As a preteen in the early ʼ90s, nothing mortified me more than the possibility of open talk about menstruation.
The day I started my period (Halloween, of all days), my voice shook as I told my mom about finding blood, still naively hoping that perhaps I’d just cut myself by accident. I knew she would be perfectly helpful and understanding, which of course she was; it didn’t matter. Even now, at a time when I’m closer to the end of my fertility than the beginning, I remember sixth grade as a time when I just felt dirty in general.
Oh, how times have changed!
Fast-forward almost 30 years, and it’s not only become not taboo (or at least not as taboo in certain circles) but it’s now practically a political issue. I’ve seen internet music videos about it, cute ones, where girls pretend to have their periods to feel grown-up and cool and get parties. I’ve seen women bleed on their clothes as political protest in order to draw attention to the issues of access surrounding essential products for women’s bodies. The Vagina Monologues is practically vintage theater now.
We’ve come a long way from the days in which my biggest fear was a boy realizing I was on my period and calling me gross for it, and this makes me happy.
As you might have guessed by now, today we’re going to talk about periods. Specifically, we’re going to talk about the abrupt absence of tampons in stores and pharmacies throughout Mexico City.
The ban, part of a policy to eliminate single-use plastics, happened on January 1, much to the surprise of plenty of Mexico City women who have been a bit busy to be following the step-by-step implementations of the city’s environmental policy.
Politically and socially, this is a tricky one. There tends to be quite a bit of overlap in the Venn diagram of feminist and environmentalist goals — on this issue an uncomfortable spot for those who consider themselves to be part of both groups. Let’s try to untangle it.
I’d posit that first, it’s not really a clash between feminism and environmentalism at all. When certain alternative products are out of reach for many, it becomes a class issue. This is especially true in this specific case, in which many well-meaning people have suggested that these women switch to a menstrual cup instead, long touted to be environmentally friendly, comfortable and discreet.
As a person who has used pretty much every menstrual product on the market by now, I feel qualified to weigh in on this one. I currently use a menstrual cup and have for the past several years. While it is indeed effective, it can be quite tricky at first, even for an adult. Not to get too graphic, but when I first tried one out in college, I experienced at one point such a horrifying suction effect when trying to remove it that I didn’t even try again for another 15 years. It’s certainly not something I’d suggest to my kid before she reached the hard-earned level of comfort that grown women (hopefully) learn to have with their own bodies.
And here’s where the class issue comes in: I recently switched mine out. The new one was 700 pesos. Even when we’re not in a pandemic, this is quite a lot of money for quite a lot of people, especially women, who are less likely than men to be earning their own money, and especially during a pandemic in which millions of jobs have literally vanished. Scrounging up 80 pesos once a month is easier than coming up with 700 pesos at once, even if it pays for itself eventually.
And as Jude Webber writes, there are 260,000 homes in Mexico City that don’t even have running water. As environmentally friendly as menstrual cups are, they can also be quite messy, requiring a thorough wash between emptying cycles (usually at least two to three times a day): three times for your hands (before taking it out, when rinsing it out and then again after replacing it). Add to that the fact that so many bathrooms here are built with the sinks outside of the actual room with the toilet, and it can really be an issue. As privileged as I am, even I’ve had to rush home because there simply wasn’t a private place to take care of those very basic hygiene needs.
Tampons, on the other hand, don’t require such a process. It’s true, one should always wash the hands before and after, but if it’s not possible, using one is still doable, unless they don’t have an applicator. (I’ve used these before as well — you guessed it, a messy ordeal.)
Pads are also available, of course, but the bulkiness can be quite uncomfortable to say the least, leading to a damper, itchier, more disagreeable experience the higher one’s absorption needs go. They can also move around and allow leaks anyway when the goal is, of course, to prevent exactly that. We’ve just got too much to do to be scrubbing blood out of our pants.
The truth is that being “eco-friendly” isn’t simply a choice that one makes because they’re so cool and self-aware; it’s a privilege, and often an expensive one. Let’s forget tampons for a minute and look at another example.
Most environmentally friendly versions of disposable products like cutlery and carryout dishes, which were also banned, are not cheap. At all. And many are indeed still using them. For those living hand-to-mouth, banning single-use plastic during a time when most food providers are only getting by because they have takeout and delivery services just seems cruel. Where are these businesses supposed to find the money to spend a significant percentage more than usual on disposables to sell their products when their bottom line has already been decimated?
So what can we do? Making sure there are affordable options on the market before implementing these kinds of rules would certainly be a start. If there aren’t affordable products that already exist, perhaps the government could even run a kind of competition for a scholarship or grant to invent something that could then be taken to the market. Mexican-invented, Mexican-made. Homegrown industries are waiting to come alive. Before what they’re to replace disappears, though, please.
Not only could we get ecological menstrual products with biodegradable applicators, but all sorts of problems could be solved: well-insulated glass for windows, for example, or low-cost portable car seats and seat belts that could be easily and quickly installed in taxis.
I’m not against the goal of reducing waste and increasing environmentally friendly practices. I’m not against the goal of reducing waste and increasing environmentally friendly practices, but insisting that people adopt alternatives that they cannot afford causes real hardship and is simply cruel when it makes their lives more difficult. It’s saying, “We’re going to pass the suffering from the environment onto to you now.”
And we really don’t need to do that. There are better ways, and I truly believe that Mexico has more than enough genius to create them.
Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sdevrieswritingandtranslating.com.