OK lads, sorry if you feel excluded but it’s time to get over your squeamishness or turn the page, I’m going to talk about periods; more precisely, greener ways of dealing with them. On the other hand, if you’d like some information about cotton production and/or would like to endear yourself to your girlfriend/mother/sister by accessing your feminine side, steel your stomachs and read on…
The blood moon is the first full moon after the harvest. This year it fell on 29th October, also the date of my last period – a biological event I have come to make friends with over the years. Initially menstruation was a rare and erratic inconvenience but having been medically assured that there was nothing wrong with this unpredictability, I put up with their occasional appearance and mostly managed not to be embarrassed by leakage or ill-preparedness.
After the birth of my two daughters my cycle became more regular and my relationship with my body became more appreciative: after all, without my monthly period I would not have been able to produce these amazing little people. Reading The Red Tent by Anita Diamant brought this changing attitude into focus: The book tells the biblical story of Joseph’s family (yes, Joseph of Technicolor Dream-coat fame) from a female perspective. Living in close proximity (and in accordance with Martha McClintock’s theory on pheromones) (Hall, H. 2011) the women had synchronised menstrual cycles. Deemed unclean by the men, they retreat together each month to the red tent, where they rest, bleed onto the straw on which they sit and talk; sharing their thoughts, feelings, hopes, secrets and dreams. This presented the idea of menstruation as a time for turning inward, stepping into the dark and strengthening feminine bonds, which appealed to some deep animal instinct and for the first time I softened to the idea of living in tune with my natural rhythms. Using bleached cotton products against and inside my body seemed aggressively at odds with this growing attitude of self- acceptance and nurturing but what else could I do?
I am sure that most women feel dissatisfied with their sanitary protection at least sometimes – towels can be uncomfortable and bulky and tampons aren’t always easy to use, especially when the flow is light. In addition, you have to keep remembering to buy them and there’s always that insecurity that they’ll let you down, not to mention the continuing financial drain for the entirety of a woman’s fertile years.
Inconvenience, money and discomfort aside, tampons shed fibres and as most women are aware, carry a slight risk of the bacterial disease, Toxic Shock Syndrome which has been linked to absorbency-increasing synthetics (Telpner, M. 2009) but even pure cotton is not risk-free.
Cotton farming uses ‘almost one quarter of the world’s insecticides and 10% of pesticides’ (Soil Association, 2011). Green activists claim the toxic residue from these and manufacturing chemicals ‘have been found regularly to leach’ while in intimate contact with your body (Axel-lute, 2006). Naturally this is disputed by manufacturers. No woman wants to imagine they are being poisoned via their vagina but sitting on straw for a week is a little impractical, so we accept the risk as negligible and carry on but in doing so we are effectively endorsing the farming practices that bring us this affordable, disposable cotton; practices that endanger the health of whole communities.
For cotton farm workers in the developing world, ‘pesticide poisoning remains a daily reality… and 10% of all [work related] fatal injuries can be attributed to pesticides’ (Olsen, A. 2011). A single drop of Aldicarb, can kill an adult if absorbed through the skin. Acute symptoms of poisoning ‘include headaches, vomiting, tremors, lack of coordination, difficulty breathing or respiratory depression, loss of consciousness, seizures and death. Chronic effects of long-term pesticide exposure include impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depression and confusion.’ (Environmental Justice Foundation, 2007) If, like me, you just skimmed through that list I suggest you go back and consider the personal impact of each one and whether you would accept these risks in your own workplace.
Richer countries are better at protecting their workers with specialist clothing and equipment, however, toxins from cotton production still cause environmental problems, killing hundreds of thousands of fish in Alabama in 1995 and contaminating beef and milk in Australia in 1994.(PAN North America)
As if this wasn’t bad enough, cotton growing is politically toxic too. The Fair Trade Foundation Report The great Cotton Stitch Up (2010) shows how EU and US subsidies leave African growers in poverty trying to compete with unrealistic cotton prices in the West.
Clearly, non-organic cotton production is bad news so when it comes to personal hygiene, what are the alternatives? Well, it turns out there are a few. A quick web search will reveal a host of companies manufacturing organic cotton disposable pads and tampons, many of which can be bought in health food shops or chemists. If you can cope with the washing, there are lots of reusable pads on the market too – women have used this method for centuries.
There are also several menstrual cups that are worn internally. The ‘Softcup’ manufactured by Instead is a disposable cup that looks a little like a contraceptive diaphragm. To avoid contributing to landfill almost entirely you could try the silicone Mooncup, Divacup, Lunette or Keeper, the latter being available also in rubber. These are more robust and last a decade or more so if you are more careful than I was, you may hardly have to buy sanitary protection again.
Due to my own carelessness I am now onto my fourth Mooncup. During use the cup only needs a quick rinse or wipe when you empty it but must be sterilised after each period. I naïvely left my first bubbling away in a pan one day while I ‘quickly’ checked my emails. It wasn’t until I smelled melting silicone 45 minutes later that I realised my mistake! The second and third were, I think, accidentally recycled by family members after I had employed the alternative sterilising method of putting them in the dishwasher (using eco-friendly dishwasher tablets). My fourth I am guarding punctiliously in the hope it will last me to the menopause, as I hated using tampons in the interim.
So gents, if you made it this far, congratulations!! I hope your girlfriends/ mothers/sisters appreciate your interest in such a feminine dilemma. Ladies, I’ll leave you to have a think about how you cope with your monthly bleeding in the most ethical, comfortable and financially acceptable way. Perhaps, if you go for a reusable option, you could put the money you save towards some nice organic cotton sheets, towels and clothes. Wishing you a fertile lifetime of ethical and healthy blood moons!
Axel-lute (2006) Choosing Alternative Menstrual Products. Miriam Axel-Lute. Retrieved 22 October 2012 from http://www.mjoy.org/menstrual.html
Diamant, A. (1997) the Red Tent. London: Pan Macmillan
E.J.F. (2007) The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton. Environmental Justice Foundation in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK. Retrieved 20 October 2012 from http://ejfoundation.org/cotton/the-deadly-chemicals-in-cotton
Fair Trade Foundation (2010). The Great Cotton Stitch-up. Retrieved 20 October 2012 from http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2010/f/2_ft_cotton_policy_report_2010_loresv2.pdf
Hall, H. (2011) Menstrual Synchrony: Do Girls who go Together Flow Together? Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved 21 October 2012, from http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/menstrual-synchrony-do-girls-who-go-together-flow-together/
Lok, E. (2012) Shocking Truths About Tampons & Pads. The Organics Institute. Retrieved 21 October 2012, from http://theorganicsinstitute.com/shocking-truths-about-tampons-pads/
Olsen, A. (2011) Problems with conventional cotton production. Pesticide Action Network North America. Retrieved 20 October 2012, from http://www.panna.org/resources/cotton
Soil Association (2011). Organic cotton. Retrieved 20 October 2012, from http://www.soilassociation.org/whatisorganic/organictextiles/organiccotton
Telpner, M. (2009) Tampax Tampons: Toxic Death Sticks. Retrieved 21 October 2012, from http://makingloveinthekitchen.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/tampax-tampons.pdf