I remember the intense embarrassment of my Granny telling me, when I was 15, how she used to put the cloths that she used to absorb her period on the washing line to dry after she washed them. I pictured several blood-stained rags, with splodges in varying shades of brown, dripping wet and haphazardly pegged to a line next to socks and shirts. It didn't seem to bother her that my dad was in the kitchen as she told this story, or that all of her children and neighbours would have seen them fluttering in the breeze on a frequent basis. I found it excruciatingly awkward.
She was telling me this because my period had arrived speedily and unexpectedly when I was at a family lunch at her house. I had nothing to help me deal with it. That is where my embarrassment started. I had no choice but to whisper to her as she washed up the lunch plates what had happened.
She didn't react in the way I hoped.
I wanted her to quietly tell me not to worry, find some pads and not mention what had happened, now or ever. I wanted her to react in the way I'd seen other people act when the subject of periods came up - as though my body was doing something natural but disgusting, not something to be talked about in polite conversation. Something to be dealt with alone and in silence.
She didn't do any of that.
Instead of dropping her voice to a whisper like mine, she continued to talk at her normal volume. She did find me some pads from somewhere, but all the while she chatted happily about her experiences of periods and involved any nearby family members in the conversation as she went. She talked like she would talk of a holiday. She wasn't embarrassed. She wasn't disgusted. And she certainly wasn't ashamed.
I learned two things from her that day.
The first was purely factual: she had used cloths and rags, not tampons and pads, when she was younger. It hadn't occurred to me at that stage that not everyone used the commercially available methods supplied by supermarkets. It also hadn't dawned on me that what I considered basic where, in fact, relatively modern, especially in the way I was used to them with bright plastics and pretty packaging.
The second thing she taught me was an attitude. Periods weren't shameful or disgusting. They could be talked about with ease. They could be talked about in front of men. They could be talk about to men. Periods have been a part of life since the dawn of time and shouldn't be pushed into a dark corner of unmentioned guilt.
I suppose it was the second lesson had a more of an immediate impact on my life. I started taking joy in the freedom to mention openly what was bothering me rather than using a covert code. It was refreshing.
However, it's been the rags I've been thinking about more recently. After finding out that many companies use bleach and chlorine in their products, it got me thinking about whether we need to talk about commercial products...
I have to confess, my initial reaction to hearing that tampons might contain bleach was something along the lines of "well, they've been doing it for ages, clearly it's fine". But then I stopped and realised - that isn't necessarily true. Commercial tampons have only became available in the 20th Century and have been continually changed, updated and redesigned in that time. There aren't the generations of healthy women, testifying to the long term safety of any given product to provide reassurance. There is only the manufacturers' word that their product, with it's latest innovations, is safe. Legally, there is still not a requirement to even list the ingredients of a product designed for menstruation. We have very little information on what is in any particular product or what processes it took to get it looking and feeling the way it does.
There is one thing we do know. Tampons (and pads for that matter) are always brilliant white. The link between pure white materials and hygiene is well established: white = clean and clean = safe. But logic doesn't always agree. As my Granny's rags on the washing line suggest, whiteness has not always been a priority when looking for something to absorb blood, but safety and practicality was. Those rags tell us that something can be clean but not white. And white doesn't always mean clean. Or safe.
I would never dream of washing my body in bleach, but I put products that contain bleach inside my body on a regular basis. And into the most sensitive, most absorbent part of my body to make matters worse. All under the illusion that white means clean, safe.
It is something that bothers me more and more. Partly because of the bleach itself, but partly because it makes me feel the same shame I used to experience. I feel as though I am trying to counteract the "dirtiness" of my natural body with the "cleanness" of a white bleached tampon.
Well, no more and that's why I co-founded www.it'syourperiod.com We set it up to provide an easier way for women to buy natural & organic period products.
It seems I am not the only person to be bothered by this. An increasing amount of manufacturers are using alternative methods to whiten their products, like Natracare, who use oxygen. At It's Your Period we only stock products that don't contain bleach or chlorine. They are still white, they are just as effective as the products in the supermarket, but they don't have the bleach or chlorine. We like to choose products that list their ingredients on their packaging, so we can all know what we are putting in our bodies.
Having a period doesn't make you dirty. Talking about your period and how you deal with it should be something everyone should have the freedom to do. And being able to use products that disclose their ingredients should be normal, not alternative.
To make healthier and eco-friendly period product choice. Check out our range of Natracare tampons, pads & liners or our range of award winning menstrual cups.