The twilight tampon zone: 10 experiences that put me off pads and tampons, and into the menstrual cup cult
Alex Logan recently published “An ode of hatred to my Diva Cup” in Huffington Post. Alex had seen a lot of good press about cups, and about the Diva Cup in particular. Despite being persuaded to try one, ultimately she found that it wasn’t for her. I wrote a general piece here about how it’s good to try things for yourself, and also how any publicity for menstrual cups is an improvement over not being able to find out anything about them.
However, one comment in Alex’s blog which did strike me as odd was the cynical aside (re: cleaning the cup) that - “that's exactly what my husband or any house guests would ever want to see - my period cup in our kitchenware”. Which - I think – kind of implies that she believes no-one is aware of her tampons. Maybe I misread that bit, but here is a note to (any) readers (that may be out there): I can say with fair confidence that your husband, house guests, hosts, cleaners, co-workers, and the world in general is entirely aware of the existence of your pads and tampons and their associated waste. They are not as subtle as the ads make out. People are not unaware of them, they just don’t want to talk or think about them. If they do acknowledge them, it is often with cringing horror (this fantastic recent history in The Atlantic aside). Thousands of jokes about men being sent to buy tampons might be one clue to this effect.
I wouldn’t want to say I hate pads and tampons, because they are a whole lot better than the gruesome apparatus of my grandmother’s and mother’s age, and better again than the inadequate options that most women and girls still make do with now around the world. I prefer to think of pads and tampons as excellent inventions that have a lot to offer, but which the menstrual cup is a an improvement on. The latest evolution, if you were. Some people are happy with the low tech version, and some people prefer to move on. It’s great to have a choice. Having said that, years of experience with pads and tampons did not endear me to them. No matter how optimistically packaged they may be as I file indifferently past them in the supermarket, it is over. We have filed for a no-fault divorce.
Part of the reason why is that I associate many of the things Alex Logan describes with the Diva Cup – awkwardness, discomfort, grossness, everyone telling you it works and you thinking it really isn’t up to the hype – with pads and tampons. Here are a few stories, some verging on horror, I recall from the years when I didn’t yet know about menstrual cups: from the twilight zone of tampons.
1. Give a dog a bone
I remember as a teenager being told to be careful disposing of used sanitary items because if you put them not far enough into a bin then a dog would fish it out and chew on it. Once, on holidays, a dog did indeed do just that at a house I was a guest in. We came home and the fluffy white dog had made a meal/toy of a used item on the polished timber floor (at least it wasn’t carpet). There’s a colourfully horrible story just like this on “This American Life” – only the dog makes its entrance at a dinner party.
2. Horse of horrors
Once on school camp we went horse riding in the bush and those with their periods had to package up their used items into a paper bag to take home so as to not litter the environment. I was one of those people, and I did not in any way relish the experience in the way horse riding ads for tampons might imply. Adding to the experience, the horse bucked furiously – probably the smell. There seems to be an animal and holiday theme to my stories. I’ve heard ones about bears - but can’t add my own.
3. The septic suspect
Meanwhile, some people like to fantasize that you can always flush sanitary items down the toilet and ‘away’ to a magic fairyland – but this is not always so. For example I remember staying at a friend’s house in the country, and how I flushed a tampon down the toilet (there was no appropriate bin, and there was a dog) to apparently disastrous results. Later that night I could hear her and her mother arguing about who had to tell me not to flush tampons, as it had ruined the septic system.
4. The body in the backyard
Learning this lesson, at a shared rental house I once lived at with two young guys, the plumber had to be called out to unclog a pipe which turned out to be chock-a-block with a backlog of flushed tampons and pads. All faces turned to me in the yellowed light of an Australian suburban backyard, like unearthing a body – I insisted that it wasn't me (it really wasn’t – I suspect one of their girlfriends or a former tenant), but the blank looks of mingled mistrust and disgust suggested that the lady did protest too much. Maybe it depends on the particularly country, but the plumbing is not always a reliable escape route for your used pads and tampons. Further afield, for those of us that do get away with flushing items, you can be confronted with tales of clogged sewers and of tampon strings adorning waterways in their millions. They don't go 'away' - they go somewhere else. Without wishing to go too much into the gruesome physicality of it, the contents of a cup - terrifying though it may seem - will break down fully in the sewerage system as with other human waste.
5. Holiday hampers
Of several otherwise enjoyable holidays - travelling in Vietnam, swimming in remote beaches, hiking in delightful fjords - all I remember of certain days are the annoyance of trying to figure out what on earth to do with sanitary items. All I can say is, there was a lot of baggage – literal and emotional. There were sodden things. In all these cases, had I known of menstrual cups as an option I would unequivocally have preferred one.
6. No-touch untouchable toilets
I also remember countless ‘sanitary bins’ in public toilets. However robotically designed the ‘no touch’ design, they so often manage to fill up and to belie the belief that disposable sanitary products just disappear in a puff of reassuring marketing. When I go to public toilets now, and the ‘sanitary bin’ gapes its mouthful of stuff at me, I am thankful that I have the choice to not have to use one. (But – I might add - I’m also glad the option is there).
7. K-Mart Cringe
There’s also the experience buying disposable products. If I still bought them I probably wouldn’t care much, but at Kmart the other day I noticed some young girls clutching pads in front of me. They were waiting to use the automatic checkout when the checkout guy signalled that he was available. They went, cringing and reluctant, literally with their heads in their hands, to purchase their items from the man. (Who didn’t flinch – all credit to him). If they prefer pads to cups, great – but it’s pretty disappointing to see how bound up these products are with a sense of shame. One thing is for sure – I’ve never seen a supermarket (or, as yet, a K-Mart) that stocked a menstrual cup. Maybe you’d still be embarrassed, but you’d have to buy it once maybe a few times (note: the advice varies as to whether cups last a year, 10 years, or essentially forever).
8. Dolly Doctor
The recent K-Mart cringing girls reminded me of a magazine I used to read called “Dolly” that each edition featured (and perhaps still does) advice on what to do if your boyfriend pressured you for sex (I seem to recall the advice was invariably a simpering admonishment that you should only do it if you loved him); and harrowing tales of tampons and pads gone astray. There were shared stories of tampons stuck ‘up there’, of pads stuck unwittingly to pants and skirts, of boxes of items spilling out on the school bus to howls of laughter, of being spotted buying tampons by a ‘crush’. While it was cool how they shared the stories, they also advertised products and reinforced a sense of dread. And I never once saw a menstrual cup mentioned in a women’s let alone girl’s magazine. The difficulty in finding or finding out about menstrual cups is what led me to set up this site.
I recall a particular hatred of the process of going to sleep with disposable products. The message was clear - tampons would literally kill you if you left them in more than a few hours. Meanwhile, pads would leak or, at the very least, feel like a nappy. Actually it's not 'like' - they are just nappies. This is all very well on the best of days when you have your own space and time, but when sharing your bed or staying at someone else's place – I was always very conscious of having my period. I used to resentfully count down every day, and dread each impending one. Nowadays I, truthfully, barely notice. And I didn't even get on to how annoying it used to be to 'subtly' go to the bathroom at work or at parties, hiding things here and there. It's like an elaborate party or espionage game that no-one really wants to play.
10. A final story: The red bin
A few years back my husband and I found ourselves at a chain furniture shop, buying a small and loudly clanking metal bin in the style of the old kerbside ‘trash cans’. My husband thought the bin was a good size for the balcony. There was a choice of standard metallic finish, or a vibrant fire-engine red. I was distracted on the phone. He selected the red one.
The man at the furniture store counter exuded a bouncy, slightly ironic manner. He was fairly but not very young, and seemed like someone who was determined to weave a certain amount of Kafkaesque entertainment value into the daily indignity of working at a furniture store. With exaggerated enthusiasm he asked if my husband had put a lot of thought into choosing the red colour of the bin. My husband answered with a non-committal laugh. He didn’t, it seems, catch the almost too subtle meaning. Continuing to smile with broad customer assisting enthusiasm, the service guy prompted again. “Does it reflect what you’ll use it for?” My husband laughed helpfully. Lingering a few metres away, soon both I and the furniture store man were laughing in a weird, shared acknowledgement. Somewhere beneath the surface chatter we were laughing about something ubiquitous, widely considered disgusting, and pretty much always unacknowledged.
It was that encounter a few years back that got me thinking about what I think – on some unspoken level - the furniture store man and I were cackling about. This is the fact that, in millions of homes, a small yet terrifying bin lingers somewhere near the toilet. In millions of Australian businesses, shops, pubs, and female public toilets of all persuasions some kind of ‘unit’ seeks to innocuously appear then disappear from the realm of consciousness, in the manner of a well trained butler. These things are rarely spoken of out loud.
An exception I remember is a friend who has spoken many times of having a pronounced fear of breast milk let alone menstruation. He told me he refused to touch or change the bins in the bathroom he shared with a female flatmate, reasoning that the bin could only possibly contain used sanitary items. The toilet rolls go in the recycling. What else could there be in there? He avoided it like a land mine and complained about its very existence. I disagree with his logic – I for one put other, perhaps similarly if not equally taboo, things in small bathroom bins such as used dental floss, cotton buds, and hair pulled out of the drain. But on the basic issue he was right. Small bins are often used for used disposable female sanitary items. There are entire industries built to deal with small bins and ‘units’ for these things. And they all get emptied into landfills. Elsewhere in the world there are no bins and no industries, just women’s lives reconfigured around hiding things.
Conclusions: PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH
All of the above are reasons I started to think about the alternatives to the way periods are normally ‘done’. They could be a whole lot worse, but they could be a whole lot better. I personally think tampons are great – but menstrual cups are way better. But it was a long time before I knew ‘better’ was out there. I had heard rumours, on the internet and from more hippy-inclined friends, of things bearing the slightly gruesome name ‘cups’ that women start using in place of the usual sanitary items, then start ranting about like. It was like they started another life. It’s like buying drugs, or joining (or leaving) a cult – they could, they say earnestly, never go back. I joined that cult. And I could, I tell you earnestly, never go back. Some people try it and like some parts and not others, others it's not for them, but on the whole a cup tends to be pretty popular with the women who try them.
I’ve had what are essentially nightmares about being caught overseas somewhere, wanting to go swimming, and having to try and buy tampons. When I use public bathrooms and hear women next door struggling laboriously with the wrapper of some disposable product or another, I think how relieved I am to not be doing that. When I see those frantic signs urging you to PLEASE DO NOT FLUSH SANITARY ITEMS, I think how glad I am to not have to decide either way.
In saying this I don’t want to imply that it should matter at all if someone notices you have your period. Disposable items still work for heaps of women. However, it is misguided to think disposable pads and tampons make it less embarrassing and are less stigmatised than something new sounding like a cup. Disposable products sometimes seem to be part and parcel of the whole attitude. Instead of just having to get rid of your own blood - which is, cultural stigma aside, not actually radioactive - you have a whole other 'body' to dispose of. Put another way - don’t think using a menstrual cup will suddenly make you ‘marked’ and exposed for scrutiny. You already are.