Stretch my arms and legs, crack open my eyes. Where the hell am I? I wonder. The sun is shining from above, and I can feel a lumpy mass of blanket below. I'm already sweating. Why is it so hot in here? Then I realize that I am not in my air conditioned bedroom in Los Angeles; I'm in a tent on a field in Manchester, Tennessee. I'm here with an intimate group of 80,000 to attend the Bonnaroo music festival, and I've just been sweated out of a tent for the first time in my life. And I think I just got my period.
I definitely just got my period. And I've bled through my only pajamas and I have no idea where my tampons are and I'm still sweating.
I've finally located my tampons and if I squeeze my legs together just a little as I hobble down the main road toward the porta-potties, I can probably cover up the fact that I'm surfing the crimson wave, as Cher so brilliantly described my current state of affairs in the classic film Clueless.
I am in the (hot, humid) porta-potty. I'm a mess. I look like the bottom half of a murder scene. And there is no toilet paper. Or trash can. What do I do with the applicator? I'm freaking out. OK, breathe. Tampon in, applicator in the toilet because I have no idea what else to do with it. (Note: NEVER do that. That was a terrible idea. And I am very sorry to whoever had to fish it out, but I am a very novice camper and I had my period and I'M SORRY!) I kind of wipe myself with my hand and hobble back to my campsite. Thank goodness for baby wipes and antibacterial gel.
As the sinks and showers are about a 10 minute walk in the opposite direction of the toilets, I throw on a bathing suit, grab my quick-dry camping towel that I have decided makes me seem like I actually fit in on a camping trip, and get ready to wash away my worries (and my menstrual blood).
The sinks and showers were further away than I thought. Or maybe the heat made me walk slower. Or my period. Or the fact that I just remembered that I haven't eaten anything yet and I'm getting lightheaded. Oh, and the showers are out-of-order. People are kind of dumping water from the sinks on each other. Some even have portable showers. But I need to, like, really wash myself and a co-ed public sink-shower is not going to do the trick. So I kind of throw some water on my legs and call it a day.
Because I'm rapidly delving into the world of menstrual hygiene management, I'm learning more every day about the issues that women and girls manage each time they have their periods. But until my time at Bonnaroo, I hadn't really experienced what it's like to menstruate without access to running water, toilet paper, and privacy.
For the first time in my life, I started worrying about developing an infection from not showering and changing my tampon in the -- largely unclean -- porta-potties at the festival. Because changing a tampon, putting it in a Ziplock, and carrying it with me were such a pain and I was not used to this level of work around my period, I would leave my tampon in for much longer than I should have.
And although I am a proponent of reusable products, I couldn't imagine what it would have been like changing my DivaCup at the festival or traveling to the public sinks to wash out a reusable pad. I applaud women who love their menstrual cups, sea sponges, hybrid pads, etc.; I just haven't ever been able to get on the bandwagon. Even with regular access to clean, well-stocked, air conditioned facilities, I just don't like the reusable options for myself. At Bonnaroo, I developed a new level of sensitivity to all of the choices women navigate every single month -- and, in many cases, the choices they lack.
These issues aren't limited to women and girls living and menstruating in the developing world. In our own country, women who are incarcerated have high rates of infection because they have limited--if any--access to pads. In many cases, they need to prove that they have a heavy period in order to receive sufficient product. Food stamps don't cover period products; women with limited incomes are at higher risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome and fungal and other infections when they use their products for too long because they can't afford enough. And to be a woman who is homeless and menstruating can be devastating. Thankfully, legislation is in the works to make existing products safer, increase access, and remove the tax on period products; but we have a long way to go.
The ways in which women experience limitations, discrimination, and health complications due to insufficient access to period products and safe, clean facilities are numerous. This is more than a women's issue or a public health issue; this is a human rights issue. Until every woman and girl in our country and in our world has the ability to menstruate safely, we won't be able to break menstrual taboos any time soon.