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I remember reading "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" as a kid and being absolutely horrified by the description of sanitary pads with belts. I ran to my mother for reassurance, and she told me that there have been major advances in managing "lady business," and that I didn't need to be concerned. What I didn't realize was that in actuality, it was far more dire.
Do you remember Kotex Personals Protective Panties? If you don't, that's okay, because I'm pretty sure that my mom was the only person who bought them. They were stretchy paper underwear, somewhere between a diaper and a roll of Bounty, with a reinforced butt and crotch area. They came up past the belly button.
They made their debut to the menstrual market around 1995 and were advertised as a totally discreet way for teens to feel confident that they wouldn’t bleed all over themselves. But alas, the idea of wearing GIGANTIC PAPER UNDERWEAR did not appeal to many, and the product quietly disappeared from the shelves.
My history with managing my period as a preteen was spotted, at best, and a bloody disaster, at worst. Even before my period made its debut, I lived in absolute horror of being caught off guard. I lived in constant fear, often rocking thick layers of underwear to school, just in case.
My mom was little help in the matter, seeming to relish in telling me tales of every period blowout that has ever occurred in all of recorded time. It was like my mom was the oracle of the buttstain. I was even graced with the tale of my grandmother’s first period, which came to her quite suddenly at a friend’s house. Since no one had ever told her about it, she assumed, quite reasonably, that she was dying. She stuffed wash cloths in her underwear and waited for the end.
“So see,” my mom would announce proudly, “isn’t it great that we talk about these things. You don’t have to be afraid.”
“Sure,” I replied, growing pale.
My period did in fact arrive quite early. I was 10 years old when a strange brown spot appeared in my underwear. I went through the stages of grief in the cramped bathroom stall of my elementary school. I weighed my options, realized that talking to adults about it was the worst one, stuffed toilet paper in my underwear, and hoped for the best.
When I got home, I still didn’t want to tell my mom, hoping that that I just pooped myself or something easy like that. But the spot kept returning, no matter how many pairs of underwear I stuffed in the garbage can, and I knew that I had little choice in the matter.
My mom had already had a hysterectomy, so there were no pads in the house. She asked if she could just go to the corner store, but I thought it would be best if she drive to the next town. She came back a while later, with a pack of pads and a Barbie doll. As she gave me some cursory instructions (“So you stick this to your underwear”), she told me that I could still be a kid if I want to be.
From the start, my period was trouble. It would disappear for months -- leading me back to the conclusion that maybe I had just pooped myself that first time. Consistently. FOR DAYS. But it would eventually come back with a vengeance. No warning. No mercy.
My mom’s pad instructions proved to be of little use, and I took to embarrassing myself with regularity. Wings were hot back then -- little tabs sealed by angels to keep you in check. I missed every time.
Part of the trouble was that I absolutely refused to bring pads to school. It was not safe. One girl was dumb enough to mention that she had cramps in 5th grade and she spent the week being ridiculed. A pad? No way. One got kicked around a hallway a year later and it was the topic of conversation for months.
Instead, I would carefully construct fortresses in my underwear -- three pads strategically placed in layer one, with an extra two in the second layer.
Sometimes it held. Mostly, it didn’t.
One day, my mom, sick of buying me new underwear, came home with these strange paper contraptions. Initially, I was impressed: they were certainly thinner than the diapers that I had created, and they really were leak proof.
These paper wonders kept me relatively embarrassment-free for years.
I imagined that we would be together for a long time, since at this point, having a period was still more embarrassing to me than the fact that I was wearing GIGANTIC PAPER UNDERWEAR. They only came in two sizes, but were strangely stretchy. I worried about how these marvels of menstrual technology would come to fit my ever-expanding hips.
But then one day, they were no longer on the shelves in the drugstore. Surely, it must be a fluke, as my mother reasoned, this was a product that every woman would want. She became a paper underwear hunter, searching for an elusive box pushed behind some tampons. But it was over. They were gone.
I came to terms with the fact that I would have to deal with my period like an adult, but my mother was determined. She called the company to ask about them. A few days later, an order form arrived.
While all those older products are pulled from the shelves, they still exist. This form was like the complete archives of period technology: the belts from "Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret" could still be purchased, in bulk, from the company.
She ordered a crate. My mom ordered a CRATE of PAPER UNDERWEAR.
Though she had assured me that it would definitely come in discreet packaging, Kotex apparently thought it would be funny to troll my adolescent self. In the days before online ordering and tracking, packages could arrive on a whim. Gigantic boxes of paper underwear, in a box taller than you and emblazoned with KOTEX, could arrive, say, to greet you on your way home from school with your friends. And the box could be bigger than your front door.
I wore paper underwear for longer than I should admit: it went on well beyond my preteen years. But tampons were off limits, and my period was just so embarrassing to me, that it seemed like the safest option, even when the crinkly paper underwear came up past my low-rise jeans.
I got over it, and the seemingly endless supply of paper underwear ran out, at approximately the same time. And while I cringe at the thought of them -- seriously, imagine wiggling into paper panties fresh out of the shower -- they served their purpose.
So goodbye, Kotex Personals Protective Panties. You were totally embarrassing and yet, totally awesome.