In sixth grade I woke up with the Big Red Dot. The Big Red Dot. I sat in the bathroom coddling the whirlwind of feelings in my stomach: excitement, panic, triumph, naivety, dread.
The Big Red Dot was the epic tag of womanhood that I’d been anxiously awaiting since they introduced us to periods in that awkward fifth grade Sex Ed class. The anticipation only amplified over the next year as I continually heard: Did you get it? Did you get it?
I was eleven. This meant soon I’d surely have breasts, kiss boys, wear makeup, shave my legs, right? I sat at the toilet staring at the little red splotch and my forehead sunk down to my hands. I was trying to figure out how to tell my dad the news. Mom had picked the worst weekend to be out of town.
A girl’s first period is called the menarche. The uterus prepares extra blood and tissues in case it needs it. After the first egg is liberated, the cycle begins and you know the rest. From that start until menopause, there would be about 1.5-2 tablespoons of blood discharged every month. That’s just the way it was going to be.
In my family we never talked about anything sexual. Boys, kissing, sex, vaginas, periods, etc. were all taboo. I grew up with the feeling that these things were bad, even evil. After I saw a used tampon on the ground next to a trashcan in a park when I was six I had nightmares. Even when someone said the word “private” I cringed.
I’m not sure why I was conditioned so intensely, but I’m sure it’s a parent’s dream to have their daughter react like this to the thought of anything sexual.
There was no way I could work up the courage to say any of these things to my dad. I was trapped on the toilet. I couldn’t even whisper the words to myself. Period felt like poison on my tongue and Menstruation felt worse. Tampon? There was no way. Couldn’t I just stop the blood myself?
As early as 15th century B.C., Egyptians used soft papyrus to soak up their menstrual blood. Ancient Roman women would use wool. The Japanese taped special paper to themselves that they’d change every hour and traditional Hawaiians employed the furry part of the hapu’u fern. Beginning around the 18th century, American women used fabrics and eventually disposables pads that felt like diapers.
The modern tampon didn’t really come around until the 1930s when Tampax was patented and began a widespread media campaign that blasted American women. Tampons were originally marketed to physicians, but as corporate America was taking off, the innovators hired “Tampax Ladies” that toured the country, setting up at medical conventions, giving speeches at colleges to educate and convince the public that tampons were safe and effective.
One of the biggest handicaps the tampon industry faced was the embarrassment that many women felt. Kotex, another tampon company, became one of the first self-service items in the history of American retailing when they encouraged pharmacies to place two boxes on the counter: one with tampons and one for money. Women could pick up and pay while minimizing embarrassing interactions with other humans.
Could I still find one of these honesty tampon boxes and avoid the mortifying conversation with my dad?
I vaguely knew where my mom kept her supplies. I’d peeked at them once or twice before sprinting back to my room, heart pounding like I’d just committed a world-class felony. The toilet seat slowly numbed my legs. I took a deep breath, stood up, and pulled my pajama pants back up.
Eventually I learned how to use my first tampon. Half way through high school, I worked up the courage to ask my mom if I could use them. All my friends were. My mom talked me through it without using any real details and after a lot of trial and error I finally figured it out. I dreaded that time of the month. I didn’t suffer from cramps, but each time the Red Dots appeared I felt alien, dirty, and embarrassed. I didn’t like to talk about it. It was just plain gross to me.
Maybe surprisingly, shyness and embarrassment was out of character for me. I was wildly independent and loved adventure. I began to think of periods as my Achilles heel. I began to loathe them.
When I was nineteen I left for a solo seven month backpacking trip in South America. Multiple people told me I should stock up on tampons because supposedly they weren’t sold down there. I took three-dozen of the compact, non-applicator kind of tampons that I’d only known from the horror stories as the back-up emergency tampons at the nurse’s office.
Three weeks into my backpacking trip I found myself working at a zero-waste farm tucked in the jungles of Vilcabamba, Ecuador. Zero-waste meant that nothing left the farm. We used a dry toilet for our bathroom and then fertilized fields with our waste. We didn’t used toilet paper, only the hose coiled up next to the seat to wash ourselves. We bathed in the river with natural soaps made from ashes. We peed in the fields whenever and wherever convenient. Everything was composted, everything was reused, recycled.
Tampons didn’t quite fit into that equation.
I faced three options: one, bleed all over myself; two, bleed all over everyone else; three, muster up the courage to ask another woman on the farm what she did during the time of the month; or four, poison their beautiful land with my toxic tampons.
I couldn’t bleed all over myself. I only had one pair of pants with me, and I couldn’t carry the weight of ruining their land on my shoulders. I sat on the edge of a rock overlooking the river as the sun pulled up above the horizon. Orange and pink swept across the sky and birds sang their morning tunes waking up the rest of the farm. I considered finding secret places to hide my tampons.
No. I couldn’t. I needed to ask someone.
Through all the progressive changes surrounding women since the 1930s, the embarrassment associated with menstruation has been slow to change. We’ve been procreating since the dawn of humanity and we love it. We drool at cute babies, smile at the happy couple and dream of falling in love. But none of that would exist without the menstrual cycle. But we don’t drool and smile and dream about menstruation.
Instead euphemisms shirk around it and tampons are hidden in discreet, little purses. This doesn’t speak for all women, but since the advent of female hygiene products, the underlying social message has become clear: menstruation is an embarrassing hygiene problem that women should conceal.
This social stigma is obstructing the path towards women’s social equality. Without the acceptance of your body, asserting egalitarianism on behalf of your gender can be challenging.
Common phrases like “the time of the month” and “Aunt Flo is visiting” have all but replaced the medical terms in western vernacular. Circumventing the words has become a temporary solution for a much larger problem that Dr. Gillian Russell, a Boulder, Colo.-based psychologist with a PhD from the University of London calls, “a huge challenge in today’s society.”
The base of the problem is a great societal revulsion towards anything “menstrual” that Dr. Russell finds has a deeper psychological seed. “There’s this overarching theme in today’s society of wanting to be in control… [and the] thing is, menstruation represents something messy, dirty, out of control. Nowadays that’s not how women think they should be.”
Carolina Ramirez, a Women and Gender studies student researcher at CU Boulder, says, “[Historically,] menstruation has only been seen as an individual health issue and has no space in the public health discourse.”
Earlier this year she conducted research on the consequences of the silence that surrounds menstruation. Her findings show that if girls are discouraged to talk about menstruation and female health at a young age, a culture of shame and silence carries into their adult life.
What exacerbates this problem is that feminine hygiene products and the media have primed women to think like this. According to tampon boxes, menstruation is something that requires “protection” and “discreet” solutions. It’s something that should be hidden, something that women should be embarrassed about. According to them, menstruation is something that requires a defense mechanism.
“There are activists that try to communicate [feminist] ideals, but they are up against a tremendous media presence,” Dr. Russell says. “Menstruation is a sign of sexuality in a woman. But the media just shows asexual women – women with no breasts, no hips, very slim – and that is what is being idealized unfortunately.”
Dr. Russell notes that the squeamishness plaguing menstruation conversations can be harmful to a young girl’s development, making them more self-conscious and shy at a pivotal point in their lives.
From my rock I felt the cold water combing my toes. I knew I could muster up the confidence to ask a farm-mate. The rational part of my brain told me there wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but the emotional part of my brain was screaming.
I stood up and walked to the outdoor kitchen.
Barbara, a lanky Austrian woman with short hair and olive toned glasses had been working on the farm for the past six weeks. She smiled at all my questions. “Have you heard of a Mooncup?” she asked me.
“Mooncup?” I shook my head.
“It’s like a reusable tampon made of silicon. Think of it like a cup that suctions to your uterus, it collects all the blood and then you pour it out and rinse the cup and put it back in. Easy. You just reuse them every time.”
“Okay.” I was hesitant. “Where can I get one?”
Reusable menstruation products like the Moon Cup were invented around the same time as tampons, but were shunned because disposable products were easier and less intimidating. Only within the past two decades have reusable menstruation products garnered more mainstream use. When their efficiency and the environmental benefits are coupled with the personal growth they inspire, reusable menstrual products have the potential to be powerful feminist tools in the fight against social stigma.
Reusable menstrual products come in various forms. Products like the Diva Cup and Moon Cups are two popular options, but there are many, many more. Some basics: before and after each use they are sterilized with boiling water and can be reused for up to 10 years if properly taken care of.
“The idea is that [with reusable feminine products] you’re really touching yourself more and acknowledging more. You aren’t disposing of your ‘mess,’ you’re living with your body,” says Dr. Russell.
Madison Murray, a Women’s Studies research student at Old Dominion University in Virginia, agrees that products like the Diva Cup can be a catalyst for major change. “Menstrual cups are a perfect feminist technology.
“Part of women empowerment is understanding the vagina in its own beauty and not just being a source of reproduction or sex. Women are often taught to shy away from self-exploration, but there is much to understand. We all have our own flow and understanding it can help one see what your body needs.”
According to the Diva Cup product description, “Many women feel uneasy about changing their menstrual care routine. Years of dealing with the sights and odors of disposable tampons and pads cause the familiar reaction: ‘ick!’ The Diva Cup empowers women to connect with their bodies and menstrual cycles like never before.”
The environmental benefits of trading tampons and pads for the Diva Cup are impossible to neglect. According to Slate Magazine, “the average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds of ‘pads, plugs, and applicators’ in her lifetime.” One tampon has the same amount of plastic as three grocery bags, which doesn’t even include the packaging, wrappings, or backing strips that also end up in landfills. One Diva Cup weighs, including packaging, less than two ounces.
Plus, I found that switching to the Diva Cup is the healthier alternative. Because the Diva Cup is non-absorbent, it doesn’t cause dryness. The DivaCup claims that, “when a tampon is inserted, its composition of rayon and cotton absorbs your vagina’s protective fluid, drying out and disrupting its normal pH levels.”
The cup can be left in for up to 12 hours at a time – meaning less bathroom trips and less stress about leakage – because it can hold up to three times a much as one tampon. And the silicon composition ensures there is zero risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, a bacterial illness that can cause death. Basically, I’m completely sold.
“If we could get even freer about this, if it could be as normal as buying toilet paper or Kleenex, then we can make some progress. This is a challenge.” To help normalize menstruation, Dr. Russell recommends more dialogue. “Really, it’s mothers and female role models that will change things.”
At the natural health store in the small Ecuadorian village near the farm, the woman behind the counter pulled the beige silicon cup out of the box and began to explain: Vagina. Period. Blood. Vagina. Menstruation. Suction. Sterilize. Practice. Vagina.
Inside I cringed. I cringed hard. Then I took that cringe, and felt it. I fell into the cringe. I became the whole cringe. Then I released. I sprung out of it, stretched out the cringe, massaged each muscle out, opening and receiving the words, the ideas, the everything with open arms. Why feel awkward or ashamed or embarrassed? No need! No need! This woman had conquered these words. They were hers, under her control, smooth, fearless, a leader. These words, just words, were words of life. I should love them too.
She looked at me to make sure I understood how to work the Moon Cup. “This is the best decision you’ve made in a long time.” That meant so many things she didn’t even know.
Emma Murray is an explorer, a moon cup believer, a student at Brown University, and a journalism intern at The Boulder Weekly.