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.

How to do fitness tracking and still be a feminist and a human being

Everyday Feminism is wonderful. They hit the nail on the head about fitness tracking in “Your fitbit is ruining your relationship with your body — here are 3 reasons why”. I never got a fitbit but I’ve done all sorts of fitness tracking. I’ve tried to use pedometers at various stages, and I’ve done MyFitnessPal calorie tracking, and, yes, I’ve used them to lose weight.

Well, after reading that article, plus delving a bit into the internet, plus thinking back to my own experience, I realized how calorie tracking can encouraging disordered eating. It really is what you make of it, and if you have a tendency toward disordered eating, it can make you hyperaware of what you’re eating and how you’re exercising, and not in a good way.

In theory there’s nothing wrong with tracking to get healthy. In practice, it can often be used to justify fat shaming… in numbers. (And it’s not as easy as just eating salad: salad is overrated. Plus more expensive.) But it’s easy to see how tracking calories could be addictive for the sake of losing weight which, as we know, is neither the whole picture of health nor is it for everyone. But I do think I learned a lot from tracking, and I do think there are ways to use it for your benefit.

  1. You don’t have to use it to lose weight. The apps were all built for weight loss facilitation: the numbers go red if you’re over but green if you’re under your daily caloric needs, even if you input weight gain as your goal. That’s a problem. But you don’t have to make that your goal. Instead, use it to track something like, say, how much sugar you’re eating. Substitute fiber and protein and fat for that sugar; see how that feels. These apps have a lot of potential beyond weight LOSS to tell you what the breakdown of your diet is. Because unfortunately, our food system (especially in the city where I live, where I tend to eat out a few times a day) tends to promote unhealthy choices, and that doesn’t necessarily mean more calories but includes it. If you track what you eat and find that your once-a-week muffin turned into 4-times-a-week, then maybe you can try to sub something a little bit more balanced.
  2. Use fitness tracking to log exercise and active transport. This is obviously only one for able-bodied people; your needs may be different depending on your abilities. But one thing I like about pedometers is that they can track your daily activity, outside of regimented exercise. Obviously, you can rely on intuition to know, but say that you make a resolution to exercise 5 days a week but you happened to have a day where you are too tired to go to the gym, and you go to your pedometer and find that you walked 20,000 steps! Then maybe the laziness is justified. Or maybe you’re tired because you only walked 2,000 steps. Or maybe you’re debating whether to take the crowded train and save 15 minutes over walking… maybe you’ll remember that you’d be rewarded with an extra few thousand steps and that will get you to make the choice. Sometimes I’m just not aware of how sedentary or active I’m being; and walking is one of those exercises that’s very hard to overdo, and that almost always makes me feel better. On the other hand, we shouldn’t be thinking of any active transport as “exercise”… maybe we should rebrand it as “active transport”.
  3. Use it for a while… then stop. This is ESPECIALLY true for the food one: you don’t want to be logging calories forever. Enjoy your vacation, enjoy your brunches, enjoy not trying to recall if you ate one slice of bacon or two. Remember to enjoy food. The way I see tracking is it’s a good way of assessing your baseline, identifying issues (“hmm, I seem to be eating all fried foods for dinner lately…”) and becoming more aware of the food choices you make. I’ve been eating a lot of sweet foods lately, concurrent with an increase in stress, so I may choose to log for a week sometime soon. But this doesn’t have to be something I do forever, only as a means for figuring out how I’m doing in navigating the prepared-food-choices available to me.
  4. Take into account your individual needs. If you have a history of disordered eating, maybe tracking will help you realize you are allowed to eat more than you are; or maybe it’ll trigger disordered thinking again. If you have a chronic illness or disability, better food choices will likely not fix everything. Depending on your individual case, you will need to decide what is right for you. Maybe exercise tracking is okay but calorie tracking isn’t, or maybe you just want to track sugar, or maybe you just want to track your heart rate, or maybe you don’t want to track at all.
  5. Think about other fitness trackers. For example:
    1. Tracking heart rate. Everyone has a heart rate, and it’s easy to measure. My high school cross country coach told us to do this first thing in the morning, since an elevated heart rate is usually the first sign of illness. But you may also find that if you’ve stuck with your walking-briskly-to-work routine your resting heart rate goes down accordingly.
    2. Tracking bike rides or running/walking routes, and sharing them with friends. This is a form of tracking that can be social and can help you keep a record of your adventures.
    3. Sleep tracking. If you are frequently sleep-deprived, this may help you figure out which nights you get the worst quality sleep.
  6. Last but not least, fitness tracking should be optional. In that Everyday Feminism article, there is mention of a health app that can’t be deleted from the phone; I have a few friends who have the same tracker. This is horrible news for someone trying to quit disordered eating/tracking: if the app is right there, they may fall into old patterns. This is a trend that must be stopped. We don’t all want our smartphones to be our nannies; it’s important to be able to pick and choose what apps are okay for our lifestyles. By making it a permanent app, your smartphone is saying it knows your health needs better than you. Screw you, smartphone.

What’s the takehome? It should be obvious by now that:

  • We can’t equate fat with health. 
  • We can’t say that our bodies are entirely our choices: they’re shaped by the options available to us, by our ability status, by our health status.
  • One-size-fits-all approaches don’t work.
  • Fat shaming doesn’t work.
  • Only tracking fat or calories is a surefire way to reduce your complex lifestyle to a single number. And that is a surefire way to get bored with life.

On the flipside, fitness trackers aren’t inherently evil; they can work with your feminist lifestyle. But they must be optional, and they must be varied.

One thing I do wish though, is that there were food trackers that also logged the following:

  • Cost of the meal, to analyze what’s the most bang-for-your-buck.
  • How seasonal that meal is.
  • How big a carbon footprint for that time of year for that geographical locale.

Those are things I’d love to know.