Radical Feminine Hygiene

Menstrual insurgents are replacing the tampon

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Your pantry shelves are brimming with organic, fair-trade, shade-grown, and free-range food. You opt for recycled paper and biodegradable detergent. But lurking beneath your bathroom sink is a pile of crinkly, pink, elaborately packaged menstrual supplies. You're not alone: Many women continue to use disposable tampons and pads, despite the ecoconsciousness that governs the rest of their purchases.

Excessive waste is only one drawback to using standard menstrual products. Critics say the bleaching processes that make tampons appear sterile (they aren't) can generate industrial pollutants, including the potent toxins called dioxins. Some even fear that tampons themselves may contain dioxins. Still others say that, despite changes in design, tampons remain too good a breeding ground for staphylococcus aurea, the bacterium tied to toxic shock syndrome, or TSS. Choosing all-cotton tampons over those containing rayon, a highly processed material, raises another issue. Cotton remains one of the most pesticide-intensive crops in modern agriculture.

So where can you turn? Enter the Blood Sisters (http://bloodsisters.org/bloodsisters/), a Montreal-based organization encouraging women to take feminine hygiene into their own hands. The group offers do-it-yourself workshops such as 'Be Rad, Make a Pad' and 'Ax Tampax' as a way to 'work against the corporate and cultural constructions of menstruation.' The organization's menstrual rebellion takes literary form in the zine Red Alert, a collection of poetry and rants about all things menstrual, from bloating to bed sheets.

The Blood Sisters aren't the only champions of radical feminine hygiene. Among others, the Philadelphia-based Student Environmental Coalition runs what they've named the Tampaction Campaign (www.seac.org/tampons/), whose goal is to 'infuse healthy attitudes surrounding menstruation into our culture's consciousness.' The campaign grew out of an effort that began in 1999 to get tampon makers to abandon a chlorine bleaching process that had been linked to dioxins. Though tampons are now generally bleached in a way that's said to be safer, critics maintain that the dioxin threat from chlorine use has not been entirely eliminated.

Both campaigns advocate reusable menstrual supplies such as menstrual cups, sea sponges, and washable cotton pads. But disposability is not an easy habit to break. As Jeanne M. Lambert wrote in Natural Life magazine in 1995, 'To make the switch from disposables to reusable products requires an attitude change from being able to 'throw away the 'mess'' of our menses . . . to accepting the reality of this natural part of our bodies.'

In contrast to the sleek torpedo design of the conventional tampon, the menstrual cup resembles a miniature toilet plunger. It is made of soft latex rubber and collects rather than absorbs menstrual flow, thus protecting wearers from the vaginal dryness in which TSS bacteria can thrive. New cup wearers have to adjust to rinsing the device rather than throwing it away. But among other benefits, the product is economical. DivaCup, MoonCup, and The Keeper each cost about $35 and are said to last 10 years.

The menstrual cup is not the only tampon alternative on the market. Some women swear by sea sponges, porous creatures harvested right from the ocean floor. Sea sponges contain no processed materials like rayon but are nonetheless absorbent enough to be used for menstrual protection. Sponges have been praised as an environmentally friendly product based on their ability to regenerate if they are carefully harvested. Other women praise the comfort and simplicity of Glad Rags and LunaPads, reusable cotton pads that hark back to the time-tested method of washing and reusing cloth strips.

Whatever alternative you might choose, it's bound to take some adjustment. But why not give it a try? Closing the last pink, crinkly gap in your ecoconsciousness may end up being as easy and as good for you as it is good for the world.