Radical Feminine Hygiene

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

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

So where can you turn? Enter the Blood Sisters
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
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.

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