As I left the house, panic tore through me; what if I leak?
One evening, I found myself going down the Google rabbit-hole after reading a particularly alarming article about Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS).
TSS, for those of you that don’t know, is a life-threatening condition caused by the seemingly innocent act of leaving a run-of-the-mill tampon in for too long. (It should be noted that it’s not the tampon itself that causes TSS, rather, toxins produced by particular strains of opportunistic Staphylococcus bacteria that really enjoy the environment tampons provide). Web page after web page alerted me to symptoms such as fever, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, peeling skin rashes and even limb amputations and death.
Since age 14, I’ve been a devoted tampon user. For me, pads seem to bunch up in my undies, twist in inconceivable ways or just simply fall out of my panties (and let’s be honest, they feel pretty icky too). I’m petrified of the menstrual cup (what if it gets stuck?!), so I began researching period underwear: special underwear that has an absorbent lining to catch your blood and kind of looks like shiny bathers.
I rather liked the idea of having no annoying tampon string going the wrong way or getting tangled in my underwear. The prospect of not having to remember how long I’d had my tampon in for also seemed quite appealing, as well as the warm, fuzzy feeling of being nice to the environment for a least one cycle by not sending another wad of tampons to landfill.
I didn’t want to the shell out the cash for period underwear without knowing how it felt to go sans tampon or pad, so I made a radical decision to instead trial spending a cycle ‘free bleeding’. (And yep, you guessed it, free bleeding is exactly what it sounds like: the act of just letting it all come out in your regular underwear, with zero f*cks given).
Centuries ago, free bleeding was actually the way most women handled their period. Only the wealthy could afford cotton rags to catch their flow. In some cultures, women were shunned by their tribe while on their period, the men fearful that they would catch bad juju from a menstruating woman.
Largely, free bleeding was the only way to attend to the monthly matter; ancient women didn’t really have a choice, after all. I have the luxury of working from home half the week, so for me, this experiment was realistic. When my period came, I was ready: old sweatpants, my most hideous underwear, and lots of toilet paper on hand.
The first day of my period is always like the movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so on the morning of day one, I found myself half-running/half-penguin waddling to the bathroom every thirty minutes as Aunt Flo raged with fury. Period blood doesn’t drip so much as come out intermittently in giant gushes, so most of it will come out in the toilet if you aren’t too active.
Aside from spending a lengthy amount of time in the bathroom, I spent day one curled up in a ball, not wanting to move, because as soon as I moved, I’d end up running to the bathroom again.
By the end of the day, I’d become a glorified couch potato and had soaked through a grand total of six pairs of underwear and three pairs of pants. Oh, and I’d showered three times.
Day two consisted of me putting my stained sheets and underwear in the washing machine on the super soak cycle. I quickly figured out that the environmental benefits of not using tampons are probably outweighed by the amount of water used to wash all the soiled garments and sheets. The morning hours were spent hunched over my laptop working, making bathroom trips approximately every hour.
Thankfully, by noon I was still wearing the original pair of underwear I’d put on that morning. Winning! But as soon as I did some housework in the afternoon – bam! – I’d soaked through two more pairs of knickers (by this stage, I was onto wearing my normal undies, because all my old ones were still soaking. I managed to ruin my favorite pair of Bonds boy-legs. Sigh)
Day three, I stood in the shower, watching the pool of red swirl down the plughole, desperately wishing I could staunch the blood with my beloved old friend Mrs Tampon. Alas, I had to venture out of my home and into the world, in need of food rations.
I put on my thickest, tightest pair of granny panties, a pair of black leggings and then wore my baggiest jeans over the top. As I left the house, panic tore through me; what if I leak? What if it’s all down my leg and I don’t notice? WHAT IF I DRIP ON THE SUPERMARKET FLOOR?!
Almost having an anxiety attack as I entered the grocery store, I walked slowly, feeling pent-up and self-conscious, praying three layers of material would be enough to catch whatever came out of my va-jay-jay. I decided that should the worst occur, I could always tie my sweater around my waist and make a mad dash to the car. This thought brought me some comfort.
After I left the shops and returned home, I realized that Miss Monthly hadn’t been flowing at all while I’d been out. Perplexing (and all that anxiety for nothing). The rest of the day I made two hourly toilet trips, went about my business and only changed my underwear once (the floodgates to The Red River decided to open while I was in the middle of cooking dinner).
Day four: work. Encased in my thickest underwear, tights, and skirt (all black, of course), I opened my store in the usual fashion. The niggling thought of what is going on down there stayed with me from 9a.m. to 5p.m.. I found myself checking my backside every time I passed a mirror, subtly stealing glances at my behind as I stocked the shop. I leaked into my underwear in the afternoon and made a futile attempt at cleaning myself with an entire roll of toilet paper (sorry again, environment). Luckily, nothing leaked onto my skirt. This may have been because I went to the toilet every hour to, ahem, drip out.
One of my co-workers commented that I should not drink so much coffee. ‘Ha-ha, yes, coffee…’ I laughed. I drove home in my stained undies, wondering how many extra tasks I would have accomplished had I not been distracted by my period all day. Free bleeding at work would absolutely NOT be possible on day one or two of my period. That much I know for sure.
By day five, I was feeling decidedly cool about the whole free bleeding thing. This was mainly because my flow had switched to super light, so the only inconvenience free bleeding caused was a smallish stain on my underwear. I even did some yoga and had a coffee with my girlfriend – in public, with far less angst than I’d felt during the scary supermarket visit. Yes, I went to the toilet to check if everything was okay twice during my hour and a half long coffee date, but for the most part, I was feeling pretty damn feminist about being out in public without anything shoved up my hoo-ha.
When my period was over, I was fairly relieved, to say the least. While free bleeding had in some ways been quite liberating, the whole endeavor had been a huge use of mental energy. I’d spent five days thinking about my period; stressing about leakage; almost glued to the toilet; washing clothes and changing bedsheets. I began to hate my husband and the entire male species, for the simple fact that they biologically have no need to spend their mental energy worrying about such matters. Pricks. I found myself feeling sorry for the women of medieval and caveman times, who would have had to constantly be aware of what their period was doing for five to seven days a week each month.
What I learned from my free bleeding experience was this: having the modern day convenience of tampons allows women to get on with their day, to spend less energy worrying about their periods and more energy attending to whatever they choose. Really, how am I meant to be a fierce as fuck woman when I’m constantly worried about leaking and am afraid of leaving the house? The risks of tampon use are still frightening, but for me, tampons are the option that gives me the most control over my period. Am I open to trying new items? Yes! I’ve ordered two pairs of period undies and intend to give them a go on my light flow days. I sincerely hope that the future of science will keep bringing us new products to try.
While Toxic Shock Syndrome is very rare – from all the online sources I’ve read, the prevalence is about one or two in every 100,000 women – women are still exposed to this risk, simply because society tells us that a stain on our pants is unacceptable.
If the stigma surrounding periods subsided, would more women choose to free bleed? Would this lack of stigma prompt scientists into looking for the very best, most safe and most comfortable method for women to attend to their monthly? Or, like the women of bygone eras who suffered through centuries of ostracising, unhygienic and uncomfortable period control methods, will the risks of modern day tampon use just remain “women’s business”?
Image via calamidadvintage.com.
Comment: Have you ever tried free bleeding, or a pad or tampon alternative?