My Vagina Has An Attitude Problem: Free-Bleeding

My Vagina Has An Attitude Problem is a monthly journal reflecting on feminine health concerns by The Beauty Mage, Taryn Dean.

My vagina can be a real cunt sometimes. Although she is often responsible for some orgasmic highs, she can be super high-maintenance to deal with on a daily basis. I decided to start chronicling some of our misadventures with the hope that maybe someone else might benefit from the wisdom I’ve picked up over the years about how to care for my body. I wish that there were an easy go-to guide for me in my early twenties, when it seemed I could hardly catch a break from issues with my vagina. So this is for all the girls, like me, who just want a break from the constant chaos that having a vagina entails. This edition is dedicated to how I was lead to the practice of free-bleeding during my period.

The average woman has more than 400 periods in her lifetime. During the those 400-plus periods, said woman will use close to 15,000 period products including pads, tampons, and panty liners. I’ll set aside my soapbox rant about the “pink tax” and the misogyny of capitalism — especially when “feminine hygiene” products are concerned — and stick to the point at hand: period blood shouldn’t cause any of us shame.

For most of my life, I used tampons exclusively, and I can hardly wrap my mind around the thought that I’ve contributed at least 10,000 tampons to the waste the earth has to bear. While continually examining my carbon footprint, the thought occurred to me some time last year that there was no rule saying that I had to bleed the way I was previously taught to; no need to so deeply hide the proof of my womanhood.

Additionally, over the last two years I felt something shifting in my body. I’d been doing research about the safety of tampon use over time, and one of the things I learned was that cramps could be worsened by using tampons. Since I’ve been a vaginal steaming acolyte for years — thanks to Keli Garza of Steamy Chick — I’ve reduced many of my PMS symptoms from this monthly menstruation routine. And, I felt like maybe discontinuing the use of tampons might eliminate the few cramps I still experienced. Another thing I learned during my research is that tampons can sometimes stem the potential flow of blood because of all the secondary reactions your body may have in response to having a foreign body inserted into it. One thing that consulting with Keli taught me was what to actually expect from a healthy period:I’m not certain anyone had ever had a frank conversation with me about it until then.

So I knew that over these last two years, the fact that the regular flow and amount of fresh blood that I was, or wasn’t, seeing meant that something might be abnormal inside. Because of my medical history, having had a double cystectomy surgery on each of my ovaries in 2009, I’m beyond sensitive about irregularities. I don’t ever want to have surgery again if I can help it. All these points brought me to examine other modern hygiene products, including the most popular option for replacing tampons and pads — the menstrual cup.

Many women I spoke to recommend the Diva cup above all. However, after researching the difficulty levels of insertion and removal, plus a bloody gruesome (pun intended) anecdote from a friend about her Diva cup experience where it slid out of her while walking down the street, I had some reservations that a menstrual cup might not be right for me. I often have long fingernails and frequently wear complicated bodysuits that most definitely would complicate use. There was also something disconcerting about the trial and error of finding the right size for you and the risk of upending a cup if I chose the wrong size. I even had a friend who was so unsuccessful in getting hers out that she ended up having her significant other play seeker and catcher! Oh my. For many women, the menstrual cup is a great alternative to other hygiene products. In reality, though they seem to have burst on the scene due to contemporary popularity, menstrual cups have been around for quite a long time.

In the USA, the first prototypes of menstrual cups, also known as catamenial sacks, were patented in 1860s and 1870s, notes the period care site Lunette in their short history of menstrual cups:

“The designs were inventive but most of them never made it on the market,” the blog post reads. ”At the turn of the century, more internal devices for collecting menstrual flow were invented. Some of them were put inside the vagina and emptied without taking the device out, using different kinds of valves. American actress Leona Chalmers invented the first modern menstrual cups, similar to the cups we know today, in 1937. She patented a design of menstrual cup, which was made from latex rubber. Her patent application states that the design won’t cause ‘uncomfortableness or consciousness of its presence.’ It also allowed women to wear ‘thin, light, close-fitting clothing’ without any belts, pins or buckles that would show. In the beginning of the 21st century a new material, medical grade silicone, was integrated into the design of many menstrual cups brands with great success. Now women with latex allergies could safely use menstrual cups.”

So if you’ve had some reservations about the safety of the cotton in tampons and pads (please switch to organic if you’re still using them), menstrual cups might be an advisable option for you. However, I decided that using a menstrual cup was about as likely as me going back to using maxi pads. And there isn’t a slim chance in hell that I’d go back to having that bulky swamp pussy feeling again. Maxi pads are the goddamn Devil. The end.

Then I remembered the bloodstain artworks, the controversial photo series by Emma Bystrom called “There Will Be Blood,” a series published by Vice in 2012 featuring portraits of people in various stages of dress with period stains on their clothing. There was no accompanying text with the photographs, but they caused a stir of conversation around free-bleeding. Then there was Kiran Gandhi who free-bled while running the London marathon. Photos of her bloodstained leggings went viral, and her run was covered in The New York Times: “It would have been way too uncomfortable to worry about a tampon for 26.2 miles,” Gandhi was quoted explaining. “I ran with blood dripping down my legs for sisters who don’t have access to tampons,” she continued. “And sisters who, despite cramping and pain, hide it away and pretend like it doesn’t exist. I ran to say, it does exist, and we overcome it every day.”

The average woman in the US alone throws away about seven pounds of period products every year, and Kiran Gandhi used her high-profile status as a marathoner to draw attention to those very real environmental concerns. She was also quick to point out that one of the reasons we don’t have more sustainable menstrual products available is because we aren’t given the opportunity to speak freely and openly about our menstruation experiences.

While my research about menstrual product waste was disheartening and depressing, learning about free-bleeding felt like a dizzying high. Could the answer be this simple? This lead me to researching a new brand called Thinx that had been making so many waves. I read article after article (and even watched some videos) of one Buzzfeed-esque experiment after another on free bleeding — it seemed like every outlet in women’s media had a twenty-something digital journalist embarking upon the journey. The evidence was mounting that this might be the choice I’d been looking for all along.

To do, nothing. To just let my body bleed. To wear undergarments designed for soaking up my blood and adopt a few other light reusable cloth pads that could act as a backup. When I say this decision felt like the most radical choice I’d ever made is an understatement. I experienced a deep wave of unlearning. I had an unbending sense that I was about to shift my chances of “geriatric” pregnancy greatly. I had to give myself the chance to truly be in sync with what my body needed.

Once I made the choice, my body was beyond done with tampons. I had begun to experience pain, shortened cycles, shortened blood flow, extreme vagial dryness around the edges of tampon insertion area causing pain around tampon removal. On the very last period I used tampons, I had already ordered my Thinx underwear — but due to either theft or shipping error my package arrived late. So even though my brain was ready to free-bleed, I didn’t physically have any other options to support bleeding for that last time. For those three days I used tampons I experienced the most pain I’ve had in years. Not to mention that when my body wasn’t wholly refraining from bleeding at all, this bitch refused to bleed into the tampon. I bled around the tampon y’all! I’m not lying. I’ve never had to wear liners. I wore them that time. I was leaking left and right. The tampons would come out bone dry, lightly lubed around the sides by the blood that dripped into my underwear.

What the fuck?!

Thankfully, Thinx replaced that initial stolen shipment before my next period arrived and I never looked back. Free-bleeding has changed the game for me. My cramping is minimal if it happens at all. My period comes on like a gentle wave, almost imperceptible. Most of the time my only clue that she’s on her way is my nagging craving for red meat, or worse, a Taco Bell Mexican pizza. In addition, my anxiety around bleeding has decreased as well. I don’t sweat the possibility of leaks so much because I’ve figured out my flow patterns. What a revolution!

The bottom line for me is that my body has proven a few key understandings while free-bleeding:

You don’t bleed nearly as much as you think you do. Tampons skew your view of the reality of how much blood your body is actually expelling. And, furthermore, the insertion of the foreign body can cause additional contractions of the vaginal muscles and increase the blood flow.

Going to the restroom to pee and clean up at least once an hour removes the feeling of walking around with a diaper-y vibe and decreases the chance that you feel like you might have a leak.

Having a backup lightweight cloth pad is a great way to add security for women who may have an extra heavy flow. I really love the ones I purchased from Luna Linda Cloth Pads. She’s got some fun patterns that will make you forget you’re buying something to bleed on.

You must soak your panties and pads after you wear them. Prior to fully submerging them, I like to douse mine in hydrogen peroxide. HP is one of the few chemicals that will eat through and clean blood from fabrics. It will eliminate odor and ensure that your underwear can be fully cleansed once you wash them.

Cramps are not a necessary evil. They can actually be a warning sign that something is wrong inside your body. We do not have to suffer through them.

However you choose to bleed, at least learn to do so without shame. Menstruation is a completely normal process that we deserve to be able to talk about, learn about, and experiment with for our own wellbeing. And free-bleeding is a healthy, happy alternative to the patriarchal embarrassment we’ve internalized up until now.

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