I was maybe twelve, while helping my baby sister to bed, I felt a warm wetness between my legs. After tucking her in, I trundled to the bathroom to empty my own bladder before bed. Immediately, I recognized the tell-tale signs that I was now on the path towards “growing up and liking it”, as the lady from a sanitary towel company had said when she gave a talk at school, about sanitary towels.
Girlhood into womanhood, that includes a daily active life in sports, takes a lot of calculated action and a good sports bra. It’s something most male people and prepubescent girls take for granted.
I took up swimming aged five or six on my father’s back. Literally. He would wade in the shallow end of the YMCA pool as my younger sister and I clung to him. Arms wrapped tightly around his neck. He’d count to three to give us time to hold in a gasp of air, and then dive beneath the water at intervals. Slowly we gained the confidence to wade on our own clinging to the rail along the wall and practice our kicking. Finally swimming free after a few more lessons.
My dear dad’s idea of shopping for his many daughters involved a monthly supply of nearly two dozen maxi and midi sanitary towels. In retrospect, it was such a sweet approach that he made it a part of normal household shopping, so my three sisters, young aunties who lived with us and I never lacked, or had to ask.
As a super active child, I never quite took to sanitary towels. They were cumbersome and caused friction burn when running during tennis, field hockey, netball, don’t even get me into long distance, or cross-country.
Now, well into age thirteen, I was lucky that my period, never came on “swimming day”. My pal Fridah wondered if I had “started” because I had never missed a single swimming lesson. I smiled knowingly at my body’s cooperation with my active lifestyle. I remember an incident when a fellow classmate had deliberately left her swimming kit at home as she was on her period. The swimming teacher had jibed her, asking out loud for all the other girls to hear.
“Haven’t you heard of tampons, girl?” she mock goaded.
You could never really tell when Mrs. Raburu was joking. Her booming voice sounded the same when she was speaking instructions or counting down the starting line up. No microphone required.
The girl shrugged. The others giggled. Thankfully it was an all girls school, and there was no peer shaming, but enthusiastic curiosity about this “growing up” thing.
In the same year, I signed up and trained for a month, every week-day lunch hour, for a swimming meet that was to take place at the Nyayo Stadium. In the excitement of training and preparation, I forgot to monitor my calendar. That very morning as I prepared to take my shower and go for the meet, I saw the blood!
There was no way I was going to pull out and face the wrath of Mrs. Raburu, the swimming trainer. Also, I had trained too hard to drop out now.
Her jibe rung in my head.
“Haven’t you heard of tampons, girl?”
So loud, I thought other people could hear her too.
I had never used them before, never needed to as my active days were “no-bleed-days”, but I had sneaked a peek at my aunt Sarah’s pack and read the instructions insert enough to get the basic idea.
I walked to Nairobi West Shopping Centre, where “Omido’s Provisions Store” stood. A giant “kiosk” that had everything you can imagine or need, long before Uchumi set up at Birongo Square, or Nakumatt Mega along Uhuru Highway and their “You want it we’ve got it”. Omido himself was at the counter. The store smelled like everything; detergent, ball gums, chocolate, cup cakes, …
“Nipe O.B. Mini”.
I got a packet of ten “bullets” for Ksh 80, at the time.
If you’re still reading, you know I am telling you about my relationship, as a serial athlete, with a small tight wad of cotton wool that through history has been modified to suit women’s menstrual hygiene to date. The biodegradable cotton tampon has been a major equalizer on many fronts for women, from working in the fields to the military.
At Nyayo Stadium, I went straight to the women’s changing room beneath the bleachers, by the pool. I skipped the warm up session, and locked myself in one of the toilet booths to peruse the O. B. instructions insert. I’d read it a dozens of times before, but this time, I was actually going to use a “bullet”, I felt like there was something I’d missed; … “toxic shock syndrome”… “very rare”… “the string is out of reach”…
The pre-race call up seemed way too loud on the speakers, “Wind up your warm up…” and too soon. I inserted my first ‘bullet’, not knowing if I’d got it high up enough. Making sure the string was within reach.
As I walked out and climbed out onto the bleachers, very aware of the ‘foreign body’, I thought everyone could tell I was walking funny. By the time my race was called, I’d been to the changing room toilet four times to “check”. I came in 5th place when I could have easily come in 3rd place.
Since then, tampons have been a great companion in leading a sporty life. I could not imagine doing the compulsory high school cross-country run wearing a huge maxi pad.
The other thing I “always” (pun intended) found odd, especially after the growing-up-and-liking-it talk, was how all TV ads for sanitary towels depicted menstrual blood as blue and not red. Anyway… the shame brigade was televised and still is.
Thankfully, we have come a long way in how menstruation is perceived, with open discussion about pretty underwear to ensure that girls have something to keep the sanitary pad in place, among other solutions such as toilets in schools.
In this digital age, girls also have numerous resources such as BeingGirl.com, to help them figure out this very important, normal, body function. Are you shy about discussing this with your daughter? Direct them there.
Fast forward to my twenties while visiting my Godmother in Johannesburg. I’d nipped to the shops to refill my supply of tampons and left the opened pack on my bed in the spare bedroom.
“Whose tampons are these? You should only use tampons when you are married…”
I came out of the bathroom chuckling to myself and ignored what she had said, thinking back to my swimming meet at twelve. It never came up again. I thought that was the most ignorant thing a woman can say about something so normal like menstrual hygiene.
There’s many issues that have been raised about young girls using tampons, mostly absurdly related to the prizing of virginity in women and girls, which quite frankly, is in direct conflict with flawed masculinity where men and boys are encouraged to sow their “wild oats”. With whom are they going to sow them, if not these very women and girls?
I’ve also read accounts on message boards of mom’s not “letting” their twelve-year old daughters use tampons. This is stupid and illogical. The focus should be on safety, clean hands; remove or change every five hours, to mitigate against toxic shock syndrome (which is extremely rare and is not always caused by tampon use). It takes time to get it right.
This kind of backward thinking absolves parents from taking responsibility for the role they play in their teenager’s decisions about sex. The more involved parents are in the child’s life, the less likely they are to engage in early sex. I had my first, safe, sexual experience in my mid-twenties.
Girls and their parents also need to know the link between delayed first, sexual experience and the risk of cervical cancer. So, dear parents, it’s not just the risk of pregnancy and resulting social, physical and economic burden your daughter faces. Please inform her early so she can make informed choices.
When my younger sister decided to start using “bullets”, I stood outside the bathroom door yelling instructions.
“Up higher …”
And her shouting back various rates of in-success.
“I can’t …”
It took a few more tries over a couple of months for her to succeed.
As a starter, I found the tampons with an applicator the easiest to use, just breathe in and out a couple of times to relax. This type came in handy for field trips/road-trips when you couldn’t ensure your hands are completely clean. Night accidents were very common, but nothing unusual. As you slept, tossed and turned when having the “falling dream”, that bulky maxi pad would shift. All perfectly normal. Which is why I was stunned when a photo of a young woman who was fully clothed, who’d had a period “accident”, was “banned” by Instagram.
The stigmatization of female bodies starts very early. As young as five, and get’s amplified as girls enter puberty. In my teens, I was fortunate to have had a positive body image, free of shaming. SaVonne Anderson’s growing up experience with the one male that mattered most, her father, was particularly unsavory. This is just the beginning of the categorization of women and girls as the slut, the spinster and perfect woman, to fit patriarchal constructs. It’s the story of many women and girls, very many, maybe most girls, perhaps all:
“Nani anakaa kama kikapu?” (Who is siting like a basket?), said a mom to her five-year old daughter sitting with a friend at a door step, just being little girls. Her little dress had ridden up her legs to reveal her little pink underwear.
Aged about eight, a house help introduced me to what I would later learn was menstrual shame:
“Utatokwa na damu nyingi, ita teremka kwa miguu yako, na wavulana watakuchekelea…”
(“Blood will run down your legs and the boys will laugh at you…”)
She may have been describing her own experience of menstrual shaming, or that of another girl. At eight years old, I was horrified at the idea of bleeding down my legs. Where would the blood be from? Would the boys be laughing because I fell down and injured myself? I had so many questions, but I just did not know how to vocalize them.
In the primary school I went to, the entire class knew Flora had “started”. She never hid her sanitary pads when she went to change during recess. Often other girls gathered around her asking how it felt, was it warm or cold. She was a good sport and answered all our questions.
Back to the mighty tampon.
No female athlete, amateur or pro, does her ten- or twenty- or thirty-kilometer run with a maxi pad when on her period. None. Of course it’s not a topic for the finish line media interview, so it has never come up. Every female athlete, no matter their age or level, wants to perform their best.
In the first year of starting my period, I learned quickly that being active also came with certain pleasant “side effects”, no cramps! I would hear other less active girls complain about painful periods and wonder how I didn’t have them. In the times leading up to exams, I would take part in sports less. When it came, it came hard, and painfully. I’m talking squirming-in-your-seat painful.
So staying active and finding ways to ensure my period did not impede my staying active, was essential, hence the tampons.
We’ve seen the statistics about how many poor girls miss school due to lack of menstrual hygiene tools. I am yet to see how many poor African girls fail to meet the recommended threshold for daily physical activity for the same reason. The importance of childhood physical activity cannot be over emphasized. Children who remain active or increase physical activity as they grow have been found to have stronger bones and better health later in life.
Growing up, many African girls fear being viewed as tomboys if they engage in sports. Fear their performance being judged. Other deterrents for deliberate physical activity among African girls in Africa, include the fear of breaking past gender stereotype barriers.
I see tampons as a way over one major hurdle.
Update: If your daughter complains of extremely painful periods she may be suffering from endometriosis. Best to get medical advice to ensure that this is not the case, or how to proceed if it is.
(*)/ (*) Enjoy the ride!! Cycling! Nairobi! and beyond!