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Murdering Feminine Hygiene. Part two: Tampons


In part one of this topic I explained why I despise the phrase and the practice of feminine hygiene. In short, the phrase is gendered and sexist – there’s no equivalent phrase for men such as ‘masculine hygiene’ – and feminine hygiene usually denotes unnecessary activities solely pertaining to one’s vagina.

I examined hormonal birth control as an aspect of ‘feminine hygiene.’ To summarise: hormonal birth control has become such a well-marketed symbol of women’s empowerment that it’s politically unbecoming to highlight its pitfall. Because so many people rely on it we will overlook any side effects including those that are life threatening. I concluded that birth control shouldn’t be within the domain of feminine hygiene at all – it pertains to men as much as women. We should take the focus off women.

However I am not done destroying feminine hygiene. Starting with birth control may have been a mistake even if it is one of the costliest and most important issues. I didn’t quite manage to slaughter feminine hygiene at all: instead, a few days later, my smallish complaints about birth control seemed petty and stupid and undermining of the great noble task of trying to crucify feminine hygiene. Last night Margaret Sanger’s ghost even visited me in my sleep, which I was afraid might happen, and now I just want to move past it as quickly and nonchalantly as possible in the hopes that she’ll go away.

So for now I’ll fry some less controversial feminine fish, but I want to continue to focus on the topic of menstruation. I’ve heard it called a ‘crammer’ and a ‘plug’, and I read somewhere that Beyonce calls hers “Queen Ts.”  Most of us just call them tampons.

Here’s a product that we could seriously do without. What is it? A little bleached paper rocket with a string at one end. That’s all, really. Fairly humble and un-intimidating.

Until that first moment when you, a surprised but still optimistic 14 or 15 year old, open up the package and think, that goes where? And then, read and re-read the instructions with those little diagrams by the same illustrator who does airplane safety cards.

Once I got the hang of it I sometimes thought to my teenage self, thank god for tampons. And I would mourn the women who came before tampons, who I imagined must have tied leaves between their legs to catch the blood.

The everyone-has-one-at-some-point-most-embarrassing-leak incident for me happened on a public bus to school. I didn’t know until I was already there, and it was unsalvageable. I don’t know why I ever thought white jeans were a good idea, much less within a week of the period due date. Luckily I had a jacket: I tied it around my waist and shivered my way back home on another bus, hoping beyond hope that no one else had seen the stain. I had to throw away the jeans.

To avoid that from ever happening again, I would carry tampons and pads everywhere. In every bag I had a little stash of them, usually zipped into that hidden interior pocket that most bags have for things like wallets and passports. I piled boxes in my bedroom and bathroom at home. Sometimes I would reach into my pocket for coins or keys or a phone and out would come a little flutter of spare panty liners. If ever I traveled anywhere I would bring a mountain of them.

Once during an airport security check I had to remove the entire quantity and explain to the very young security guard what they were. Bless him, he’d never seen a tampon in his life. The shade of red that crept over his dawning face was fit for one.

Stockpiling tampons and pads is a habit that has lasted all my life. When I gave birth last year, I overloaded on maternity pads. I still have at least three unopened packages of maternity pads that I keep for a very very rainy day, or perhaps a hurricane.

Recently I’ve stopped purchasing pads and tampons, though I still do find little collections in bags and pockets. The appeal for me has worn thin for a variety of reasons.

First is the environmental drama. According to the Guardian, the average woman uses roughly 11,000 tampons in a lifetime (other estimates are up to 16,000), which will take centuries to degrade. “In addition, the process of manufacturing these products – turning wood pulp into soft, cotton-like fibres – is both resource and chemical intensive.”

Another issue that the Guardian article highlights is health related. Most brands have a proprietary formula of tampon ingredients, usually a mixture of rayon and cotton and who knows what else that they are not required to disclose. Remember, this goes inside of one’s body and hangs out for several hours. There’s always the spectre of toxic shock syndrome to worry you into not forgetting that it still in there.

Since they were invented and first marketed in the 1930s, the modern tampon industry is expected to grow to $6.2bn by 2020. Disposable products are lucrative. At seven dollars for a box of ten in my local supermarket, this is more expensive than a bottle of milk and at seventy cents for a single tampon, more than double the cost of a disposable diaper.

The precursor to the modern tampon was originally suggested as a method of contraception. I’m guessing it didn’t work. We owe our thanks for the modern applicator tampon to Gertrude Tendrich and the non-applicator version to Dr Judith Esser-Mittag. Both inventions have become big business all over the world. https://www.bustle.com/articles/124929-the-history-of-the-tampon-because-they-havent-always-been-for-periods

Brands like Johnson and Johnson or Libra market the shit out of this. How many tampon or maxipad ads do you see weekly on TV? The ads often feature a woman walking on clouds, all dressed in white. So clean, so pure, so virginal. No leaks! They proclaim, preying on your deepest fears born out of that time on the bus when you were in high school, dressed in white no less. (On the other hand some of the advertising has improved: Watch from this to this.)

In the repellent ‘feminine hygiene’ section of most supermarkets, you don’t have any other options besides the disposable ones. Tampons and pads. Some have little cardboard applicators and some don’t. Some pads have ‘wings’ and some don’t. In the supermarket it’s like a monopoly on menstruation.

You could forgive someone not knowing about the various alternatives, and it’s not something that you really question — I mean, the last thing anyone wants to do is bleed all over their running pants. Yet now we can applaud someone like Kiran Gandhi for doing just that, in association with what is termed as the ‘free bleed’ movement. This movement is almost the equivalent of the ‘elimination communication’ movement that keeps a child out of diapers. One has to accept a little bit of shit on her carpet in order to succeed at raising a child without diapers. Praise any parent that has the patience, praise any woman that has the courage…

In any case, my research into elimination training brought me to the cloth diaper movement. When I told a colleague I was thinking of using cloth diapers he said, “So you’re one of those save-the world-eco-mamas?”

Fuck you, I thought, always quick to come up with a witty response. It irritated me because the implication of his statement was that ‘normal’ people don’t do reusable diapers. That changing any behavior to be a tiny little bit more environmentally friendly meant I was promptly tented in the hippy-dippy camp with all the other smelly eco warriors who have shit on their carpets.

In retrospect a good response would have been, “I wish.” Getting my period was an inconvenient reminder of just one more reason I was not a save-the-world-eco-mama.

I went to one of Kate Mead’s Waste Free Parenting workshops in Auckland (I highly recommend these workshops, by the way). I expected the lecture about baby garbage but the best thing I learned was almost a side-note to the main event. Two words: menstrual cup.

The first time I used one it almost fell out in the grocery store. Luckily I was in the United States at the time, and King Soopers has a big bathroom. If that happened here I would have just had to clench and waddle back to the car as quickly as humanly possible.

I did not attempt again until I returned home, terrified at the prospect of a bloody incident while touring an airport or a mall, toddler and partner in tow. At home it was suddenly easy. What changed? The secret is you’ve got to concentrate a little bit: practice your kegels and squeeze that sucker right up in there. Don’t try it anywhere else but home until you’ve got the hang of it. Keep trying: you will get the hang of it.

The beauty is that it is really clean. You think that disposable stuff is somehow more hygienic. All that advertising. A pad is just a diaper shaped to stick to your undies. Instead it sticks to your ass. It’s not comfortable. You can’t sleep on your back. It’s almost as bad as trying to rip out a dry tampon.

On the other hand, the cup is just a cup. You simply pour it out, rinse it and put it back.

Eight more of my favorite benefits:

  • You can leave it in for twelve hours. Twelve. That means you can probably get through an entire work day depending on your work-life balance. You can probably get through an entire night depending on your sleep habits.
  • You won’t get TSS.
  • You don’t have to worry about your dog chewing up the remains of a bloody tampon which you had neatly wrapped in excess TP to avoid such an embarrassment.
  • You don’t have to worry about your toddler pulling it out of the rubbish and waving it about fiendishly like he’s found his new favorite toy.
  • You don’t have to worry about remembering to empty the bin that very night to avoid any lingering smells or previous two bullet points.
  • It’s small, discrete and easy to clean.
  • It costs $50 or $60 at the outset but it lasts a few years.
  • Best of all: you don’t have to stockpile. You aren’t going to run out of options.

There’s not really any debate to be had. If you have a period for seven days a month that’s nearly 25 percent of your time. You might have up to 450 periods in your life (I am indeed assuming that if you’ve read this far you are female). A menstrual cup is simply better. It’s not an eco-warrior product in so far that most ‘normal’ non-eco-warriors would also prefer to use it, if only they knew about it. For me, I am not overstating it to say that this was a life changing discovery and I will never look back.

The problem is that it is so cost effective that the businesses that sell it aren’t going to out-advertise the billion dollar tampon and pad industries. The “modern” — soft rubber — menstrual cup was designed and first marketed in 1937 by Leona Chalmers. Despite a timeline neck-and-neck with that of tampons, 70 percent of women still rely on tampons. Disposable feminine hygiene products are lucrative: the feminine hygiene industry has manufactured our reliance on disposable because selling a menstrual cup is not good business.

I say, fuck ’em. Get a menstrual cup.

I say, tell your friends. Write a blog, post on Facebook.

I would say, burn your bloody tampons! But that sounds kind of disgusting.


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