Much of my primary school experience rolls in to one, but learning about periods is one of the more vivid memories I have. All of the girls in year 6 were segregated from the boys, marched off into an assembly room and shown a video. We were each given a bag of period products at the end. I don’t know what the boys learnt about. They might have been shown the same video. They were definitely not given the goody bags, as this later became a point of contention!
This was in the 90s, so we were limited to being told about disposable tampons and sanitary pads. Overall, we weren’t given any guidance on why we might want to use a certain type of product over another. We were only told how they worked in very basic terms. Talking to other friends about managing periods, very specific individual needs and preferences need to be taken in to account. For example, I hate using anything disposable because of the environmental impact. I also can’t get over the similarity in principle between nappies and sanitary pads and find this really off-putting. One of my friends however, just doesn’t feel she would every be comfortable inserting a tampon. Another feels the same way as I do about disposable period items but can’t bring herself to wash and use a menstral cup. Here’s a rundown of some of the things people do with their period blood. I’ve based this information on mine and friends’ experience of using various methods and medical experience, as well as questions that come up a lot in sex ed workshops…
A bundle of soft, absorbent material which is inserted in to the vagina to soak up blood. They sometimes come with ‘applicators’ – card or plastic tubes that help to insert the tampon further in to the vagina. There is a string that sits outside the vagina, which can be pulled to remove the tampon. The tampon (but not the packaging or any applicator) is designed to be flushed down the toilet, like toilet paper. They are a disposable method, so obviously have an environmental impact. Manufacturers often suggest leaving them in for between 4-8 hours. They come in various sizes – smaller tampons absorb less blood and so are for lighter periods, larger ones for heavier periods. Tampons seem to be the period product that people frequently concerns about:
- Toxic Shock Syndrome. This is an infection that can be caused by a foreign object left in the body for a long time, including a tampon. It is quite rare though, especially if tampons are changed regularly.
- Penetration. Many people have worries about it being painful to insert a tampon. Tampons are typically only a couple of inches long though, which is much smaller than some of the other things that people easily fit in and out of vaginas (baby’s heads, dildos and penises for a start!). It might take a bit of practice to do it easily, but many people find that this is something they can learn to do. Others worry that it ‘counts’ as losing your virginity if you’ve used a tampon before you’ve had penetrative penis-in-vagina sex. ‘Losing your virginity’ is a social construct which relates to what you find arousing so this is just not true for most people!
- Getting stuck. As someone who’s been the oncall doctor for an out of hours Gynaecology service, this is something this does sometimes happen. People do insert tampons which they later feel they can’t remove. However, there are manoeuvres you can try that really do work… and if it doesn’t I’ve never seen a ‘stuck’ tampon that couldn’t be removed easily in a clinic setting.
These are my personal period product of choice! The can take some getting used to and you may well splash a small amount of blood about getting to grips with them. But once you have you may grow to love these reusable, washable devices that sit in the vagina and collect blood. This is then emptied in to the toilet bowl. The cup can be washed with water in between uses and sterilised in between cycles, so is completely reusable and produces minimum waste. Cups don’t seem to be very widespread at the moment – I found out about them from a sticker on the back of a loo door! There are several different brands. I use Mooncup – basically because this was the only one that was available at the Chemists when I bought mine. I’ve been told by a friend that their sizing is not the best however. All manufacturers make cups of different sizes, again according to how heavy a person’s period is.
Pads or towels are absorbent material made in to a pad that lines your underwear. Unlike tampons, there is usually a large plastic component, which is not possible to flush down the toilet. Reusable pads – ones that can be washed and reused – are becoming more widely available. They can be bought or made. Free patterns for making your own are available online, such as here from Luna Wolf. More recently pads seem to have been extended to ‘period pants‘ – where the bit that soaks up the blood is built in to underwear and the whole thing is washed.
There is of course the ‘do nothing’ option. Some people choose to sidestep all of the above and opt for free bleeding. This is when nothing is used to collect period blood and someone simply allows their clothing to soak it up. This often seems to be done as a point of political protest, such as against the ‘tampon tax’. This might partly be because free bleeding in and of itself is seen as a political act, such as when runner Kirin Gandhi free bled during the London Marathon. There are probably many more people who unintentionally or unwillingly free bleed, due to lack of period product resources. ‘Period poverty’ seems to be an issue worldwide, with campaigns against it evident in both developed and developing countries.