Lady Things: The Dark Side of Tampons

It's almost Halloween! Time for spooky, scary, smelly stories about tampons!

Welcome back to Lady Things, the column in which I explore the experience of being a female human. The past couple weeks I have gone deep into the Kardashian-torture side of femininity, trying out products I saw on Instagram and instantly regretting it. But did you know ladies existed before Instagram? And that there are things beyond a desire to look sexy to strangers that are definitive parts of a woman person's journey through the world? Well, it's true!


Today we will begin to talk about what will surely be an ongoing theme in this column, unless we get shut down for skeeving out the dudes too much: the monthly shedding of the uterine lining that happens to people with uteri. Nature's negative pregnancy test. It's almost Halloween, guys. It's time to talk about periods and the products we use to stanch the flow of blood coming from inside our bodies. Today's topic: tampons.

A WARNING TO MY SQUEAMISH CISGENDERED BROS: This might be too much for you. Proceed with caution.

I got my first period in Early Bird French in seventh grade. It wasn't a bloodbath, not that day, but I still wasn't happy about it. My mom, on the other hand, was so stoked that when I called her from the pay phone in the lobby of Western View Middle School, she set the phone down and told everyone in her office the good news.

My mom is a nurse practitioner and midwife and knows more about the systems inside female bodies than anyone I know, so I can see now that she was probably just happy that her 12-year-old daughter had functioning ovaries. But at the time, I was mortified. So mortified that I didn't tell my friends, even when my mom came and picked us all up and took us to a celebratory lunch at McDonald's. And that night, when my mom explained to me that periods last longer than a day, which I had somehow missed in my many, many years of knowing about periods, I cried. Because blood coming out of your vagina in only a semi-predictable way might be beautiful in, like, a humanity-and-womanhood-is-beautiful kind of way, but on a day-to-day basis, it sucks.

I used my first tampon during that first period. People might find this icky or strange, but my mom, the professional, actually helped me put it in so I could go to basketball practice without a wad of cotton in my underwear. Back then, even the "teen" size tampons came in painful, hard cardboard applicators. Shoving those things into your vagina at age 12 ends up not being easy, fun or painless, but at least it seemed better than wearing a thick, blood-soaked diaper.

Here's a story: A gynecologist I once had told me she didn't wear tampons until she was out of college, because the first time she ever tried one, when she was in high school, she didn't realize you were supposed to take the applicator out of your body. She walked around with the cardboard cylinder sticking halfway out of her vagina the whole day and she couldn't understand, for the next, like, 10 years, why everyone was OK with that constant, jarring pain.

Anyway, since that fateful day in 1995—a day I wrote on my binder and swore I would never forget and now, of course, have forgotten—I've pretty much used tampons exclusively. As I've gotten older, though, I've developed some problems with that practice.

For one thing, tampons are expensive. If you use anything other than a bottom-of-the-barrel tampon brand—say, U by Kotex, which are nicely compact and have a reasonable applicator that doesn't feel like sex with a sharpened pencil—you'll end up spending a good bit of your grocery budget on feminine products. At the New Seasons across the street from our office, they have something called U by Kotex "Security," which costs a reasonable $3.99 for a box of 17. If a period lasts four to five days and you change them the recommended every four hours, leaving one in longer at night, that's five a day. So you're going to need 25 to 30 tampons a cycle, which is two boxes (you're going to lose at least three tampons a month in your purse—that's just science). Twenty-eight-day cycles mean you have 13 a year. So with those relatively cheap ones, that's $103.74.

But like I said, that's cheap. What if you want something organic? At New Seasons, Natracare organic tampons are $6.99 for a box of 16. That's $181.74 a year. That's enough to get you brunch at Beast four times!

And unless you are some sort of extremely responsible and wealthy person, which most of us won't turn into until after menopause, every month you will suffer from a moment of HOLY SHIT I NEED TAMPONS NOW MY INSIDES ARE BECOMING MY OUTSIDES. I usually end up on a life-or-death Easter egg hunt through every bag and backpack I own, luggage I used on a trip a year ago, my glove compartment, under the couch.

Occasionally, a female person will find herself needing a tampon in a public place, with no friends around and a useless tampon machine that takes only Sacagawea dollars and is empty anyway. At these times, a person must fold up as much toilet paper as possible, put it in one's underwear and then start approaching strangers with purses, hoping that the only thing turning bright red is one's face and not the white jean shorts one thought to wear on this day, because one is a goddamn fool.

Other things that are terrible about tampons: They cause a huge amount of waste—"the average woman throws away 250 to 300 pounds of 'pads, plugs, and applicators' in her lifetime," according to Flow: The Cultural History of Menstruationand they fuck up plumbing unless you do the gross and responsible thing: wrap the bloody, used thing in toilet paper and throw it in the trash. They leak (see: every pair of underwear I own). Since it's impossible to see what's going on with them unless you take them out, you have to rely on feel, precise timing and magic to change them on time.

Last winter I discovered another reason that tampons are awful. I began to feel…odd, under the weather, leaky. A very horrible smell started emanating from my body. This was back when I worked at Powell's, and I spent a whole night standing next to Cary Elwes, handing him books to sign and hoping that he had a head cold and couldn't smell whatever shower-resistant thing was happening to me. The next day I went to the doctor, who took one look inside my body and said: "You left a tampon up there!"

Then: "Don't worry! This happens all the time!"

Because I was scared to Google this, in case some sort of image I could never un-see came up, I asked my mom what exactly happens when you leave a tampon inside of you for a week.

"Your body tries to get rid of the tampon because it thinks it's a foreign body—it initiates immune response, and the bacteria that is already present goes to work," she told me over the phone while she baby-sat for my niece, a future bleeder.

"One type of bacteria is called putrescine. That leads to a putrid smell. Women would often say to me, 'It smells like something crawled up there and died.' That's a very characteristic history."

It's strange that in my whole life of hearing absolutely horrifying stories over the dinner table from my mom about the things that happen to women's bodies ("there was a LOT of tearing," for example), she never mentioned this one. I asked her how often she sees this, and she told me at least once a month she took a tampon out of some woman's body and that once, after she took out the first one, she looked in and found a second one.

"I almost know the diagnosis before I ever look in there because of their story," she told me. "Sometimes they'll have a little bit of brown discharge, which is just the tampon trying to decompose."

Try not to gag.

She added: "I would say the odor really starts usually after about a week. Sometimes it takes them about a week to get up enough courage to come in."

So, here's a thing that my mom witnessed, at her clinic where she wasn't the only clinician, at least once a month. How many people has this happened to? Why isn't anyone talking about this?

"They are uniformly embarrassed, that's the most common response," my mom said.

"I have to warn them that I am taking it out and it's going to smell much worse," she said, for effect probably, since it's almost Halloween.

So, there you have it. Many women forget about the tampons inside their bodies, but their bodies don't forget, and then their bodies try to kill those tampons with the same bacteria you might find in a decaying rat behind your couch. Probably one of you reading this right now has a tampon inside of you. Think about it. Did you take the last one out?

What's a person to do then, if they want to go to Beast instead of stick cotton in their vagina and then have a doctor remove it? Next week, I'll talk about what I tried next: the world of the menstrual cup. Will it be even grosser? How much blood will there be and where will it go and what consistency is it? Stay tuned to find out!

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