Of all the feminist alleyways one might stumble down online, a noteworthy one is the menstrual community.
Given their way, this sisterhood might even deify Chinese Olympic bronze medallist Fu Yuanhui. In Rio, explaining her third-place swim, Yuanhui blamed it on cramps.
For feminists who spend any time online, the idea of period talk being forbidden is hilarious. In some places online one wonders whether anything else is ever discussed.
In the broader world, however – and most certainly in the blokey realm of professional sport – to bring blood out of the bathroom and into a mixed-company, live Olympic broadcast was outright shocking.
Yuanhui’s story stood out for me not because of the cramps, but for the swimming-while-bleeding possibility. It served as a quiet tale of tampon use.
For those watching in her motherland of China, Yuanhui’s story was one of possibilities. With only 2% of the population using tampons, she provided information about options.
While in the West it’s been a very long time since Courtney Cox taught us about “internal protection”, or since those so white horseriding and windsurfing commercials aired, many women in China report never having heard of tampons or, at the very least, not knowing anyone who uses them.
In 2011, when I was writing a book about menstruation, women – through zero prompting on my part – would share their period stories and ask me incredibly elaborate questions (mistakenly under the impression I know anything at all about what’s going on).
I’d also often hear “I’ve never used tampons” confessions. Seemingly, some women are convinced they’ve committed a kind of anachronistic, feminine hygiene sin for picking the pad. That, by eschewing the more “discreet” option, renders them less feminist, less empowered, less hip.
Figures are rubbery but in the United States it is estimated 42% of women use tampons (and likely not exclusively), compared to 62% using pads. I’d speculate most Western countries have similar figures.
In China – as a developing nation with a very different culture around periods – it makes sense that tampon use is low. But nearly a century into commercial tampon availability in the West, where does our pad preference come from?
I was at high school throughout much of the 1990s. A time when Girlfriend and Dolly were only seemed to publish stories about toxic shock syndrome. I’ve not been able to locate any data on whether the 90s was a particularly bumper decade for the syndrome, but women my age are quick to whisper about the toxic shock.
Dramatically overstated fears of TSS still see some women disinclined to use tampons. While it’s a medical malady easily avoided – by not treating a tampon as a permanent resident, for example – the Death From Tampon spectre still haunts.
An extension of this are vaguer tampons-make-you-sick fears. One version – popularised by the fount of all quality urban legends: the world wide web – claims they’re chock-full of asbestos, thus making you bleed more so you need to buy more tampons. Cue iron deficiency at best, exsanguination when it gets a little worse. Despite asbestos not being an ingredient in any tampons we’d buy in countries such as Australia or the US, such myths won’t die.
Outside of Pete Evans-style medical “information”, a range of cultural and social reasons continue to dissuade tampon use. No woman alive would be unaware of those “will I still be a virgin if I use tampons?” concerns. Aside from the fact that picturing a hymen as a kind of football banner needing to be ploughed through is indicative of truly horrendous sex education, such an image perpetuates the harmful myth that virginity is all about an intact membrane.
Tampon usage also retains an ick factor. Just as Americans are often horrified to arrive in Australia and discover that we mostly go applicatorless, for many women – even those who have read the Female Eunuch – there just isn’t a desire to get closer to one’s uterus lining. It’s for this reason that other internal, having-to-touch-the-blood methods like cups and sponges haven’t yet gone mainstream.
An extension of this is discomfort – physically or just psychologically – at having something inside you for stretches of time each month.
Women are also pretty loyal to managing their periods how they always have. If mum handed you a pad that very first time, you likely kept using them. And for women with a particularly heavy flow, tampons are oftentimes perceived as less reliable.
I’m always a bit conflicted about the deployment of a menstrual excuse: I think doing so has some unintended costs for women; for feminism. On this occasion, however, a happy consequence of Yuanhui’s comments is that she has shed light on options. She let women in China know that, yes, there are ways to swim while you have your period. She also sent a broader message that elite sport and menstruation can coexist.
Nothing could be more personal, more intimate, than how women manage their periods. Doing so effectively can only be done with quality information.
Lauren Rosewarne does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: Lauren Rosewarne, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne