In the spring of my freshman year of high school, my mother lost her job, and within weeks we could no longer afford our home. We had no choice but to move out and enter what I call our “time of transition” — several months of legal homelessness and couch-surfing with friends. During this time, my bus commute to school went from 12 minutes to over two hours each way with two transfers. On my commutes and at the shelter, I began having conversations with women who were in much worse living situations than I was. Privilege is on a spectrum, I realized, and I could use my relative privilege and education to talk with them about a need they had that was going totally unanswered: menstrual hygiene.
I recall one conversation, specifically, in the fall of my sophomore year of high school when I was on my way home from mock trial practice. I approached my bus stop, where a friendly woman with whom I regularly visited was cozying up for the night. I had finally built up the courage to ask her about what she found most challenging. She told me periods “absolutely sucked” and made her feel dirty and poor. I responded by handing her an extra pad from my bag and she began to cry happy tears. She said she was so surprised that someone had felt comfortable enough to talk to her about periods, to listen to her needs and respond.
In March of my sophomore year, I found myself sitting on a couch at a battered women’s shelter in downtown Portland. My knees were hugged tightly to my chest, my forehead throbbed, my lips felt chapped and the left side of my face felt puffy and painful from where I had been hit. My heart was beating fast as fear coursed through my body. My family had just gotten our apartment back, but I was checking myself into a shelter because I wanted to hide the abusive relationship I was in from my single mother. I had witnessed my mother sacrificing so much and working so hard to bring our family out of legal homelessness and back into our apartment, and I couldn’t bear for her to see my bruises.
Over the weekend I spent at the battered women’s shelter, I recorded in my journal the stories of many of the homeless women I met there. For so many of them, menstrual hygiene was an issue. I collected an anthology of stories of women using toilet paper, stolen pillowcases and most commonly brown paper grocery bags to deal with their periods. The women were embarrassed to ask for menstrual hygiene products, and talked about how poor menstrual hygiene caused them so much discomfort.
I felt guilty realizing I’d never thought about the issue of menstrual hygiene because it wasn’t a dire need for me. In seventh grade, (early in what I call my “menstrual career”), angry over the waste produced by pads and tampons, I’d switched to menstrual cups. Consequently, I hadn’t worried about replenishing menstrual hygiene products for years. In talking to these women, I realized that if I hadn’t had my cup, I’d have had a hard time paying for pads and tampons myself while my family struggled financially.
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