If you grew up female in the U.S. and went to public school, it's likely that you can recall that one day of fifth grade where the they separated you from the boys and sent you to a classroom to learn about all the strange things that were about to happen to your body as you entered puberty. Likely, you spent this day embarrassed and giggling with your friends as you were shown a video with some scenario in which a girl about your age or a little older gets (gasp!) her first period. For example:
Girl goes to a camp-out-in-the-back-yard sleepover at Friend's house, only to wake up in the middle of the night to discover that she is bleeding "down there". (The viedo, of course, doesn't show "it", but we get the idea based on her mortified reaction.) Girl sneaks into the house, where she seeks out Friend's Mom, who maternally sits her down and proceeds to explain to her in detail what is happening to her body, while the film switches back and forth between their conversation and animated anatomy drawings of the female reproductive system. Benevolent Friend's Mom then proceeds to talk about "feminine hygiene" options, i.e. disposable maxi pads and tampons, and gives Girl one of these items to use. She then returns to the slumber party unnoticed and no longer embarrassed, thanks to Friend's Mom, who promises to keep the whole incident a special secret between just the two of them.
At this point, the lights are turned back on, and some sample pads and tampons are passed out to each of you, so that you will be prepared for this shameful and embarrassing event when it happens to you. Now flash forward _____ years to the present day. Are these same disposable products still the only ones you know to exist?
I was in my freshman year of college when I learned that there were other options out there -- alternatives to those costly and wasteful standards. In the midst of my first Women's Studies class, I stumbled upon this knowledge through advertisements in Bitch magazine, the kickass feminist quarterly recommended by my professor. It not only struck me that there were other options, but I couldn't help but wonder why this information was not more widely known. American women spend countless dollars on products every month, create tons of landfill waste when they dispose of them, and are bombarded with warnings about toxic shock syndrome, and yet two or three brands of disposable bleached cotton pads and tampons are the only choices presented to us in school and in mainstream media. Women who do not stumble upon the information through an Internet search or immerse themselves in feminist discourse are unlikely to ever learn that there are alternatives. This is why I was surprised to open up the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper when I was visitng a friend in Kentucky this week to find -- front and center of the Health and Family section -- an article entitled "Feminine Hygiene Options: Natural or Reusable Products Find Favor," by Jamie Gumbrecht.
To my delight, Gumbrecht's article included detailed descriptions and pictures of many alternatives to tampons and pads, lists of pros and cons for each, and information about where to obtain them. I recommend the article as a great source of information on reusable cotton pads, sea sponge "tampons", and products like The Keeper (pictured above). For more great information on the The Keeper, try this site.
We need to have real knowledge of our options before we are able to make informed choices about the products that go in, on, or up against our bodies. And the importance of learning about our bodies should never be compromised because of a social taboo that prohibits talk about our personal care and health. Bravo to Jamie Gumbrecht for writing her article for a mainstream media source despite a collective cultural squeamishness over women's periods. (E-mail her at email@example.com if you'd like to join me in thanking her.)
"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan