Tampaction challenges menstruation taboos, feminine hygiene industry

At first glance, it may have looked like an arts and craft project: nearly 20 College females gathered in a circle, sitting cross-legged in their chairs, stitching the fabric they held in one hand with the needle and thread in the other. They’re working productively in a conference room at Brower Student Center, but something else in front of them fixes their attention: a presentation on tampons.

And what they’re sewing is actually a cloth pad, which they can use instead of the disposable kind when they have their period. At a workshop on March 2, these women, along with two men, learned about the health, social and environmental issues associated with menstruation.

The program, which the Women’s Center brought to the College, featured Emily Douglass and Kate Zaidan, coordinators of the national youth-led Tampaction Campaign, founded by the Philadelphia-based Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) in 1999.

The campaign aims to dismantle the patriarchal taboos surrounding menstruation, eradicate the use of unhealthy feminine hygiene products and institutionalize sustainable alternatives. Through menstrual activism, it challenges the notion that women should feel ashamed or self-conscious when their bodies bleed.

“We’re taught that (periods) are dirty and disgusting, that you should hide it,” Zaidan said. “All these messages are coming from the white men who own the (feminine hygiene) companies.” She passed around glossy magazine pages advertising Kotex, Tampax and o.b. to illustrate.

Douglass said that she’s inspired by how students who attend the workshop become more comfortable talking about menstruation. “They take charge of their lives,” she said.

According to SEAC, menstruators use 16,800 sanitary pads or tampons in a lifetime. Zaidan and Douglass emphasized the importance of the term menstruators, as not all women menstruate and not all people who do identify as women – some are transgender.

The average menstruator’s lifetime supply of disposable pads, tampons and applicators contributes 250 to 300 pounds of waste to the earth, which students learned as they passed around a page of statistics and each read one aloud.

However, the disposal of feminine hygiene products is only part of the problem. The cotton used to produce tampons is a heavy pesticide crop, as the campaign teaches that 25 percent of all insecticides are used on cotton. Even worse, five of the top nine pesticides used in the United States are known cancer-causing chemicals.

As a result, environmental issues coincide with health concerns. Tampaction reports that the vaginal walls are the most absorbent part of the menstruator’s body, raising questions about the effects of pesticide use. Tampons are extremely absorbent as well, soaking up not only blood, but also vaginal mucous, which is needed to maintain a healthy pH balance in the vagina. Disrupting this balance has been linked to yeast infections.

Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is another health complication linked to tampon use and their high absorbency level. As tampon boxes warn, it is a rare but fatal bacterial illness that has become increasingly uncommon with the improvement in tampon regulations over the last decade.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates tampons as medical devices and, as chief of FDA’s obstetrics and gynecology devices branch, Colin Pollard, said, ensures that “tampon design and materials are safe through a solid, scientifically valid premarket review process.”

Tampons must have FDA approval before they can be marketed.

Douglass also pointed out concerns over dioxin, a chemical that was once produced in small amounts by the chlorine gas formerly used to bleach tampons. Now, tampon companies ensure that they use a bleaching process that eliminates dioxin altogether or just produces a negligible amount. Nevertheless, Douglass said she is skeptical of the tests done to ensure the safety of the product.

“The tampon companies choose the companies who test their products themselves,” she said, suggesting the results could be distorted to protect their business interests.

Mediha Kosovrasti, president of the Women’s Center and senior political science major, said the information presented at the workshop changed the way she thinks about pads and tampons. “I’m very surprised to see the amount of dangers and the environmental effects,” she said.

She said she definitely wants to buy a Diva Cup, one of the alternative menstrual products the SEAC coordinators presented. Similar to the Keeper, which is made of rubber, the Diva Cup is a silicone cup worn internally to hold, rather than absorb, the menstrual flow.

Other options include organic tampons, which are made of 100 percent non-chlorine bleached cotton, and cloth pads, like those the women made during the presentation from scraps of towel and material. Douglass said cloth pads can be purchased or students can make them by hand, a task Zaidan added could be turned into a social event. For example, she said Temple University throws pad-making parties.

Some of the women questioned the comfort, convenience and absorbency of these alternatives, and both coordinators, including a couple students who already use the products, responded with rave reviews.

The last alternative stunned the audience most – the option of wearing no protection at all during menstruation. Zaidan said she has friends who “don’t feel they have to pay anyone to menstruate.” They wear long johns, a few layers of pants and, as she said, just “let it flow.” “It’s not for everyone,” Zaidan said, “but it can be very empowering.”

During the workshop, Douglass and Zaidan opened the floor, asking the attendees to share stories about menstruating, sparking some laughter. One female couldn’t keep a straight face as she told of getting her period in the sixth grade. Expecting that she’d have to change her pad frequently, she filled her backpack up halfway with pads and warned all her teachers about it. When she ran the mile in gym, she even wore a belly bag stuffed with pads, thinking she wouldn’t make it through class without needing to change.

“One of the reasons I like these workshops is there’s space to talk about these stories,” Zaidan said.

At the conclusion of the program, Douglass and Zaidan urged their audience to read more about the campaign online at tampaction.org and to pressure the campus bookstore and local stores to carry organic feminine hygiene products.

Andrew Morgante, senior interactive multimedia major and one of the two males present, said he found the Tampaction presentation fascinating, from both an environmental and feminist perspective. “These are things people don’t talk about,” he said. “It’s about being more open-minded.”