It all started with a seemingly simple question: Who invented those marvelous mesh hospital panties that L&D nurses give you post-delivery? You know, the ones your mom friends advised that you steal by the stack, that don’t bind at the belly and that hold that focaccia-sized maxi pad snug to your tender labia? The ones you’ll go through like paper. The ones moms have rhapsodized about for years. (Okay, not everyone loves them—but most do.) I felt it was a worthy and fascinating question, and I wanted to know the answer.
Well, guess what: That was three months ago, and I still don’t.
Believe me, it’s not for lack of trying. In attempting to learn the mesh panty origin story, I hit more reportorial dead-ends than I have in all my multi-decade journalism career. I sent queries to four hospital supply companies, one of which replied: a guy who inexplicably told me that he was sorry, but they don’t have a paper catalog. OK? I hit up the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses; scads of medical historians, like the Society for the Social History of Medicine, The Medical History Society of New Jersey, and Sacramento’s Museum of Medical History; and the Department of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins. No dice. However, a Yale professor, Rene Almeling, whose academic interests include gender, medicine, and sociology, kindly said, “Great question. I have no idea.” Then she suggested asking the historians at Nursing Clio… who didn’t return my email.
I contacted dozens of prominent hospitals and medical schools, including the Cleveland Clinic, UCLA, UCSF, UNC, and the University of Michigan. Because I am a lady I won’t name institutions, but only one of these replied: a guy who asked me a series of nakedly suspicious questions, then ghosted once I answered them. I contacted the hospital where I was born, U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, California. “We have used a brand called Tytex at least since 2018,” was all they could tell me. I contacted the New York City hospital in which I gave birth four years ago, NYU Langone. A man named Ryan said that if someone from maternal-fetal medicine had any answers for me, they’d reach out (they never did), but warned me in advance that the hospital couldn’t promote any specific products because it was against policy. Yes, OK, but these “products” are evidently mystery garments that materialize from the ether whenever a fetus starts crowning — what does your policy say about those, Ryan?
A representative from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists sent a thorough and thoughtful answer: They knew a librarian they had hoped might have thoughts on the matter, but she was retired so she didn’t have any of her old resources handy; I should try the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School’s Center for the History of Medicine. It turned out to be the best lead I got. A librarian there, Jessica Murphy, said, “Great question! It doesn’t seem that anyone has written on their history.” She suggested I reach out to the Center for Baby and Adult Hygiene Products (BAHP), which I did. They have yet to return my email. Sigh.
However, Jessica also mentioned in passing that she had an inkling of the mesh panty’s provenance: “I suspect that these may have come about from post-genitourinary/lower GI surgical care.” In other words, patients who had, say, a hysterectomy or a bowel resection were likely given these stretchy undies to aid in their recovery — and someone, somewhere, whose name and genius may never be known, had the idea to apply these panties to the gnarly, bloody, achy, burn-y postpartum experience.
The rest is history.
But it seems not to be a history anyone ever bothered to write down. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising, given the general indifference, disdain, disgust, and ignorance with which western medicine has long approached women’s healthcare — a field dominated by men for thousands of years — particularly when it involves female genitalia. This has been a real problem since at least Aristotle’s era, when he proclaimed that only fair-skinned women could have orgasms and women, in general, were just penis-less men who cried more. You think anything’s changed? Nope. There are boys out there who believe women wear maxi pads and tampons because they’re too lazy to simply pee out their periods. There are grown men out there who think all women lactate all the time and labor contractions feel like orgasms. (Side note: Teach your boys better than this, for goodness’ sake. Moms, don’t let your babies grow up to be menstrual mansplainers.)
And it’s not as though this sort of thinking exists only among especially dumb laypeople. Actual doctors are susceptible to similar forms of ignorance, resulting in biases that can cause all kinds of horrific fallout for their patients. Take autoimmune disorders, for example: While they affect only 8% of the human population, 78% of those who suffer from them are women. Thousands of these patients describe long, brutal years of being dismissed and ignored by male doctors before they finally obtain a diagnosis, writes Maya Dusenbery in her landmark book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick.
Or how about heart attacks, which can affect women differently — they’re slightly more likely to experience nausea, back pain, difficulty breathing, fainting, indigestion, or pain in the jaw during a cardiac episode. Yet what’s the first symptom that comes to mind when you think heart attack? Chest pain, which is more likely to occur in men. In countless ways, medicine is a field created by men and designed to cater to them. (Without going on a rage-filled tangent, this hasn’t been a more salient subject of discussion since a certain Supreme Court case was decided in 1973.)
In a 2018 paper published in the journal Feminism & Psychology, Dr. Kate Young, an Australian researcher of public health issues, discusses the cavalier attitude that women often encounter when suffering gynecological ailments such as endometriosis. She writes that the male medical mind tends to view these patients solely as “reproductive bodies,” not much different from men beyond their genitals — echoes of Aristotle! — except, of course, for their pesky “hysterical tendencies,” in her words.
And except for their uninteresting postpartum underwear, it would seem, based on how little anyone has written about its provenance. By comparison, do you know how easy it was for me to learn the history of the jock strap? There are literally dozens of links on the subject — I found them all within a fraction of a second. I must admit, I’m slightly worried that someone will read this article, scoff, and send me a link to a thorough mesh-panty history that I stupidly just never found. But frankly, at this point I’d weather the shame just to know the answer. I know, you’re probably thinking this is a silly thing, frivolous and small. But what we do, what women live through, our history — it has meaning. And I want to know it.