A few months ago I posted a few guest peices from an old zine project by Tara Stewart (of George Goes Green (in)fame, seamstress, writer, seventh rider of the apocalypse, if you recall). Recently she got a little beaurocratic slap on the wrist (and a request to remove the offending blog entirely) from her boss for posting the text of her annual lecture “Green Vaginas”–about lady parts and periods and the environment–which I am posting here sans pc-beaurocrat-fence-sitter sterilization.
By way of introduction, a few words from Tara on what was allegedly wrong with the peice to begin with…
“So, I’ve been allowed to repost the Green Vagina lecture on my blog.
You’ll notice some differences. Apparently, there were complaints from undisclosed persons on campus, and, for the sake of getting as much of the information out there as possible, a few bits were removed. The section on the morning after pill, primarily. As this information came from other girls I know and not any kind of citable source, I didn’t argue too hard on that one. Try to argue traditional knowledge to an academic and you will always lose. They do not believe anything that doesn’t come from a source you can put into MLA or Chicago.
The other major change, and this is the one I’m still pissed about, is the title. I was told that there were complaints about the use of the word “vagina,” the generally accepted medical term for the female genitals. Considering we are talking about periods and other issues, which, SURPRISE, happen in your vagina, I found the title appropriate. However, apparently it is an offensive term. Despite the fact that WC sponsors the Vagina Monologues annually, I am not allowed to use the medical term for vagina in reference to vaginas.
This is a serious problem. What are we supposed to call it? To quote an Onion article, the hoo-ha? We need to stand up for our right to talk about our own vaginas. I for one am damn proud to have one. They are amazing things, and it is the fact we aren’t allowed to discuss it that keeps us from taking action in regards to our own health and well being.
I hope you all go out and say vagina to the next person you meet. In fact, let’s all go stand in the middle of the campus and scream it as loud as we can.”
Beaurocracy sure is neat isn’t it??!?! Below is the offending lecture text. Enjoy.
All right. We’re here to talk about periods. Who hates getting their period? Who was told by their mother the first time they got their period that it was a curse, that it would be the bane of your existence, that you now had to suffer for the rest of your life, or until you got pregnant or menopause, those blessings of female existence.
But wait. This lecture is supposed to be about the environment! What does this have to do with it? Well, a lot. For one, if you aren’t even comfortable talking about your period, you’re going to have a problem with most of the alternatives I’m going to outline. The reason we even ended up with the products most women use today is that women were uncomfortable with their bodies, uncomfortable with talking about them, and uncomfortable with finding out the facts. Not to mention, willing to let themselves suffer when it came to their periods. We expect it to suck, and therefore it does.
So let’s talk “feminine hygiene.” Disposables have only been widespread since the 1930s. The only way they became popular was that they allowed women to drop money in a jar on the counter without speaking to the clerk. Kotex introduced the equivalent of the disposable pad in 1921, while the self-adhesive pad wasn’t introduced until the 1970s. Before that, women used rags, fabric, wads of cotton, sponges, whatever worked best, and usually washed and reused the same rags each month. There were belts, suspenders, or sanitary panties with hooks or tabs to hold pads in place, because tight fitting underwear is a recent trend. For thousands of years, women have used reusable pads that they likely made themselves, and no one seemed to mind.
So how did we get stuck on disposables? Well, for years, women have been made to feel ashamed and dirty about the natural functions of their body. Early advertisements told women that disposable pads could help them hide their problems by disposing of the evidence. The same theory seems to persist in today’s advertising, when we’ve even gotten to the point of pads with “silent” packaging so the other women in the bathroom won’t realize you’re opening a pad. Our society expects us to hide our periods and pretend nothing is happening- like we’ve got some kind of terrible disease. If we’re buying “sanitary” products, we must assume we are unsanitary. Whatever embarrassment you feel probably came from negative advertising. Periods aren’t discussed openly. Very few of us had positive first periods. The usual response is, “oh, now you get to spend the rest of your life “inconvenienced” once a month.” Likely this has an effect on our periods- how much of PMS is really irritation that for five days you have to continue to deal with the world when you’d rather stay in bed all day eating chocolate and sleeping?
Many other cultures celebrate a girl’s first period with a party and gifts. Others hold menstruation to be a time for meditation and reflection, when women can take a break from regular life. Our culture still seems to think menstruation is a punishment from God. Long ago, women’s cycles followed the cycles of the moon, often menstruating during the dark of the moon and ovulating during the full moon. Even now, women with irregular periods are sometimes advised to leave a light on while they sleep to emulate the light of the moon- which will regulate their periods. This is known as the Dewan effect.
Tell me- what’s unnatural about your own blood? Knowing your own body and being aware of your cycles gives you self-confidence, especially the first time you observe all aspects of your cycle and are not only able to predict the exact time you will get your period, but feel when you ovulate, and, amazingly enough, this can also improve your health and destroy some of those symptoms normally associated with periods- fear, pain, agitation, etc. A positive outlook can go a long way. It’s no big deal if someone knows you have a period. Are you afraid they’ll find out you’re a woman?
Disposable pads are made of wood fiber, polypropylene, and polyethylene (#5 and #4 plastic). Tampons are made of a cotton rayon blend with a polypropylene cover, unless you buy those which are all cotton or have a cardboard applicator. In a woman’s lifetime she can use over 15,000 sanitary pads or tampons, adding up to about 250 to 300lbs of waste. There are 85 million women of menstruating age in America, throwing away about 13.5 billion pads and 6.5 billion tampons per year (2001). Can you even picture 13.5 billion pads? These fill landfills and clog the sewer systems, and can take over 500 years to degrade. Over 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along US beaches in one year.
In addition, both tampons and pads can contain traces of dioxin, a carcinogen. This is left over from the bleaching process, and over time can accumulate in the system, causing, surprise, cancer. Have you ever noticed how the ingredients aren’t listed on a box of tampons? Tampons also put you at risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome, which occurs when bacteria build up in the vagina from the fluid absorbed by a high-absorbency tampon. The FDA uses research provided by tampon manufacturers to tell the public that tampons are completely safe- even though there are no federal standards of quality or absorbency that could determine which are less likely to cause toxic shock.
Now for some solutions. You could start with all organic non-chlorine bleached tampons, though that does nothing to solve the waste problem. The cost is about the same or a little more than regular tampons. There are also reusable options. If you feel the need to use a reusable coffee cup in the morning, there is no reason not to use reusable pads or a tampon alternative. These include cups like the Keeper or Diva Cup and natural sponges. The Diva Cup is a small silicone cup that collects blood and is emptied when full. It usually can stay in up to 12 hours, and will last 10 years if properly cared for. The come in different sizes, to accommodate a variety of vaginas. The initial cost is $35, which over ten years amounts to about 29 cents per month. Natural sponges are animals that live on the ocean floor, which are dried out and cleaned and can be reused for about six cycles. They are, however, dead animals and have to be scraped off the ocean floor, which is not exactly an environmentally friendly option.
Reusable pads come in an amazing variety of options. You can purchase them from one of many female run companies such as Glad Rags or Lunapads. A starter kit costs anywhere from $30 to $150. Or you can make your own out of scrap fabric. They are usually cotton with a terrycloth liner; some also have a piece of nylon for extra protection. They come in all shapes and sizes and colors and if you make your own you can of course customize for the best fit. They’re bigger than normal pads because they wrap around, but they’re also more breathable and are highly recommended to women that have problems with frequent irritation or infection, which can be caused by the plastic backing of disposable pads.
There are always issues with any choice. Just look at tampons- in some countries they’re sold with little plastic finger covers so that women don’t have to touch themselves. That sounds strange until you realize that some countries don’t sell tampons with applicators. You don’t have to make the switch all at once- people will start by using reusables at night or at home, which can cut over 1/3 of the waste. Yes, you have to clean them yourself; yes, you have to get over touching your own blood. People will see them and wonder. Reusable pads will get stains, but if you soak them in cold water and wash them the stains will be minimal, and stains do not mean they are dirty. They make special bags so you can carry them around during the day, though Ziplocs work just as well. You can generally wear them longer than disposables because the cotton is more absorbent (and also less likely to leak). You really only lose from 2tbsp to one cup of fluid during each cycle. Plus, you never get the adhesive stuck to your hair.
“To make the switch from disposables to reusable products requires an attitude change from being able to throw away the mess (or is it the evidence?) of our menses and perfume and deodorize at the same time, to accepting the reality of this natural part of our bodies.”
I also wanted to bring up, at least briefly, birth control. I never used to discuss this in my lecture because, well, for a long time I thought the benefits of not getting pregnant outweighed the downsides of birth control. But as there are alternatives, and birth control becomes more and more of an environmental issue, I wanted to at least mention it.
There are two reasons this topic is important for girls. One, like pads and tampons, there is an environmental concern in regards to birth control. There have been a lot of rumors circulating in regards to hormones ending up in our water supplies, and whether these are all true or if we really have to worry yet, no one seems entirely sure. It’s typically safe, when it comes to pollution, to err on the side of less pollution is better.
The second, and this has been subject to even less research, is that birth control in its many conventional methods has not been proven to be entirely safe for all women. Most methods haven’t been out for a long period of time, and several have been pulled from the market after they were discovered to have negative effects on our systems, such as Norplant, and suspicions have been raised about many of the other forms- though no one has bothered to figure out what exactly all the side effects are.
I’m not going to go extensively into alternatives, because this is an area where you have to do some research for yourself. Some people don’t seem to have the same bad reactions to hormones as others, and some people have a harder time counting days and paying attention to their own bodies. And sometimes accidents just happen. Believe me, I have contemplated going back on regular birth control for the convenience more than once. But I am one of those people who can’t tolerate hormones in my system. Even aside from the risk factor, I do not personally like to be dependent on pills to take care of my body any more than I like being dependent on pads made of plastic that come from the drug store. If there is a more localized alternative, that gives us control over our own bodies, and puts the knowledge of how they work back into our own hands, then that’s the option I’m going to take.
When it comes right down to it, the real question is, do you love your body? One of the most radical things you can do, for yourself and for the environment, is to care about yourself, and to be attuned to what’s going on. I mentioned before that with practice you can literally feel yourself ovulating. That kind of power can change your life. And if you care about yourself, and your body, you’re going to treat it right- and that means not tormenting it by trying to shove your period to the side, and trying to hide from the simple fact that you are a girl and you menstruate and I am here to tell you this is beautiful and amazing.
And, to not lose sight of the theme of this lecture, I strongly believe you can’t love the planet while you’re hating yourself. Look at the damage we do to the environment and how much of it has to do with how much we just don’t care about its effects on ourselves- thousands of kids get asthma every year from power plants, but we let it slide- thousands of people get cancer from pollutants in the air, in the water, and we do nothing… because we don’t know how to love ourselves, dirty and chaotic and imperfect animals that we are. If you can change that, you’ll be surprised how quickly everything else falls into place.