I read a piece in Man Repeller a few months ago about a journalist who was planning to go to a party alone. She asked her colleagues for advice on how to go to an event on her own and one of them suggested she took a tampon with her. That way, the co-worker said, if anyone asked her for one while she was in the bathroom, she would be prepared. Plus, it’s a great conversation starter.
There’s something about this that stuck with me – this camaraderie, the countless memories I have of sheepish strangers approaching you in the ladies loos and whispering, “Do you, by any chance, happen to have a spare tampon?” There is something so solidifying about the process of asking someone for a tampon – it turns a work colleague into a work friend, a random woman in the bathroom into an ally (even if it is just for the night).
Because I work in an all-female office, people don’t so much whisper, when they ask if anyone has a tampon, as announce it to the entire room. Last week, I had cramps that forced me to drape half my torso across my desk and, within seconds, three different colleagues swooped down on me, offering me bagels, tea, paracetamol and, above all, sympathy. “Here,” they all seemed to be saying, “I know how much this hurts, but please let me take care of you.”
Lately, I feel like this has been happening on a global scale. Last year, when the Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui announced after her race that she didn’t perform as well as she would have liked to because she was on her period, the world (and The Pool HQ) cheered her on. This summer, period poverty hit the headlines in the UK, leading to the announcement that Scotland will offer free access to sanitary products for women living in poverty, as well as charity Bloody Good Period providing tampons for asylum seekers. And it wasn’t just in the UK – we also heard of charities across the world, such as AFRIpads, providing women in Uganda with affordable reusable sanitary pads, so that young girls aren’t forced to miss school.
There is something so solidifying about the process of asking someone for a tampon – it turns a work colleague into a work friend, a random woman in the bathroom into an ally (even if it is just for the night).
Each time one of these news stories made headlines, the entire female community reacted as one. We stopped to consider – many for the first time in our lives – how professional athletes deal with their periods when they’re competing and the humiliating realities of period poverty. It didn’t matter if we were different ages or different races, or spoke different languages or lived half a world apart, something about these stories brought women together.
While there is almost no limit to the diversity of women’s experiences, in some ways periods can act as a bridge for cisgender women to better empathise with one another. How else do you explain why a story about a Chinese Olympic swimmer or Ugandan schoolgirls resonated here in the UK? While the women reading those stories may have never stepped foot in a swimming pool or never missed a day of school because of their period, they could understand how it feels when a period takes you by surprise, or when it interferes with your work, or when you’re uncomfortable talking about it in front of your family. Of course, these are by no means equitable situations, but they allow women a framework for understanding another woman’s plight.
I remember being a teenager and the liberating, giggly feeling of talking about periods with my friends for the first time, gathering in a semi-huddle and asking, “Has this ever happened to you?” or “Is it supposed to be this way?” Conversations around periods are important because they help us shed light on those less fortunate, and educate those whose own education systems are letting them down. But talking about periods is also important for another reason: it brings women together. Regardless of whether they share a desk at work or live on opposite sides of the world.
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