“I’m sure I have a tampon in here somewhere,” whispered my friend Catherine, reaching for her purse while reflexively lowering her voice so that neighbouring tables in the crowded café wouldn’t hear. I had used a similar hushed tone just seconds before when I mentioned that I was on day two of my period, my heaviest day, and had yet to use a single feminine hygiene product.
“No, no—I actually don’t need one,” I insisted, but Catherine’s arm was already elbow-deep inside her handbag, her hand blindly fumbling for the familiar cylindrical form.
“A-ha!” she exclaimed, as her hand resurfaced, now as an awkward fist concealing a plastic-wrapped object, not that anyone would have confused it for a Tootsie Roll. She quickly stretched her arm out towards me under the table with the know-how of a seasoned drug dealer, censoring the exchange from view.
Menstruation often feels like a female-only Fight Club—despite all the blood lost and pain endured by its members, discretion is still the first unspoken rule. Men and children tend to know little or nothing at all about our sanguine sisterhood thanks to the veil of secrecy passed down from generation to generation and upheld in muted conversations like the one Catherine and I were having. In fact, it occurred to me right before my latest period that I too knew little about my own menstruation cycle.
I’d used tampons almost exclusively since high school. I quickly flushed away my bloody tampons without ever really thinking about the flow they stemmed. Despite menstruating for more than half my life, my period was almost invisible even to me, save for a little spotting on either end of its monthly occurrence. The choice to switch, this time around, to using only Thinx period panties ($29–$38 a pair) to absorb my period for a day felt more than just a little daring. I had to put my faith entirely in four layers of fabric: one with moisture-wicking technology, the second with bacteria and stain-resistant fibres, the third with up to two tampons-worth of super absorbent cotton and the fourth and final boasting leak-proof polymer design. Despite the heavy-duty materials in the crotch of my new undies, wearing them felt far less cumbersome than any shapewear I’d previously tried. I’d also assumed I’d have to wear a skirt or jogging pants to keep my period panties truly out of view, but there was more volume in the slight padding of my bra than in my underwear—skinny jeans, rejoice! And, so far, I felt completely dry.
Catherine’s eyes widened in disbelief as I refused to accept the tampon like a baton. “No, seriously—I’m doing an experiment in free bleeding,” I insisted.
“Please tell me you’re not making a political statement,” Catherine said, perhaps referring to more prolific free bleeders like the Harvard grad and feminist, Kiran Gandhi, who chose to run the 2015 London Marathon while free bleeding for both her own comfort’s sake and to draw attention to the lack of feminine hygiene products available to countless women around the world, many of whom miss school during their “week of shame” because they’re stuck at home.
“I’m wearing period-proof underwear—they’re the Spanx of free bleeding,” I assured her.
“Are you sure you’re not just wearing adult diapers?” she joked.
“They’re not disposable,” I said. “And they’re black, and quite sexy, I might add. I got through my first day in just a thong with no spillage. Today, I’m wearing hip-huggers for heavier flow. Check out the lace trim,” I said, quickly pulling down one side of my jeans. Truth be told, I was nervous about testing the limits of the supposed two tampons-worth of absorbency my Thinx apparently offered. Before leaving the café, I had Catherine walk behind me to the washroom on stain patrol—“Lookin’ good!” she said, with a laugh. In the washroom, with my pants down, the only indication of my period’s presence was in the few clumps that didn’t soak through into my underwear, which I wiped off with toilet paper. After an afternoon of shopping and—dare I say—even trying on clothes, I couldn’t actually tell if my Thinx were full, but decided to change into another pair instead of risking an embarrassing “you stain it, you buy it” situation. Leak-related worrying was, by far, the greatest drawback to my free bleed, though I’m sure that would pass with practice.
That night, as I was hand-washing my undies and seeing how much blood they actually held (it was a Lady MacBeth situation in my sink), I was impressed by the complete lack of mess they made while I was wearing them. I was also chuffed by number of tampons I didn’t have to use, and felt like I knew my cycle a lot better for the experience—I never realized how much blood actually came out of me each month—and somehow, the whole process felt like a ritual, instead of a monthly annoyance. I assumed I’d be a tampon girl forever but, even after all these years, my period can surprise me.