Period shame is a social issue

In 7th and 8th grade, 3 friends and I shared a locker, decorating it together and leaving notes for each other. We were a weird crew, and our togetherness made the misery of middle school that much more bearable. One day I went to our locker for a textbook and saw one of my friends, sweatshirt tied around her waist, grabbing her down jacket. “Are you cold, A?” “No… I uh… I’m bleeding, and I think I already bled through my pants and my sweatshirt.” “Oh, A, just go to the nurse and get another pad!” “No, it’s okay, I’ll just tie my jacket around my waist.” “I’ll go with you. Or E can go with you if you want her to.” “No really it’s okay, I don’t want to ask the nurse.” By the end of the day she’d bloodied a sweatshirt, a down jacket, her pants and her underwear because she couldn’t stand the thought of going to the nurse to bring up her needs.

Period shame in this country is bad enough; in many places it can keep menstruating students from getting an education, from playing with other kids, from going about their normal daily lives.

I go on camping trips with a lot of guys. I have had health problems related to my menstruation. So regardless of my audience, I definitely might talk about my period more than others. But my tolerance for squeamishness regarding menstruation–without concurrent squeamishness regarding any other bleeding– is about as high as my tolerance for machismo. I was told to hide my used pads as a teen; I would roll them up in the plastic they came in and throw them out, but the blood would still be visible from the other side I guess. The idea that “nobody wants to hear about your period” is one I find really frustrating; and although I’m not about to wave a bloody tampon under someone’s nose (my goal isn’t to make people uncomfortable; at least not in such an in-your-face way, and besides it’s menstrual cup territory over here, and those are way messier to wave around) but I don’t make nearly as much of an effort to hide it as I used to.

And let me be clear: I really like my period. Not because it’s pleasant. It’s not; I was up til 5:30 AM with horrible cramps last night, and in general it’s no picnic. I like it because it’s an indicator that all is well in my uterine world. I like starting a new month with a squeaky clean uterus. Before a period I tend to eat a lot and be really lethargic; afterwards I feel like a new person, energized and with a normal less sugar-infused appetite. To me, this is all an indicator of the health I am very lucky to have: with every menstruation comes a wave of gratitude. So when I talk about it, it’s not a dirty thing I’m talking about; it’s a positive aspect of my life. I recently started tracking it with this “non-pink” period tracker, to get to know my body even better.

Not only do I feel it’s a positive thing; I also feel it’s something that should be talked about. Presumably some of the men in my life will go on to have kids, some of which will menstruate; what if they’re still grossed out then? What if they date someone who has abnormal bleeding, and that partner feels they can’t talk about it for fear of grossing out their partner? Not everyone likes their period, but at the very least, we shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about it. And I’d like to think that if I ever date someone with a penis and they have some health problem specific to their plumbing, I would return the favor and listen maturely.

Shame keeps us using non-biodegradable disposables, it keeps us from talking about our body issues when they come up, it keeps us distant from one another. For every teenager who didn’t know what was happening, watching horrified as drops of blood leave their body, who could not leave the house because they didn’t have access to affordable clean menstrual hygiene products, period shame is a human rights issue. I don’t pretend I’m changing the world here, but if a guy asks me what’s that in my hand that I’m taking to the bathroom: “why, that’s my cup and a pad.” Then I hold my head high and walk quickly.

In this spirit, I decided to share my extensive knowledge after test-driving a handful of reusable cloth pads, which I raved about excitedly here. I still stick with the cup for primary protection, but I always need pads as backup, especially at night. If you’re curious about buying or making reusable pads, here’s what I look for in a solidly constructed one:

  1. Fleece on the bottom. It keeps everything from sliding around. This is super helpful; is now non-negotiable for me.
  2. A layer of PUL for everything except liner-weight pads. This is a waterproof food-grade “PolyUrethane Laminate” that keeps moisture from leaking through. That being said, when heavy protection isn’t needed, omitting this material increases breathability. A natural alternative is wool, which I haven’t used but may work okay.
  3. Wings with some kind of closure. You won’t feel this when you’re wearing it. Plastic is better than metal as it will not rust even after repeated washes. Buttons are probably okay.
  4. A top layer made of flannel, jersey or fleece. There’s also this fleece called “Minky” that’s particularly awesome at managing moisture; it keeps the dry feeling way better than natural materials. Cotton weave is okay, but until the top layer gets saturated moisture just sits on top. (This poster agrees.) Flannel comes in a ton of patterns, so if you want ninjas, astronauts, or unicorns on your bum all day long you’ll most likely find it in flannel. Fleece/velour (synthetic, cotton, or bamboo) is awesome for heavy flows, but no astronauts as far as I can tell.
  5. Speaking of patterns: I look for fun patterns (I have Superman, watermelons, planets, polka dots, skulls…), but also I like to hvae either a white bleachable material or a dark stain-masking material. And synthetics like polyester fleece just repel stains better than natural materials.
  6. A good amount of absorbency, achieved either through several layers of cloth or one ultra-abosrbant layer of something called Zorb. Zorb feels most like a thin store-bought pad, without relying on several thick layers of cotton/bamboo/core material of choice. But it’s also man-made which may be less than ideal.
  7. Optional: an adjustable amount of absorption. Several brands and etsy shops have removable stackable liners; one has cloth pads folded in 1/3s which means you can stick an extra absorbent thing in the middle if you need it.

I don’t worry too much about synthetic materials, since these are more eco friendly and less chemical-leaching than pads and tampons anyways. But if that’s important to you, there are tons of shops out there that sell all-natural pads. Still, my opinion is that this may be one of those cases where synthetics are just BETTER: easier to clean, dryer-feeling, more leak-proof, less bulky. (Though I still often stick to a cotton top layer because of the prints.) Pick wisely and you’re bound to get something you can use for years, maybe decades.

Especially after dealing with a menstrual cup for years, cleanup isn’t too bad: I usually just soak it in water, rub some bar soap or pour some laundry detergent on it and scrub for a couple minutes, then rinse and hang dry before tossing it in the hamper. For my white ones, I bleach them every few months to keep them looking good as new. I still prefer my non-white ones though. I can’t resist a good dinosaur print.