Roughly half of the world’s population menstruates. That’s a lot of people - about 3.8 billion. Yet I, one of those 3.8 billion menstruees, have no idea how other menstruees experience and cope with the little, everyday challenges of menstruation, because it’s not talked about.
An experience so common as to be almost universal for people with uteruses should not be such a mystery. Although there’s a growing number of articles educating the public on the biological process behind menstruation and the various ways that menstrual blood can be contained (tampons, pads, etc), there is still a dearth of information on how it actually feels to menstruate, and the practical impact menstruation has on the daily life of the menstruee.
Menstruation is a perfectly normal, natural and healthy bodily function which - in spite of all the medical advances of today - we continue to have little control over. Yet it’s still seen as something shameful and private that should not come to the attention of the rest of the world, least of all those who don’t menstruate. This social stigma has produced a society in which we feel forced to hide all evidence of our cycle, at great cost; we are not comfortable sharing our experiences and knowledge of menstruation.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and many menstruees are now taking steps to normalise menstruation by being more open about it. But it seems like most of this kind of activism is limited to either the more “acceptable” aspects of the menstrual cycle, such as PMS, or focusses on glamourising menstruation. While this is still valuable, it frustrates me that there remains a lack of openness about the real experience of menstruation which is always messy, inconvenient and not at all glamorous.
I’ve set out to write this article in the hope that by talking about what other people won’t talk about, I might help - in some small way - help to continue changing the way we think of menstruation.
This article won’t tell you how menstruation works or explain the different kinds of period products. There are lots of great resources on the internet if that’s what you’re looking for (I recommend Clue, an excellent period tracking app which has recently branched out into sex education with its website.)
My only goal in writing this article is to normalise the challenging unglamorous parts of what is already a very normal experience, and give some handy tips for coping with it.
The challenge of: Showering
Most of the time, you take a piss, take your clothes off, get in the shower, get clean, get out of the shower, grab a towel, dry off, pad into another room to get clothes.
For me during a period, it’s like this: Take a piss. Try to untangle pubic hair matted with blood while the toilet bowl turns bright red. Give up untangling pubic hair. Pad over to the shower. Stand on the bathmat while turning the water on. Wait for the water to get hot. Realise blood is dripping on the bathmat. Throw the bathmat in the wash and get out a new one. Realise blood is dripping on the tiles. Oh, the water is now hot enough. Get in the shower. Spend entire shower untangling pubic hair and removing blood from various crevices. Get out of the shower, reach for towel. Go to dry your legs…oh, there’s blood running down them. Wipe away blood with toilet paper. Dry rest of body. Blood drips on the tiles again. Waddle over to the wardrobe to get underwear. Drip, drip. Race back to the bathroom. Wrestle a sanitary pad into underwear and pull it on…ughhh, you weren’t able to dry down there because you would have got blood all over the towel. Wait, somehow you still managed to get blood all over the towel. Now you have to wash the towel AND the bathmat.
Here are some things I find make showering easier on my period:
- Invest in some flushable wipes. They aren’t as good as a washcloth at sorting out blood-matted pubic hair, but they’re better than dry toilet paper and you can use them throughout the day to freshen up a bit. This also makes less work for you when you’re actually in the shower, so you don’t waste all the water trying to remove traces of period.
- Buy a gentle unfragranced moisturising cream advertised as suitable for the whole body, and use it to help clean the blood away. You shouldn’t use soap or body wash as they can harm your sensitive genital areas.
- Remove your sanitary pad/tampon before you shower, but leave your underwear on right up until the point you get in the shower. You’ll bleed freely into it, but at least it will absord the fluid so you don’t drip on the bathmat/tiles/carpet/whatever. Leading to the next point, leave the underwear nearby so you can grab it again as soon as you get out of the shower.
- Grab your bloody underwear again as soon as you get out of the shower, before you even start to dry. Again, this guards against get blood on the floor and on your towel. It will also absorb some of the water so you don’t need to worry about towelling dry down there. Wear the old underwear right up until you prepare a fresh pair to put on. Put on the new underwear in the bathroom so any drips only end up on the tiles where it’s easy to clean.
- Use some toilet paper to dry your bloody areas, instead of a towel.
If you find yourself stuck without an old pair of underwear to wear while getting in/out of the shower, a very thick wad of toilet paper clamped between your legs is a temporary solution.
The challenge of: Sleeping
If I lie down during my period, all the blood immediately trickles back between my buttocks and pools around my lower back.
This is obviously a problem when trying to sleep, since I don’t want to wake up in a pool of blood. It can even happen if I lie down briefly on a sofa. (I particularly dread going to the dentist on my period - they tilt the chair so far back and gravity has no respect for the need to keep blood off the upholstery.)
Here are some ways I deal with this:
- Fold a washcloth in half and carefully stick it down the back of your underwear. This is bulky and uncomfortable, but usually stops blood leaking outisde your underwear. Rinse the washcloth out in the shower the next morning - you can reuse it for cleaning your vulva. If you forget the washcloth is there it can fall out when you pull your pants down, so be careful when using the toilet!
- Buy specially designed “overnight” sanitary pads that are very long at the back. This is never - Buy the largest sanitary pads you can find (maternity ones are good) and stick one horizontally across the back of your underwear so that there’s no gap between it and the existing sanitary pad you’re using. Because sanitary pads are designed to absorb and hold large amounts of fluid, this will really help to minimise leaks.
- For ultimate security, put a towel underneath your butt on the bed as well. I don’t normally do this but it’s a good idea if you’re in a situation where you can’t afford stains on the sheets.
The challenge of: Changing sanitary products
During your period, you need to change your pad or tampon regularly to keep fresh and clean.
The easiest time to do this is when you’re using the toilet, but how do you hygienically dispose of used sanitary products (flushing them down the toilet will block the drains)?
And how do you get hold of a fresh pad or tampon without leaping off the toilet, dripping blood everywhere, to rummage around in a drawer? (If you’re like me, you never remember that you need a fresh pad until you’ve already thrown out the old one.)
- Have a rubbish bin right next to the toilet, with a lid, that you clean regularly.
- Before putting them in the bin, fold the used pad (with the bloody side inwards) and either wrap it in toilet paper or in the wrapper you took off the fresh pad.
- Have a small box next to the toilet with all the sanitary products you’ll need for the duration of your period.
I used to be self-conscious about leaving period-y things in full view in a bathroom I shared with someone, but let’s face it: you have no choice, and no reason to be ashamed.
The challenge of: Standing up (or, The Great Sploosh)
Sometimes only a made-up word is sufficient to describe a sensation. And I can think of no better word than “sploosh” to describe that sinking feeling you get when you stand up and what feels like a whole pint of blood suddenly whooshes, warm and squelchy, into your underwear.
It’s the kind of feeling that immediately makes you think you must have soaked through every layer of clothing, even though it’s all in fact absorbed by that gigantic diaper-like pad you’re wearing - a gigantic diaper-like pad that now needs changing, except you don’t want to be seen carrying a pad to the bathroom in public/at work, so you just leave it.
By the end of the day the pad is so soaked it’s starting to stain the inside of your jeans, but it’s worth it to avoid being publically being seen to menstruate, even if it’s only by way of needing menstrual products…
I can offer no solution to this problem except the societal one: stop making menstruation so taboo that we go to such lengths to hide our menstruation. The Sploosh itself, unfortunately, cannot be helped.
The challenge of: Adhesive pubic hair
Pads with “wings” can be great because they don’t crumple up during wear causing leaks. But sometimes those adhesive wings come unstuck, and decide to stick to your pubic hair instead. Very painful, and a massive nuisance in public since you can’t really stop in the middle of street to unstick your pubic hair from the pad.
This is a case where it really pays to seek out the perfect shape of pad. Some winged pads just won’t fit your underwear, for example I prefer boyleg briefs, which are too wide for many winged pads to stick to properly. You might have to try out a lot of different brands of pad, but it’s worth it to find the one that fits your body and clothes just right - and this is true regardless of whether you have pubic hair issues or not!
The challenge of: Chafing
When you have a flow as heavy as mine, you need really seriously thick pads. They’re uncomfortable at the best of times, but I also happen to have long labia, which chafe against the pad throughout the day.
I’ve solved this by wearing underwear that’s slightly too big for me. It’s not just more comfy during my period, it’s more comfy every day.
I also find it more comfortable to wear baggy pants or long skirts during my period, as they allow more breathability and help avoid chafing as well.