product category. I confess to standing in the “feminine products” aisle recently, suffering from pneumonia and its associated horrible cough (and for anyone else out there who’s given birth, I don’t need to tell you what bonus affliction comes with that—but let’s just say Kimberly-Clark is marketing to me) and contemplating Poise. Did this separate uncomfortable fluid really require an entirely different product than the fluids I was more accustomed to dealing with? Apparently not—my usual product (from Proctor & Gamble) now promises to work for “slight urine loss.” I’m thrilled.

Will Kimberly-Clark’s gamble pay off in increased sales and more regular conversation among women about this indignity, which comes with maternity, age, and obesity and isn’t really even a common topic among women dealing with the most welcome of the three? I doubt it. As comforting as I find that 1-in-3 statistic, I also find it depressing—too depressing to suggest that I’m going to bring up “light bladder leakage” at my next dinner with women friends. Is “light bladder leakage” my future? Our bodies are suppose to hold us up and to sustain us, to do yoga and bike and stretch and pick up kids and fold laundry. If they fail us, they should fail us in more acceptable ways: aching knees, weight gain. The kind of thing we can do something about (and I believe Kegels were invented by doctors to give us the illusion of control over an inevitable bodily failure), or at least accept gracefully. They are not supposed to leak.

But leak they do, and if my very informal survey is of any worth, Kimberly-Clark’s numbers are low. Even among young women with none of the above risk factors, a sudden sneeze can result in sudden embarrassment. We’re victims of our anatomy, and of the fact that men’s plumbing has a significant advantage in this area. In fact, aging men are more likely to be faced with an inability to pee than an abundance of the stuff, and that’s not something they like to talk about, either. We’re not a society that welcomes any sign that our bodies won’t stay supple forever. Attractive ads and an “hourglass shape” aren’t going to change the fact that mentruating is something done by the young, while leaking is seen as the provenance of the old. That’s going to make most women more likely to stick with their tried and true “protection” no matter what they’re protecting their pants against.