Raise Your Hand If You Wore Pads For Way Too Long
Just me? Cool cool.
On Christmas day 2015, my sister and I went to see the movie “Sisters” (fitting) not expecting that Tina Fey would deliver us the greatest gift of all: a spot-on period joke. When Maya Rudolph’s snobby character Brinda (best name ever) tries to insult Fey’s character Kate by saying she flushed a tampon down her toilet, Kate snaps back, “You’re pads all the way and everyone knows it.”
Ooooohh!! My sister and I bit our knuckles and low-decibel hooted as if watching a rap battle, both of us recognizing the laser-sharpness of that burn. Aside from its elegant simplicity and pitch-perfect delivery, this joke stuck with me because it pushes the bruise of a deep-seated insecurity I held for so long: For much of my reproductive life, I, too, was “pads all the way.”
If being a high school girl was not part of your life experience, let me tell you that a certain sense of shame?—?a secret dorkhood?—?surrounds the girl who wears pads until college. Everyone knows but (hopefully) no one talks about it. And if you were a cool, straight-to-tampons kind of gal who thinks pads are gross “diapers,” let me tell you that it can be very scary to put something inside of your body for the first time. I didn’t successfully use a tampon until just shy of my 18th birthday.
First of all, I was kind of a late bloomer. I didn’t get my period until halfway through freshman year of high school. I distinctly remember touring a college campus with my older sister, Anna Nalick’s 2005 hit “Breathe” on heavy rotation on my teal iPod Mini, when I received the call to womanhood. I pulled my hoodie tighter around my waist, thinking, I’m an adult now.
And yet, as grownup as I felt, I could not face my fear of a foreign object entering my body. I didn’t want to wear tampons for the same reason I didn’t want to wear contacts: my firm belief that nothing needed to go inside my most sensitive regions.
A friend of mine had a “cool mom” who was, like, so chill with talking to us about sex. In an effort to ease our anxieties about someday maybe doing the deed with a boy, she described a penis as “less scary than a tampon.” I almost puked up my pizza. LESS scary than a TAMPON? I couldn’t get a tampon anywhere near me and someday I was gonna wanna put a ding-a-ling in my you-know-what? NOT LIKELY, BARBARA.
I didn’t want to wear tampons for the same reason I didn’t want to wear contacts: my firm belief that nothing needed to go inside my most sensitive regions.
For a while, I stuck to pads without guilt, shame or issue. I thought that’s just what you did when you had a period. But one day at school I was leaving the stall of a relatively empty bathroom when a group of girls looked me up and down and laughed.
“Sounds like someone has their period.” said Lindsey G. What?! Wasn’t there some kind of Girl Code? You’re not supposed to make fun of me because I have my period! I screamed internally. You probably have it, too! I soon put two and two together and realized it wasn’t the period they were making fun of?—?it was the pads. The loud crinkle of the plastic wrapper paired with the sheeeeet! of ripping it off the adhesive. I felt the heat of embarrassment rise to my cheeks.
Normally, what’s inside of your pants is easy enough to keep secret. But being from Florida, there was kind of no getting away from pool parties. And if you can’t see why wearing a pad in a swimming pool is a bad idea, just imagine having a rain-soaked sofa inside of your underwear.
For the first few pool parties after my reproductive blossoming, I either didn’t show up, pretended I had forgotten my swimsuit or pretended I was much more interested in staying inside with the family pets and Brian R., the chubby boy who was also avoiding the pool. On the upside, I got pretty good at Jenga during this time period.
If you can’t see why wearing a pad in a swimming pool is a bad idea, just imagine having a rain-soaked sofa inside of your underwear.
The other great obstacle to keeping my pad life a secret was making sure I was always prepared. If I found myself at school without the proper supplies, I couldn’t ask a friend to borrow a pad. I might as well have told her I still slept with a baby blankie. Once, in a bind during the final stretch of the PSATs, I accepted the tampon offered to me by a classmate. Instead of facing my fear during this already stressful moment, I took the tampon out of its applicator, unfolded it, and wedged it between my body and my underwear. I felt like I was sitting on a marker for the rest of the day.
It’s not like I didn’t give tampons the old college try. I spent hours in the bathroom with a hand mirror and a bottle of hypoallergenic baby oil. The time I got closest, I misinterpreted the diagram on the fold-out instruction manual and failed to insert the applicator. Instead I just pushed the dry cotton in until the tampon and my body ended at the same place. My heart started racing. I felt dizzy and clammy and thought I might faint. Certain I had instant TSS and needed to be rushed to the hospital, I called my dad, who’s a nurse. He told me to calm down, relax and just take it out. Everything was fine, but I had such acute vagina anxiety that trying to use a tampon gave me a mild panic attack.
It was only after I’d had P-in-V s-e-x with my high school boyfriend for the first time that I figured I could brave the tampon box once again. Turns out Barbara was right?—?dicks were comparatively less scary than feminine hygiene products. When my next period came, I put those three-year-old Tampax Pearls to use like nobody’s friggin’ business.
Turns out Barbara was right?—?dicks were comparatively less scary than feminine hygiene products.
But even after I made the switch, I didn’t feel any more adult or cool. “Dorky pad girl” had become a real part of my teenage identity and it wasn’t easy to shake. I felt exactly the same on the inside, awkward and ashamed, only now I had the luxury of slipping a tampon into my pocket instead of smuggling a maxi pad to the bathroom in my hoodie sleeve.
I had no idea at the time, but it turns out women are not required to put either tampons or penises into their bodies. It’s entirely optional and if you don’t like it, don’t do it. But I was young and the world was full of rules I didn’t yet know were bullshit. Now I buy tampons in bulk and go to all the pool parties I can get myself invited to. But in the honest darkness of a movie theater, I know I’ll always be “pads all the way.”
All original images by Dose’s Ines Vuckovic.