My life in Periods…Part Two

DAWN O'PORTER : 08 JULY 2010
« Back to Blog
So, luckily I didn’t have epilepsy, but if I had then my issues with talking about my periods could have got me into serious trouble. You would have thought this would open me up a bit, but no. There was life and death and then there were periods, at that age there was no doubt which one I found most terrifying.

By the age of 13 they were regular as clockwork but I was keeping it on the quiet from all adults. Of course Aunty Jane knew as the sanitary supply in the downstairs bathroom diminished fast, however I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I didn’t know who I could trust, so far all I had gained from anyone knowing about it was embarrassment.

It all just seemed so gruesome. My pants were full of blood and I didn’t know how to contextualize that. I didn’t comfort myself with the knowledge that it was happening to other girls too, I thought it was just me. It wasn’t until some of my classmates started to get theirs too that I gained a little confidence with the subject. When that started happening periods became a bit of a status symbol, and as long as I was with girls my age, I thought periods were amazing.

My shyness with adults continued though, and although in the confides of a few of my class mates where I felt empowered and part of a gang, the whole notion of periods outside of those moments was just an excuse to turn florescent red and run away. Every time someone mentioned them to me I felt they had x-ray vision and could see the mess in my pants. That sounds so gross sorry, but it is exactly how I felt.

I remember my form teacher at the time creating a ‘Period Group’ for those of us who had started. We’d meet in the sick room and have little chats about what was doing on ‘downstairs’. This was great for me as it meant I could do what I usually did when I felt nervous and laugh and joke about it. When I had a gang I was fine, in fact within it I was just as I was in the rest of my life – confident, rude, cheeky and convinced I knew it all.

I remember sitting in the school library one day with a girl from my class called Janet – well known for her story telling – she told me that she had started and I refused to believe her. I also didn’t want to believe her, for some reason I felt superior to her for having mine and didn’t want her to join the club. I went at her with the initiation questions.

‘You have started?’ I scoffed, sure she was fibbing. ‘If you have started then what colour is it??’

I was sure that would sniff her out.

She then stood up and scanned the book shelves.

‘There’ she said as she pointed at the reddy/brown spine of a classical novel ‘It is that colour, but sometimes it can also be bright red, like normal blood’.

Her answer threw me a bit. The fact that she hadn’t been so obvious as to just say ‘red’ made me believe her. She clearly knew what she was talking about and so that was that, she was in the gang too.

Over the course of the next year our little posse grew in size and we found great solace in each other. I had opened up loads about it and wore my periods like a badge of honor.  However one day, in a class room full of 13 year old girls who were not all part of my gang, when the teacher took it upon herself to announce to the whole class that I had ‘started’ I went right back to how I felt in the airport that time that my aunty told my teacher there was sludge in my knickers. Her announcement embarrassed me, I wasn’t ready for other people (especially adults) to speak on my behalf about my menstruation. If it wasn’t me telling then I didn’t want people to know and because of this moment I am not sure I spoke to anyone else about my periods for a good few years after that. This early mortification could also be why, to this day, I still find buying tampons shamefully humiliating and where possible ask friends to buy them for me. Writing this article however causes me no distress at all. If anyone would like to explain the psychology of that to me, I would very much appreciate it.

Starting my periods, like losing my virginity, is something that I wish I could all over again because I got it all wrong. If I could start them again now I would embrace them and celebrate them. But unfortunately we start them at an age when we haven’t learned any lessons of womanhood yet. We don’t know our bodies because they haven’t really developed, and we don’t really know ourselves because we have hardly lived. It seems like a dramatic start to being a woman, but then I guess it sets us up well. The sudden introduction of sanitary supplies to your life is pretty daunting, especially when your teacher tells you that if you get your period at school you have to go and see her where she will give you a panty pad the size of a ‘mattress’ (yup, she said that) to put in your knickers. Now, please tell me why any teenage girl with a shred of self-awareness would want to do that?

Tampons however, were a very different story. The moment they get introduced to you as something other than a toy you steel from your older sister and put in a sink full of water when your friends come round, is also rather intimidating. However, having heard some of the other girls in my class talking about them one lunch time, I was keen to give them a try.

One school night I sneaked into the downstairs loo, grabbed some Tampax from the cupboard, hid them up my sleeve and bolted upstairs. I locked myself in the bathroom, pulled down my greenies and shoved one up my fanny. It felt straight out and hit the floor. I picked it up and examined it, the hard paper case was confusing. It then hit me that I was supposed to take the tampon out first, so I did and tried to cram it up inside me, but it wouldn’t go. It was too floppy and I remember it hurting because of the force with which I had to use to get it in. I flushed that one away and sat on the floor. It was a while before I thought to read the instructions.

The diagram told me that I could either insert it sitting on the toilet or standing with one foot on the ground and the other on the loo. I opted for this.

To this day I remember the smoothness of the paper case go inside me, then the ease at which the tampon positioned itself, and most of all I remember the relief when it was in. I couldn’t feel it, and it didn’t fall out. WOO HOOO!

This was a defining moment in my life. I felt so free. So free in fact that I ran over to the TV room where my sister was and literally did a roly poly. She told me to get out of her way so she could watch Home and Away, with no idea what my light acrobatics were in aid of. But I felt so proud of myself that I didn’t go away, I did a handstand. Tampax advertisements featuring a woman pelting along a promenade on roller skates suddenly made a lot more sense.

Tampons changed my life there is no doubt about it, and I owe them a lot. The most part of my mortification and inability to talk about periods came from the fact that I thought towels were so visible, bulky, dirty, ugly and gross. Now with everything but a tiny string hidden away I began to open up a lot. Looking back it really was remarkable how much these little lumps of cotton liberated me.

Tampons are not something to celebrate for everyone though, I remember one girl at school being told she would never be able to use them because her hole was too tight (her words not mine). After my roly poly day I felt desperately sorry for her. I couldn’t imagine a life of sanitary towels they just felt so cumbersome, but that is just me, everyone is different and my dear friend Mel in LA chooses not to use tampons because she feels they interfere with nature. ‘It is as if they were invented by men’ she claims. ‘A period is supposed to flow, but women stop it dead in its tracks and keep it inside their bodies for way too long. Let it flow ladies, let the bloody thing flow’.

I stood back when she said this. I worried I might get sprayed.

I find the fact that she makes this choice, lives in a scorching climate, and is rarely seen in anything other than a mini skirt really interesting. I guess the key to it is confidence.

I can see her point but I don’t agree. Sanitary towels to me are a hindrance. Interfering with the course of nature or not, I cant bear the idea of my pants being full of blood. I would choose a super plus Tampax over an Always Ultra with wings any day!

She thinks women are made to feel ashamed of their periods so have been persuaded to hide it all away. I think that is a bit dramatic, I want to hide it all away because otherwise the visual makes me sick up a bit, not because I am ashamed.

Mel is very proud of her decision not to wear internal sanitary protection, so much so that she takes no offence to me hounding her with questions when I see her. She does however; tell me that it is usually only women who have issues with her only using pads. Men (which is who I thought would find it most gruesome) don’t seem to give a hoot

‘As for boy’s who I’ve dated’ she says ‘so far they tend to feel like (and express vocally) that it makes them happy I won’t stick anything else but a penis in my crotch. Of course, they make it about themselves! But for some reason they never get grossed out – I think probably because the whole period  thing is so bizarre to them anyway that they figure it’s all weird’.

Good point!

What is also interesting about Mel’s menstruation is that she didn’t start her periods until she was 17. By this time of course you are a lot more self assured (she said ‘more neurotic’) than I would have been at 12, and that could mean that sanitary towels feel less encapsulating. Having grown up in Miami she did say that the continuous pool parties (bloody hell what a bind) could be awkward, but her reason to not use tampons was as physical as it was moral.

‘So around my third “cycle” or whatever, of course living in Miami I was confronted with having to use a tampon in order to fully enjoy the pool party I was attending. That morning, I used a tampon and 4 hours later by the time I got to the party I felt bloated and like constipated. Convinced the tampon wasn’t helping I pulled it out and voila, my period was completely gone. It’s like it sensed a foreign object and yelled “run” to the rest of my uteral lining and decided to not come out at all, hiding in fear. So, I used a pad and it took my period that evening to come back. Exactly the same thing happens every time I have tried a tampon since. That stuff is supposed to come out, Dawn. Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow’.

Again, I stood well back.

I told her I wouldn’t let it flow, and that as much as she believed in panty pads, I would spend 5 days a month feeling like I was trying to mop up Loch Lomond with a J-cloth.  I would just feel too insecure about it. It wasn’t gonna happen!

I have a good relationship with my periods now, in the respect that they don’t gross me out and I see it as a function as opposed to a crisis. I find tampons easy to use and rarely get caught short (being on the pill helps with that, but we will get to that in a bit). However, when people talk about the chemicals in tampons, the threat of toxic shock syndrome and the hazard the cause to the environment, I do start to feel a little guilty and unsure about them. The Mooncup – the cup that makes me retch to think about it – could be an alternative.

A few months ago I was walking through the underground tunnel at my local tube and I saw a big poster with no wording other than the link to this website www.loveyourvagina.com.

I was intrigued, mix that with the fact that I do absolutely love my vagina and as soon I got home I logged onto the site. What I found traumatized me, I didn’t like it at all.

The poster had tricked me. I had expected to be introduced to luscious soaps that compliment the PH of my lady parts, or even some sexy lingerie, but a plastic cup that goes up instead of a tampon and collects my menstrual flow rather than absorbs it made me feel quite ill. The sheer idea of the removal process was hideous to me, you put it in, it collects the blood, then you pull out the little cup, pour away your blood, wash it and put it back in again. Doesn’t that just sound like five gays worth of gagging waiting to happen??

I toyed with the idea of trying the Mooncup but I just couldn’t face it in the end. What I was surprised by however, was the hugely positive response I got about it when I set of into the Twittershere for answers.

(@hotpatootiets says) Is anyone using the Mooncup? If so email me and tell me about it, I am fascinated’

Shockingly within and hour my inbox was full of emails from people telling me how the Mooncup was the best thing that ever happened to them. Not one person, literally not one said they had tried it and not been converted. I was shocked at how many women were already using it, and even more shocked to see how positively they were regarding it.

For some people the Mooncup was tempting for financial reasons, at a one off payment of about 17 quid, that obviously adds up to much less than the amount we spend of tampons and pads over the course of our menstrual lives. For others it as about hygiene, the environment, or the joy at how long they could leave a Mooncup in for without having to change it.

Once converted it would seem that there is no going back, and women who Mooncup can be quite defensive about it. Many of them had attitudes a little like Mel does to tampons. I thought it stood somewhere in the middle of tampons and pads as you do sort of get to flow. So I asked her what she thought of it wondering it might spark some interest, she said ‘Seriously! I’d rather try to frappé my liver into a lychee martini’.

So I guess not.

‘Pads are great Dawn, I don’t need to search for an alternative. The Mooncup is just another fad’.

But I don’t know if it is a fad, more a very big personal choice, just as this nurse says in her email to me…

‘Bizarrely my cramps and PMT seem more bearable’ she said ‘I want to convert more people but it’s not something easily discussed over a coffee down the corridor (even with Nurses) I think many women might associate ecological menstrual alternatives with hippies worshipping their inner goddess. I eat meat, wax my legs and have a weakness for impractical footwear like the best of us but Mooncup enables me to feel perkier than I used to once a month!’

How could you argue with that? I cant. But I still aint using a Mooncup. No way!

To be Continued….