“Hey, kiddo, looks like you lost something.”
I’m sitting in the living room chatting about politics with my stepmom when I hear a popping sound. I assume Dad has blown yet another fuse as something keeps short-circuiting in the dining room and he’s been trying to fix it for a while now.
“What could I possibly have lost?” I ask him without turning around to look on the floor because I have a migraine and I’m beat, as happens every single month when my period shows up.
“Look!” he says, pointing behind me while trying to suppress a laugh. I see my stepmom’s eyes move toward the ceiling, along with the corners of her mouth.
There it is, resting on the wood floor in all its glory, the pristine super plus tampon I placed in my trouser pocket earlier. The popping sound was it falling out and bouncing. I pick it up, proudly hold it up for inspection, and announce that I’m indeed on my period.
“Now that it’s public knowledge, I’ll just leave the box in the loo if you don’t mind,” I tell my parents who are bent over laughing by now.
“But of course!” they reply in unison.
“You know, I used to send your father to the store to go buy mine,” my stepmom says.
Cue a hilarious conversation about the many humorous and creative ways to refer to personal hygiene products in French and my very British shorthand for tampons, which would undoubtedly make American eyes bleed with shock and horror.
I’m shaking a bag of sanitary pads in victory while sporting a huge, proud grin on my face.
“Daddydaddydaddy,” I tell my father. “It’s here!”
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I got my first period but it happens when my father has custody of me during school holidays. And because ours is a fusional relationship defined by laughter, I don’t hesitate to run to him and share my good news.
At the time, I’m excited about leaving girlhood behind but the novelty factor will wear out quickly. Puberty makes me even gawkier than usual, as if I didn’t know what to make of my limbs or those two bumps growing on my front. Plus sanitary pads are the pits, uncomfortable, prone to leakage, and hardly discreet. I feel like I’m walking around with a pillow in my pants that makes my crotch look out of proportion with the rest of me. And they rustle when I walk.
Absent motherly gentleness to help me navigate this important life change, I’m left to figure things out. The sanitary pad soon becomes my sworn enemy. Because the smell of menstrual blood makes me feel self-conscious, I teach myself how to insert tampons a couple of years later. I know my mother uses them so they clearly work.
There was no internet back then but there was Vaseline; I worked it out eventually.
“Um, not tonight, I’m on my period,” I tell my lover, red-faced.
I’m living in England at the time, he’s the perfect British gentleman, considerably older and therefore more experienced than me. And much, much more open-minded.
“So? The only things that matter here are consent and desire. If you’re up for it, so am I,” he tells me as I stare at him, flabbergasted and curious. Several bloody towels and a shower later, my sexuality has expanded to include things I never knew could be arousing or even possible. As a result, I’m more comfortable in my body than I’ve ever been, my lover’s gentle guidance a life-changing gift that’ll outlive our relationship.
Because of societal pressures, I had internalized the message period blood was dirty and shameful. I’ve already been married and divorced once by then. But my past sex life is a blur mired in abuse; mutually respectful relationships aren’t my forte.
This lover will be one of the rare exceptions to the rule, patient, kind, but ultimately a little too generous with his sexual attentions.
It isn’t something I have the emotional or intellectual maturity to handle so we split amicably.
The plane has barely reached cruising altitude that I feel something drop between my legs.
I’m flying from London to Calgary and my period finished a couple of days ago so I’m not wearing a tampon or a pad and I’m sitting by the window as always. The flight is completely full and it’s a trek to the toilet, I don’t need to pee but I have to go and investigate the crisis situation in my nether regions. And of course I’m dressed comfortably, in yoga pants and a short-cropped tank top as it’s summer. Thrown for a loop, I don’t even think of picking up my purse where I always stash tampons on the off-chance.
When I pull down my thong, I discover a huge chunk of uterus lining slap bang in the middle of my panty liner, courtesy of my bizarre body; altitude must have dislodged it.
I think of my cats and how what my body expelled looks like their favorite tuna-based food and I start cackling because, well, this is a tad inconvenient. Periods, the gift that keeps on giving. Thankfully, the airline provides pads in the bathroom; praise be to Canadian thoughtfulness. I help myself to one and use basic origami skills to attach it to my dental floss underwear.
And then I gingerly rustle my way back to my seat, trying to hide my now voluminous crotch, feeling like a teenager again.
The American vagina is messing up the planet.
More specifically, American women’s devotion to the plastic applicator tampon makes zero sense. Not only does the rubbish generated have a non-negligible impact on the environment, but we were all born with applicators anyway.
What’s wrong with using your index finger?! Wash your hands before, wash your hands after, and done. If you’re using tampons, you might as well get to know yourself inside out if you haven’t done so already.
This is another cultural difference between Europe and North America, one that has its origins in how differently tampons were marketed on each side of the Atlantic. Although applicator tampons are also available in the EU, we Old World folks are a lot more hands on when it comes to periods and to our bodies in general.
Today, the remnants of embarrassment I felt about being a menstruating woman fell by the wayside thanks to my parents. Not that I was particularly shy about it anyway. Just a few days ago, I was that person with earbuds in who danced her way around the grocery store holding two boxes of tampons.
And a bottle of Portuguese red wine for good measure.
I didn’t grab a basket, I didn’t want to conceal my purchase (or the obvious pleasure I take in listening to music) and no one batted an eyelid.
Bleeding every month means I can still technically bear life; to me, this is nothing to be ashamed of. Instead, I celebrate it.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.