Don’t Make Me Laugh, I’ll Pee!

Stress incontinence has gotten a makeover. There’s a new product, a new ad campaign, a new celebrity spokesperson (spokes-pee’er?)—Whoopi Goldberg—and even a new name—Light Bladder Leakage, or LBL!

I’ve been fascinated by the medicalization of everyday stress incontinence—that’s when you squirt out a little pee when you laugh or sneeze or cough—ever since I was working for a woman’s fitness magazine about 15 years ago and received a dozen invitations to a special event hosted by Marg Helgenberg. It was to promote a hush-hush new product of tremendous interest to women, I was assured. I knew of Helgenberger from the late-great woman-centric TV series about the Vietnam War, China Beach, but she had yet to reinvent her career (and her face) as a star of CSI.

Considering what she was about to endorse, Helgenberg must have been desperate for work: Can it be any less embarrassing to promote a device for treating stress incontinence than to be hawking Viagra? Except in this case, it was pointed out that Helgenberg did not suffer from this embarrassing, nay shameful, problem: She just had great empathy for women who did. (And, one can assume, she needed a payday.)

After much fanfare, the device was revealed to be a small balloon that you inserted into your urethra through a catheter, blew up and kept there for hours. I’m not kidding!!!! What woman in her right mind would want to use that?

How about just doing kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles? Oh, right, no one can make money off women doing that, because it doesn’t require any equipment. Better idea to medicalize the not-uncommon situation, make it sound like a disease and come up with a fancy, frightful device to cure it.

What can you do about LBL? Forget those free, sphincter-squeezing kegels that can be performed in public and no one’s the wiser—you need Poise pads and panty liners! Whoopi Goldberg says so, and she’s not even embarrassed to admit that she “spritzes.”

“You don’t need diapers, you just need pads—and you’re used to pads!” Whoopi explains. Yes indeed, and as for you post-menopausal women, you’re used to pads but unfortunately you don’t need to use them any more. Unfortunate for pad makers, that is. But now there’s a new need for you to use them—LBL!—and that means a renewed money stream, so to speak.

AOL Health talked about this with a urologist who by all appearances actually isn’t in the back-pocket of Poise or any other anti-incontinence marketeers:

“It’s good business and good profit to talk about pee in your pants,” says Richard Boxer, M.D., a University of Miami urologist. Boxer agrees that stress incontinence is extraordinarily common among women, particularly post-partum, but believes the creation of LBL is a classic case of a medical supplies company inventing a problem, then filling the need.

If stress incontinence has really become a problem for you, see a urologist with an attitude like Dr. Boxer’s. Try kegels and changing your patterns of fluid intake and pee breaks. If that doesn’t work, there are a variety of other treatments, up to and including surgery. But until you find out you have a real medical problem, don’t buy the medicalization hype, Whoopi’s soft-sell about spritzing, or products you don’t really need.

UPDATE: Saturday Night Live had “Whoopi” as a guest on Weekend Update the other night to talk about the “Poise pee-pee pad,” said Whoopi (as channeled by Kenan Thompson), “I was a center square on Hollywood squares. Now I have a center circle in my panties.”

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The late Michele Kort—a dedicated feminist—was the senior editor of Ms. magazine for 13 years. She died June 26, 2015, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She worked for decades in field of journalism, covering sports, music, culture, art and feminist issues for publications like LA Weekly, The Advocate, Shape, Redbook, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Songwriter, InStyle, Living Fit, Fit Pregnancy, Vegetarian Times, Fitness, UCLA Magazine, Women's Sports and Fitness and more. She is the author of four books, including a biography of singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro. Rest in power, Michele.