In the midst of the climate crisis, reusable products have surged in popularity, including a booming market for sustainable period care. People have been using washable sanitary towels for centuries, but over the last few years we’ve seen menstrual cups and absorbent period knickers popularised, and the reusable pad redesigned for the modern eco-sensitive consumer.
An unfortunate (albeit well-intentioned) side-effect of eco-friendly products’ insurgence is the spreading of passive-aggressive messages that anyone can use them, and if you can’t or won’t then you’re making excuses and don’t care for the environment.
“EVERYONE can use a cup, it’s so easy once you get used to it!”
“Period blood isn’t anything to be ashamed of! Accept a bit of mess and save the planet!”
“You’ll spend over £2000 in your lifetime on single-use period products! Get some period pants at just £30 a pair and never buy tampons again!”
The intent is good, and the facts are true. However, being pro-choice extends to everything to do with our bodies, including being able to choose how we care for our periods. Not everyone can use reusable products for a variety of reasons, and emissaries of the period product revolution risk guilt-tripping, alienating and disheartening those who can’t use them if they fail to recognise their privilege in having the choice.
First, let’s look at the cost of these reusable products. While the savings over a lifetime are undeniable, there is a privilege in being able to drop £30 on one pair of absorbent knickers or a silicone cup.
Period poverty is rife in the UK: according to statistics from Plan International UK, one in 10 girls aged 14-21 have been unable to afford sanitary wear, and 12% have had to improvise sanitary wear due to affordability issues. Spending £30 in one go on a sustainable product is unthinkable when you have to use bunched up loo roll in lieu of a pad. On top of this initial cost, you also need access to a private and sanitary space in which to clean a cup or reusable pad, including clean running water. This is a huge barrier for homeless people and people who live in overcrowded households with little-to-no privacy.
There are also medical reasons why people are unable to use products like the menstrual cup. Chronic pain conditions such as vulvodynia and vaginismus — which affect around 1 in 10 people with vaginas — make using period products that involve insertion into the vagina impossible. FGM can be another barrier for people from certain cultures and backgrounds. Type 3 FGM, known as infibulation, involves stitching the outer labia to narrow the vaginal opening. This can cause extreme pain during periods and, unless survivors undergo deinfibulation, using a menstrual cup or tampons is impossible. For people with chronic pain, reusable pads or absorbent knickers would be a good alternative. But as people often suffer in silence with these conditions, comments that “everyone can use a period cup, it’s easy once you get used to it” are insensitive and can be harmful.
It’s also important to remember that not everyone wants to get so up-close and personal with their period, and that’s fine too. It’s only in very recent years that Westerners have stopped being quite so aggressively shamed for their period and discussion of menstrual care isn’t so taboo, and for people from other backgrounds the cultural dissonance around periods is still prolific. For trans people, having a period can be very emotional and trigger dysphoria, meaning they may want to have as little hands-on contact as possible. Not wanting to look like you’ve just killed someone in the bathroom after emptying your cup or deal with washing a reusable pad are equally valid situations in which more traditional products are the right fit.
If, for any reason, you’re not feeling too great about using cups, reusable pads or other ultra-sustainable sanitary products — that’s okay, it is your choice. There are more eco-friendly versions of traditional products out there too, such as organic tampons and pads and reusable tampon applicators.
These options don’t have to cost the earth either. One of the ways I try to be more conscious with my period product choices is by using non-applicator tampons (still a plastic wrap, but much less than an applicator tampon) or using own-brand tampons that come with paper wrapping and cardboard applicators, usually costing less than £1.
There are ways to be eco-conscious without investing in cups and washable pads, but most important is making sure you’re comfortable. When just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of global carbon emissions, we’ve got to question why we’re attacking people’s choices on how they care for their bleeding vaginas instead of lobbying against industrial blights on climate change.