Leonie Brooke examines how attitudes to menstruation still limit women’s choices and prevent us from discovering the different options available. She discusses how simply talking about the issues can break down taboos and lead to more freedom of choice for everyone.
I first found out about the Keeper through general net surfing, and what I read intrigued me. An environmentally friendly re-usable tampon, with all the bicycle riding benefits you’d expect from internal menstrual protection, that lasts up to ten years and has a considerably reduced risk of TSS, all for a one off payment of £30. All my prayers seemed to have been answered, what girl wouldn’t want such a product? There would be no more guilt every time I flushed a tampon, no more contrition at the thought of my discarded sanitary protection choking fish and floating past little kiddies as they paddled on Brighton Beach. No longer would bleached string irritate my nether regions, causing embarrassing public scratching, and my days of handing over extortionate amounts of cash to companies of dubious moral standing would be over. It was an epiphany, and as with all epiphanies I wanted to tell the world, share my discovery, spread the news and bring the revolution.
Imagine the deflation then, when I told my female friends. Monday night, the local pub. After a few drinks my tongue was loose and I began to sing the praises of my new discovery. Their reaction? Horror. What began as mild disgust and considerable amusement, swiftly transmuted into revulsion as I happily whittered on about my find. Now these ladies are not apolitical, they are well informed and aware. So what gives? Why on earth would anyone not be as rapt with the Keeper as I was?
“So you have to shove your fingers up your fanny to get them out?” Sian asks. Yeah, are you suggesting you’ve never done that before? “And you pour it down the toilet and wash it out in the sink?” Her mouth is turning up in distaste. Well, yes.
The reactions of my friends got me thinking. It isn’t the rituals that are involved in good Keeper maintenance that turned them off it, all of the issues she raised we are really not strangers to. Yes, you have to put your fingers inside your vagina when putting the keeper in and taking it out and you have to clean it in under a tap, thus coming into contact with your own menstrual blood. But surely you’ve put your fingers up there at least once, and are you telling me you don’t wash down there when you’re on your period? Masturbation and showering spring to mind as (pretty much) universal actions. The problem wasn’t the idea of the Keeper as such, but the age old taboo about menstruation still in action on the psyche of emancipated 21st century women.
My mom recalls with much humour the story of when she was taught about ‘growing up’ at school, where the words ‘periods’ or ‘menstruation’ were never mentioned. In their place an emphatic gesture was employed whereby the hands of the teacher moved down and out in a flowing motion and she muttered something unintelligible. That was in the 70s. We were taught in PE lessons in the 90s. Segregated from the boys and treated to a Tampax sponsored video, a questions and answers session followed and free samples were distributed amongst us, each with their own discreet container in order that no one should know our dirty secret. There was a strange sense of joy in knowing that those plastic containers could hide our deep revulsion with ourselves, that the thin wads of cotton could be discreetly shoved up to soak all the goo, and then flushed away and forgotten.
The message was this: there are ways to hide your period from everyone, yourselves, your families and most of all boys. Because beautiful women don’t bleed. They don’t have to deal with smelly sanitary towels on hot days making their thighs sweaty and gluing to their pubes, those sudden shrieks in bus stops are something I for one can relate to. They don’t leak into their best knickers and subsequently their white trousers when their period comes unexpectedly. And they most certainly do not put their fingers up their vaginas and, eek, touch their own menstrual blood. There is not one film, or work of fiction for that matter, that I can think of where the very day to day business of monthly menstruation is even alluded to except perhaps as an intimation of pregnancy through the lack of a period (Stephen King’s Carrie is a notable exception, and the reaction of the girls to Carrie’s sudden bleeding further presses this point). Beauty, as it is fed to us through the all pervasive media, is unsexed, pre-pubescent, and does not menstruate.
The leading sanitary brands advertise their products based on the premise that women rate the idea that no one should know they are menstruating above all other considerations. The important thing is for the product to be discreet, for it to be mistaken for a sachet of sugar if necessary but for god’s sake no one must know, heaven forbid that we should be perceived as real women in all their messy monthly glory. This is the attitude that’s taught at schools, through marketing disguised as teaching material. And it’s an attitude that’s hard to challenge and harder to break down, as my friends have shown me. But not impossible.
Perusing the internet for sites aimed at young girls curious about puberty and parents who want to talk to their children about it, I found that most sites tell young women that their options with regard to sanitary protection fall into two camps, that of the pad and that of the tampon. Very little, if any information is offered on alternatives. And most of these sites, unsurprisingly, are sponsored by brands. But there are web sites out there that deal with realms of possibilities beyond the two, hence my introduction to the Keeper. Furthermore when shopping in Boots I saw a Mooncup on sale next to tampons and pads, the Mooncup being a similar product to the Keeper, but considerably cheaper. And even more positively, having heard of the good progress I’m making with my very own Keeper, my friends are considering getting one themselves. It seems that once they got used to the idea, after the initial shock at the very thought of it had worn off and I had made my case several times, they were much more comfortable with it.
So perhaps constant talk about the great taboo is what makes the real difference. Companies make a lot of money from making us feel that we have to hide our periods from ourselves and our friends, that we shouldn’t be open about it, because then we might start talking about alternatives to the dangerous and expensive options they offer us. We might find some real freedom, aside from that which is presented to us in the imagery of their advertisements. Something beyond a swim or a bicycle ride. I’m not suggesting that the Keeper or its sister products are the answer, menstruation is not the problem, but attitudes to it are. And it’s through challenging these attitudes that we can bring about change, however small. My Keeper has changed a small part of my life, and provided the impetus for debate and discussion in the pub, but it might not be for everyone, the important thing is to know that it exists. So people, tell your friends.