What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Recently, as my friend Jillian and I discussed our periods, we started griping about the cost of menstrual products. New York may be wising up to the unfairness of one gender spending at least $10 a month simply because they are female, but we aren't holding our breath for Mississippi to do the same. The topic of reusable products came up when Jillian recommended menstrual cups, the kind that you shove up your vagina then pull out to empty. No, thanks, I said. I couldn't get past the idea of a cup inside my body. I know it's flexible, I know I'd get used to it, but something about the word cup made me imagine a juice glass chilling in my vagina. However, I was curious about the world of reusable menstrual gear and decided to try cloth pads.
Next time I'm curious about something, I should probably just do a Google Image search and then let it rest.
The first step in my experiment was to get my premenstrual hands on some pads. I ordered from four different companies: GladRags, Just Fussy, Party in My Pants, and Lupy4You, and hoped that by trying multiple styles and brands, I could get a sense of whether cloth pads would work for me. My transactions with each company went smoothly, and the prices didn't vary much. The most economical choice was Lupy4You, at $6.98. I was also able to order the Cloth Pad Curious pack from Party in My Pants, a great deal if you're interested in cloth pads but not ready to buy a month's supply. The pad is free, so I only had to pay shipping, and I got to pick out the design/style. The most expensive pad I bought was an overnight style from Just Fussy that cost $16, but a GladRags day pad was right behind it at $14.99.
It didn't take me long in my internet searching to realize that GladRags is one of the power players in the business of reusable menstrual products. Their pad was in clinical packaging accompanied by a glossy brochure better suited to a women's health clinic waiting room. I had to do a double-take to make sure the pamphlet wasn't about STI protection or pregnancy options. I preferred the packaging of the other companies I ordered from, especially Just Fussy and Party in My Pants, who both used recyclable materials to wrap the pads. If I'm trying to destroy the earth, I'll hit up the Kotex aisle, so I liked the consistency of the earth-friendly pads being wrapped in earth-friendly materials.
The pads were all delivered on the same day and I spread them out on my kitchen table, excited by their cuteness but also uneasy about what lay ahead. I'd chosen mostly muted colors when ordering, but I had gone a little wild and purchased prints instead of solids. I was particularly fond of the gray and white pad from GladRags, because it was printed with rabbits. As I stood in front of my kitchen table, however, I realized that the cute bunnies would soon be smeared with blood. My experiment had officially begun.
The first activity I did in cloth pads was go for a run. This was a mistake. Normally, if I want to go running during my period, I shove a super tampon in, pull on my spandex athletic shorts, put running shorts over that, and forget that periods exist. The process is very different with reusable products. The pads I bought had snaps, so the first hurdle was to realize I would have to wear panties instead of athletic shorts. This meant that by the end of my run, my thighs were chafed from rubbing against one another where the shorts would normally cover my skin. I could have worn the spandex shorts over my panties, but I felt like my crotch was on fabric overload with the sweaty, bulky pad bunching up and twisting around as I ran. I thought having the snaps would keep it in place but it didn't, especially at increased running speeds. As I continued to run, the pad got soaked with sweat, making it completely unable to absorb any menstrual blood. When I got home and undressed to shower, my vulva was bright red and rashy. I reminded myself that I was saving the world, one reusable pad at a time, but the angry scene between my legs weakened my resolve.
After the running mess, I was hesitant to attempt physical exercise again with the pads. I pictured myself in the yoga studio or at my CrossFit box making one wrong move and spilling blood everywhere while simultaneously cooking up a yeast infection. Sweating and cloth pads did not seem to mix. Living in Mississippi, sweat is part of daily life, not just working out, so I began to resent the pads and the never-fresh feeling I had while wearing them. This resentment increased when I realized I couldn't wear the pads with cutoff shorts, a staple for summer in the South. The bulkiness of the pads wouldn't fit underneath the tight shorts, so the pad and underwear would be shoved to the side, down the leg. I had to resort to wearing pants—not a great option in ninety-degree weather. Sweat was continually an issue with both my comfort and the pad's effectiveness, because as soon as a pad got soaked with sweat, it could no longer absorb menstrual blood.
Because of the sweat phenomenon, I never fully bled onto any of the pads, so my clean-up was tolerable. I was able to throw them in the washer like I would with a pair of underwear I'd accidentally leaked on during a period. For me, clean-up was one of the greatest inconveniences of using cloth pads, because I wasn't willing to keep a soaking pot in my bathroom, so I had to immediately rinse any blood spots to prevent staining. I also worried about the possibility of needing to change pads while away from home, because I didn't have any sort of waterproof case. I decided if I ran into that situation, I'd just use a sandwich bag. This was still not ideal, though, because honestly, I don't want to carry around bloody pieces of fabric.
Sleeping was a nightmare with cloth pads, but not because they were cloth. Until this experiment, you wouldn't find pads of any kind in my house; I've been an uncompromising tampon user for years. I was completely unused to worrying about leaking during the night. By day three of the experiment, I was so exhausted that I finally caved, getting up around 2 a.m. to rip off the pad and put in a tampon. Many of the problems I encountered with cloth pads — fear of leaking, rashes, bulkiness — were pad problems, not cloth pad problems, so I wouldn't immediately dismiss the idea of cloth pads if you are already a disposable pad user.
With the increased popularity of reusable menstrual products in contemporary culture, the use of them has become a divisive issue in feminism. Many cloth pads are made by women and sold by woman-owned, fair-trade companies. The pads can be washed and reused, preventing waste in landfills. This is a refreshing, positive contrast to the tampon industry, which was created by men and primarily profits men, destroying the earth in the process by filling it with massive amounts of plastic, chemical-soaked cotton, and unrecyclable packaging. Economically, too, cloth pads make sense. What could women afford to do if they didn't have to spend money on menstrual products every month? At 26, I've already spent over a thousand dollars on menstrual products. Enough to pay for a college class, pay rent for two months, or purchase a plane ticket to Europe. On average, I spend over a hundred dollars a year on tampons.
Before this experiment, it seemed obvious to me that cloth pads represented feminism, whereas tampons represent the patriarchy. Now I'm not so sure. I used tampons to train for my first marathon. I wear them to CrossFit, I wear them while swimming, and I wear them during long graduate school classes so I can forget about my gender and focus on my work. It's undeniable that tampons have empowered me to participate in athletics, to travel with comfort, and to work with the same ease as my male colleagues. For me, using cloth pads was disempowering. I had to change my lifestyle and schedule my days around my gender. I felt limited and hyper aware of the inconvenience of periods. The problem wasn't the cloth pads, though — it was the sadness of me trying to effect positive change the only way I could, by altering how I live, instead of accepting that we live in a society that doesn't prioritize the needs of women.
Imagine a world where biologically male individuals were the ones with periods. Tampons would be free everywhere, even in Mississippi, because what CEO or professional athlete wants to waste his money on what is, essentially, trash? Not only would tampons be available for free, there would also be a system in place for recycling every aspect of the tampon and producing a more sustainable option. Periods would be prioritized. Because this is the function of the biologically female body, though, we have not progressed at all. We continue to flush $10 a month down our toilets. We drive to the nearest drugstore and trade our money for garbage. As we do this, we don't need to be shamed within our own feminist communities, because like so many aspects of living in a patriarchal society, using non-recyclable menstrual products is the symptom, not the problem.
I'm glad to be part of a feminism that accepts the different choices women make for their bodies. As my menstrual blood hits the tampon inside of my vagina and my feet carry my body past the male runners on either side of me, being a girl in Mississippi feels alright.