Wednesday, April 11, 2012



We are staying with good friends this week and, as almost always happens on our family holidays, I have begun to menstruate.

So here I am, anxious in case I leak a spot of blood onto their sheets. At night I usually wear a rubber cup with a cloth pad for back up; but because I am away my back up is a disposable pad. The disposable pad is less reliable than the cloth pad; and yet I brought disposables because I couldn't imagine washing out a cloth pad and hanging it to dry on my friend's clothesline. Instead, I am anxious that I might spot on their nice clean sheets – far more humiliating indeed.

I usually remove the rubber cup in the shower and wash the night's blood down the drain; then, on days one and two of my period, I switch to tampons. This morning as I was getting dressed, I realised with a gulp that I had left the cup in the shower, so I rushed back and retrieved it before anyone else went in.

I had been preoccupied in the shower because I was worrying about where to throw used tampons. If you flush them, they can block the drains. There is a small bin in my friends' loo, but it contains finished toilet rolls so I was worried that they use it only for that – and what if, when they went to throw the loo rolls into the recycling bin, they discovered to their horror that it was a bin full of blood? I can wear the rubber cup during the daytime; and so I wondered whether I should wear it while I'm here so that I don't have to think about tampon disposal at all.

On the other hand, the cup can be a bit leaky on days one and two, and so I'd have to wear a panty liner – which also would need to go in a bin somewhere. The loo is in the middle of the house, and carrying a small bloody mess down the corridor, through the side door where the screen door slams and round the house to the bin outside is a three minute walk – too much of a palaver to be discreet.

Meanwhile, changing a rubber cup is never as neat or quick as changing a tampon. I invariably get blood on my hands, which I wipe off with loo paper; but it never all comes off. Ten people are in the house this week; and the hand basin is in the bathroom, down the corridor from the loo. I'd have to walk like Lady Macbeth, hands bloodied, to wash them – presuming, of course, nobody else was brushing their teeth or having a shower and I didn't have to detour to the second bathroom or the laundry. I still have to wash my hands after using a tampon, but there is no evidence as I flit from one room to the other looking for a free hand basin.

Why am I writing all this down? Because I am thirty six years old, and I still haven't got over my fundamental embarrassment that I menstruate. We are staying with good friends who also have children; and the lady of the house has borrowed an emergency tampon from me from time to time, so I should hardly feel awkward about it all. And yet I do.

I can't blame my parents. It was never a big deal in my family. Perhaps my embarrassment is due to my experiences at high school. 500 girls cycled together, so once a month there were long anxious lines snaking out of the toilets at recess and lunch; the boys walked past and sniggered. The sanitary bins were always full, and so pads were folded and stashed between the pipes and the wall, reaching higher and higher as the day went on. Signs on every cubicle door warned us not to flush tampons; of course, with no other option, we did. Often pads were left bobbing around the loo, too. It was absolutely revolting; I still cringe when I think about it.

I thought about the loos at high school when I read about Arunachalam Muruganantham's quest to develop cheap hygienic sanitary towels. Over 70% of women in India have reproductive tract infections brought about by having no sanitary options during menstruation; and so he has developed an inexpensive disposable sanitary pad.* Woman all over India are now being trained to run the machines and sell the pads for a pittance; and the money they earn from their work is going towards basics, such as education for their children. Muruganantham's company has distributed 600 machines so far; he is aiming for 100,000 machines employing one million women. But behind this good news story were the years of trial and error, in which he wore a sac of goat's blood to test the pads. He was accused of black magic and witchcraft; his wife left him for shame; and he endured humiliations galore.

Muruganantham is my new hero. His willingness to go beyond the taboo of menstruation for the common good shames me and the awkwardness I feel. My husband isn't bothered by menstruation; in fact, he is the one who keeps track of things and, when I feel strangely tired and downcast, gently reminds me that I am due to bleed the next day. We have no taboos about sex or sleeping together during that time, and I can participate in every aspect of community life. Everywhere I go there are flushing toilets and sanitary waste disposal and places where I can wash my hands. I have absolutely no excuse to feel embarrassed.

Menstruation is a sign that I have been able to conceive and bear three beautiful daughters; and that I am fortunate enough to be able to choose not to have another eighteen children. It shows that I am young and fertile and healthy. And I am grateful, so grateful, that we have access to hygienic disposable pads and tampons, and good washing facilities for rubber cups and cloth pads.

Now, I sense my tampon is close to full, so I'm off to ask my friends what they would have me do. Then I'll change the tampon, toss it in the right bin, and pee and flush the toilet. I'll wander down the corridor and wash my hands; and as I lather up the soap in good clean water, I'm going to give thanks.

*Note 1: reusable cloth pads are terrific when you live in a society where there is no shame about washing them and you have access to good washing facilities. They are not a good option when you have to wash in a public or inadequate facility and the taboos associated with menstruation are great. It's kind of like nappies (diapers). Cloth nappies are great for middle class families with a washing machine and hot water. If, however, you have to save them up in a small apartment then take them to a public laundry with three kids hanging off you, and have to pay for every wash, disposable nappies are the only reasonable option.

*Note 2: You can order a rubber menstrual cup here or here. In my experience they are fantastic for lighter days and overnight (with a cloth pad for back up at night). The second site also sells a silicon cup (for those with allergies to natural rubber and latex), and cloth menstrual pads. You can compare the rubber (the Keeper) and silicon (Lunette) cups here. I have also found that, in lieu of the menstrual cup, a folded ragged old face washer, while bulky and inelegant, is the best overnight option by far. Unlike every disposable pad I've tried, and I've tried a few, it never leaks. In the morning, throw it on the floor of the shower and stomp out the blood while you wash, then chuck it in with your next load of laundry.


  1. It's funny, Alison, It seems such a taboo topic, and yet as you say it's so much part of life for half of the population and a sign that all is well.

    I once write about the experience as an adolescent and drew such irritation from some folks who thought it distasteful. It's hard to write about such no-nos.

    Thanks for giving it a go.

  2. Thanks Elisabeth - I figure them that don't want to read can just flick to another blog! and never hang around a group of women ;-)

  3. Ohh this rings so familiar with me.I cannot even remember being told about periods, let alone what to do with a pad. I applaud you on this post, I better brooch the topic with my eldest. I hate the way I've not even mentioed it to her, ohhh I feel bad now.

  4. Hi Humble Habit, Nothing to feel bad about, just something to rectify. We don't have good stories behind this stuff. Our church does a ritual for girls when they turn 13, and it includes a small bit of menstrual stuff, but I think it's pretty rare, and I reckon the lack of public conversation makes it difficult to talk about these things with our girls. Sometimes an aunty or someone can do a better job, too - it shouldn't all be left up to us mums! al.

  5. I lent my mooncup to someone over my amenorrhoeic pregnant/breastfeeding/pregnant/breastfeeding years, and I can't remember who!
    I have a feeling I'm not going to have to have "the conversation" with my son and daughter. They seem to know all about it already. I remember refusing to hear about it when my mum tried. And I got my first one when away from home, just my brother and I staying with relatives. Awful.
    There's a group providing washable pads and education to girls in Africa. I'll try and find the link.

  6. The cup helps with the conversation since our low flush loo never gets rid of all the blood in one go. In answer to 'what's that blood?' I explain - each month, since they seem to forget every time... and how crappy to get the first away from home. almost as bad as those who get it at school. al.

  7. I have a cup as well, it is fantastic as i only need to change it in the morning and then at night before bed. It's nice not to have to worry about changing your tampon. I do understand about the leaking aspect of the cup and i always wear a panty liner. I did purchase cloth liners but as i now live in a shared house i have stoped using them due to embarrassment.

    I'm only 27 and all the friends i tell about the cup are disgusted. Only one has bought one.

  8. Oh that is so sad - but I have had the same experience. People are revolted by their own healthy bodies. It's just blood, for pete's sake!

    When I was going through a certain phase, I'd pour the blood into the watering can, fill the can with water, and feed the garden - thus my blood encouraged life. Now THAT should give your friends something to think about!

  9. My school and my mother prepared me well for menstruation... almost. I knew I'd get it around the age of thirteen or so. I knew it could be messy and cause pain and bad moods and strange emotions. I had little pads and tampons at the ready, provided by Mum. I knew that a period was perfectly healthy, that once I'd had it, I would be able to have babies.

    But I had no idea it would happen more than once!

    Still, when it came (the first one!), Mum let me have the day off school to celebrate, and we spent it together, browsing shops, eating ice-cream and talking. There was a sense of being initiated, and I felt proud.

    1. It's so lovely to hear of good initiation stories. I remember being taken out to dinner when it started - me and my sister, and our parents.

      As for it coming every month - well, what a shock it must have been for you the second time round!

  10. I buy the big incontinence nappy style underwear that they sell for older people for the first two nights of my cycle. Fantastic!! No rushing to the loo at dawn hoping you have not leaked all over the sheets. Am working on a way to make a cloth prototype... maybe two pairs of undies with a old cloth nappy insert in between.

    1. Genius! - and how ridiculous that no manufacturer appears to have realised just how heavily so many of us bleed, especially at night, so that we have to experiment with old face washers or incontinence pads rather than just buy menstrual pads because otherwise we'll stain the sheets...


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