Talking About Menstruation

Why is menstruation still such a taboo subject? It's high time for a little more transparency. Let's perform a communal end-run around the usual secrecy and embarrassment
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A friend of mine who works in an office of only women confessed she still hides her tampon in her sleeve on her way to the bathroom. "You're embarrassed someone will know you're menstruating?" I asked, incredulous. "But they're all female!" She laughed, self-consciously. "Yeah, I know," she agreed, "it's weird. Why should they care? In fact, why do I?"

So why is menstruation still such a taboo subject?

You might not think it is, considering all the TV commercials for menstrual suppression, the tampon and pad ads in magazines, even the occasional menstrual reference in shows like The Family Guy and Saturday Night Live and movies like Superbad. Yet let's face it ... none of those exactly contribute to what you'd call a real discussion or actual dialogue. At best, they're pitches and jokes that basically use our poor ol', much-maligned bodily process to get an easy laugh and/or earn a buck.

It's not just in the media. How many smart, accomplished females do you know who still feel self-conscious buying "femcare", especially from a male clerk? How many of them wryly refer to an unexpected "visit" from "their friend"? Who wouldn't just die, die, die of total mortification if she leaked or bulged or accidentally dropped a tampon out of her bag? How many of us have even questioned terms we take for granted, like "sanitary" pads and feminine "hygiene" ... words that imply it's an inherently disgusting function to begin with? And how many superstitions and old wives' tales do we still cling to unconsciously: that menstrual blood is poisonous, that you shouldn't swim, that a tampon can get lost inside you, that you can't get pregnant if you have sex during your period?

Period shmeriod, you might be thinking to yourself, eyes rolling heavenwards. You may feel, like many do, that you know about as much as you need to about the whole subject, thank you very much. Why talk about something so personal? What's so interesting about something so predictable and icky? Why even go there?

Believe it or not, there are issues at stake, big issues. For starters, there's our health. For those old enough to remember, Toxic Shock Syndrome and women dying from tampons was an early 80s thing that went the way of big hair and lace mitts. True, tampon manufacturers have since removed the most dangerous ingredients; but did you know there are still cases of TSS every year? There are other questions about tampon safety... not the urban legend ones (like asbestos, which FYI is definitely not added to make us bleed more), but possible health ramifications of all the trace elements of bleach, "fragrance," wax, surfactants, and even (Lord love a duck) dioxin we so blithely stick up our lady parts every month.

There are also money issues. Even wonder why toilet paper, soap, towels, and tissue are generally free in public restrooms but not pads or tampons? Ever wonder why femcare is considered a "non-essential good" and is therefore subject to sales tax in many states? Ever wonder why the price of femcare goes up, while the number of tampons in a carton goes down? What can you, Jane Consumer, do about it? Are there other options out there?

Then there's the environment. The average woman uses up to 10,000 tampons in her life and will throw away a total of approximately 250 to 300 pounds of pads, plugs and applicators -- quite the footprint, if you care about such things. If a single disposable diaper take approximately four zillion years to decompose, what about our femcare? What about all those plastic applicators you invariably step on while cavorting barefoot on the beach? And while we're on the subject, what's with all the packaging? Pads and tampons don't have to be sterile and yet are embalmed in more plastic than the special-occasion sofa in your great-aunt's living room. We're not even including the environmental cost of manufacturing, which is considerable, even with supposedly green choices made of organic cotton. What are we to do?

We say it's high time for a little more transparency. Let's perform a communal end-run around the usual secrecy and embarrassment. Let's wrest control of this deeply personal topic away from the forces that have controlled it for so long. Armed with information and insight, maybe we can even figure out how to bring up the subject, in polite company, without dying of mortification. Perhaps that way, we can spark a genuinely meaningful dialogue with ourselves, our friends, and our families about this most basic of functions ... and how it affects us all.