I’ve spent a good bit of time in wild places this year, mostly with 7th, 8th, and 9th graders.
Overall, I find this an amazing age, but prime for discomfort about their periods when beyond the world of indoor plumbing and regular trash service. I had forgotten the particular creeping horrific shame of wanting to do something cool in the woods or water, and not doing it, because I didn’t know how to deal with my period in an out-of-bathroom-context. But when discussing with a twelve-year old exactly what the rundown of an afternoon of swimming would be—how long a bus ride, where would the bathrooms be, did someone have dark shorts she could borrow, how long would we be in the water, is it true that if she used a tampon she wouldn’t be a virgin anymore, and would there be time to clean up and get changed when we got back to camp—all of the early horrors of new bleeding came rushing back.
When you add the weird stigma about what half the population deals with on a monthly basis to the already troubling cultural ideas of women being either wimps or witches in the wilderness, it becomes less surprising that there isn’t a standardized way—or even a robust forum—to explain to ladies of all ages how to go into the wilds even whilst bleeding out of your hoo-ha. Dealing with your period in the woods was never covered in any of the many things I read and courses I took on outdoor education and recreation. I learned this hugely valuable and comfort-zone shattering skill only by shyly asking other ladies, and then putting together something that works for me.
Because, mostly, ladies are supposed to become more like dudes when in the woods. Dudes are thought to be physically stronger, built for exploring the tangible geography, and pushing the boundaries of human strength and the natural world. Nature may be a glorious hot mess of interconnected systems and relationships—which seems super Feminine to me—but the Western human approach to Nature is pretty traditionally cisgender Masculine in that it values being slender, fast, and stoic in the face of dangerous unknowns. Even for those who get “magenta berry” as a color choice in our technical rain jackets, these are the typical traits to be striven for.
Having our bodies continue functioning like the systematically cleansed human-race incubators they are, even while we dabble in wilderness isn’t in the Patagonia cover-shot picture. We should be clean, crisp, and ready to go ever higher and faster and further, moving like the wind and John Muir and conquering new territories of the world and ourselves.
Which, totally, we’ll be ready to do after we sterilize our hands, fish a gooey tampon out of our crotch in hike-swampy shorts/several layers of insulation and ski pants/climbing harness/wetsuit—all while standing on uneven terrain and without dripping blood over the one set of clothes we have for this trip, pop in a fresh one, and pack the old tampon away in a very personal waste bag. And wash those hands again.
Personally, I prefer tampons to a cup. I bring more than enough applicator-free tampons to last the length of whatever I’m doing, because with diet and hydration and exercise levels, you never know. I have three Ziploc bags: one for clean tampons and two to double-bag the used. All of this, plus a little bottle of hand sani, is packed in a bright red stuff sack about the size of a pair of wool socks. Red-bag stays in an outside pocket for access during the day, and goes into the bearhang when necessary. I tell people I’m with that this is my system, and that I need to have myself sorted out before the hang goes up for the last time.
Poop, particularly in the woods, is funny. Blood, though, is shamefully nasty. Throughout college, I seemed to start bleeding as soon as I got the idea to go to the woods. When I explained what the separate palm-sized drawstring bag I was tucking into the bear hang every night was, a dude friend joke-shunned the whole thing, claiming it was gross to have that near the food, that I was disgusting.
I said it wasn’t contagious and to fuck off. And went off to my tent and probably cried. It is purely unkind to make a person feel bad about who they are, that they don’t belong somehow where they feel they do. And part of who I am bleeds, regardless of what Edward Abbey or Edmund Hillary did in the wilds.
That same meanness, that small undermining of identity and belonging in wild places, is a little undercurrent I find every time people talk about hygiene or how to deal with human waste in the wilds, but ignore menstruation. Half of us are doing it, shouldn’t we be talking about it like it’s a real thing?
Possibly, it is gross to have used tampons, wrapped toilet paper, inside Ziploc bags, and inside a small nylon bag, hung with the food. On the other hand, without better advice and guidance and an openness of what the hell one is supposed to do with being a grown-ass lady in the wilds, what are we all supposed to do if we’re bleeding the one good week to go to a wild place? Stay home?
Hell no. The wild places of this world are too magnificent for that, the thrill of moving our beautiful bodies along ridges and shorelines too cathartic and exciting to ignore or delay. Dudes don’t get the wilds and adventures to themselves because our uteruses have unique talents as organs. As ladies, it is self-defeating to accept that standard.
I’m not, as one friend terms it, very “woo-woo.” I don’t rejoice at the coming of my period or pay attention to the lunar cycles or celebrate being a woman of the wilds. Such things make me vastly uncomfortable, even as I know how important they are to others. My period shows up, and I deal with it. Sometimes it shows up at inconvenient times and places, and I still deal with it like I would any other bodily function. That, to me, is really all menstruation is and all the fuss it merits, and all hype I give it when talking to teenagers about where a tampon goes or if a shark will come after you (middle hole and definitely not.)
However, I worry that, without more open practical chats about how to deal menstruation when in the far reaches of the maps—and getting the dudes to deal with it too—we’re allowing one of the most basic facts of human life to keep lots of us ladies away from some of the best parts of the grand adventure of being alive in this wonderful world.