Growing up in the 80’s in a small Australian town, I believe my experience around menstruation was a common one. Menstruation, a natural part of life, was anything but openly discussed in our tight-knit community. Instead, it was obscured behind a wall of euphemisms and derogatory terms. It was “on your rag,” the arrival of “Aunty Flo,” “the pains are in,” or “Shark attack.” The unspoken rule was to keep it hush-hush, and discussions on the topic were rare and always negative.
Yet, I was never one to conform easily. I had a keen interest in alternative therapies and sustainability, which led me into studying herbalism, aromatherapy, and massage. This path taught me more about my menstrual cycle and highlighted a way to explore reusable menstrual products. I hoped to reduce my environmental footprint and save money while managing my monthly cycles. However, this venture wasn’t without its challenges. The reusable products of that time were far from convenient. They were bulky, difficult to use, had a knack for getting smelly, and were a chore to keep discreet. My journey became a testament to resilience, breaking free from societal norms, and finding alternative perspectives in a world that preferred to keep menstruation in the shadows. This essay is about how my personal experience fits within the community I grew up in, and the attitudes my family, friends and sporting coaches and teammates shared.
As a young person with an interest in alternative medicine I wanted to look at ways to reduce my impact on the environment. I had discovered a book called Medicine Woman Come Singing and talked about ‘free bleeding’ as a way of connecting your menstrual cycle to the Earth. The book spoke of during the phase of menstruation, you could wear a free-flowing skirt and go out to the garden and squat, allowing your menstrual blood to flow from you. Coming from a conservative family who did not even speak about periods, this concept seemed ludicrous.
It seemed the only information I had access to was quite extreme, not practical for a ‘modern’ lifestyle. So, instead of attempting such acts, I ignored the suggestion and continued with using traditional forms of menstrual products being pads and tampons. I was aware that tampons and pads were not good for the environment, however, there were no organic options available in the 1980s I was aware of.
It was then a few years later, after completing my study, I started working at an organic skin care company who had strong values around sustainability. Working for a profit-making organisation I saw the struggle of pursuing the quest for financial gain, while treading lightly on the Earth. I wanted to do my bit for the environment. Such choices often focused on simplicity and modesty and trying to reduce the consumption of resource intensive goods.
I restarted my research options for menstrual products alternatives. I came across reusable cloth pads. Although I wasn’t overly enthusiastic by the suggestion, my drive for a sustainable option was more important to me. Australia was becoming more sustainably aware and we as a culture, were encouraged to do our part. In a broader term, there was a large push on recycling, with introduction of recycling bins for all homes, companies turning to recyclable packaging and a push for us as individuals to be more aware of our purchases .
The pads arrived and in part, they were fine. Each pad had a liner that could be inserted to give more protection on heavier days and removed when you required lighter support. I would wear a pad and remove and replace it for a fresh cloth pad at least once throughout the day and twice during the heavier phases of my periods. I would take a plastic bag with me to work, rinse out the pad to decrease the odour and pop into my handbag to bring home and wash. I loved the fact I was reusing the products, and I enjoyed not wearing a tampon. However, I did find them bulking with the clip and it was inconvenient to use them at times. I was working in a shop with other like-minded girls, and we had a toilet at the back of our shop just for us, so it was private, and I had no problem washing the pads (with the fear of being seen from public). I tried to play sport while wearing a cloth pad and would never repeat the experience, returning to the convenience of tampons instantly.
Over the years I saw the promotion of menstrual cups. Like many other women in my network, I believed the menstrual cup to be a good thing to use. The range was small, with only a couple of companies offering this product at the time. I ordered and received it in the mail. With dubious instructions, I found myself spending quite a bit of time experimenting how to insert and remove the cup without making a mess of the bathroom. Personally, I only persisted for two cycles and found the discomfort too much to handle, abandoning the use of the product. I have since found that others say it can take an average of three cycles to master the use of the product.
Determined to find an alternative I researched and purchased reusable undies. For me, I found this a wonderful option. I purchased a half a dozen pair. The set I purchased included a range of support. They include thicker gusseted undies for heavy days – day one and two of my periods, a couple pair of slightly lighter, for my medium to heavy days, and two pair of quite thin gusseted pairs for my lighter days.
Although excited upon their arrival, I was unsure how to use them. Did I need to change them throughout the day? And therefore, take a spare pair in my handbag? Or could I wear one pair all day? Did I need to soak them in a bucket before washing? How many times could I wear them before their effectiveness wore out? The supporting information was minimal. So again, I just experimented, and was delighted with the results. For me, I could wear the same pair for the entire day, expect on day one of my period. I found them easy to use, easy to clean and so convenient for my lifestyle.
Over the past year or two however, there has been reports of some companies using toxic materials in the production of some of the underwear , putting into question whether these products are in fact good for the environment and the consumer. However, the company I source from in Australia TOMS is a well accredited organic company who has been very transparent around the materials used in their products.
Although I was very happy with my choice of menstrual products, I find that even now, I do not talk about my choice of products much. I do share this information, when surrounded by other like-minded women, but need to find these groups. They are not the women I work or play sport with.
Despite finding a solution that works for me, the culture of silence surrounding menstruation persists, making it challenging to openly discuss and share my choices with those outside of like-minded circles. This journey has taught me the value of resilience, the importance of embracing sustainable alternatives, and the need for continued dialogue and education around menstruation in a society that has long preferred to keep it in the shadows. As we move forward, my hope is that more conversations will be sparked, allowing individuals to make informed choices that align with their values and the well-being of the environment.