By Sharanya Ramprakash
Four years ago, I started using reusable cloth pads during my period, and I’m never going back to the days of disposable ones again.
It all started when I was around 29 – my sister, who was in the US, had started using washable napkins, and she brought me some to try. Until then, I’d been using regular disposable sanitary napkins, which I found extremely uncomfortable to wear, and they had this weird scent that was supposed to stand in for cleanliness. I was also extremely uncomfortable with the way they were disposed of, and it was confusing – did I need to wrap them in newspaper and chuck them out whole? Should I disintegrate them? My mum used to do that – take the cotton out, flush it down the toilet, take the plastic layer and wrapping and throw it out. But the pads my sister got me changed all of that.
The cloth pads she gave me had inserts that you could change depending on the amount of absorption you needed (such as thicker inserts on days with a heavier flow). They were of very soft cotton cloth, and were extremely comfortable. Of course, there was the fact that they had to be washed, which is a little more time-consuming than using disposable pads. But the idea that you could use your pad again the next month, and not have to throw anything away, seemed great to me. It took me a little time to get the hang of using cloth pads, and I had to figure out how to manage my period, but once that happened, there’s been no turning back.
The great thing is that these pads last forever. I still have the old cloth pads that I started with – they’ve become softer and more comfortable with time, while I’ve added to my “bank” of pads. The ones my sister gave me were by Luna, but I’ve bought other ones since then. Eco Femme is a popular brand available in India – I’ve used them, but I find the tiny product labels on them uncomfortable (and I’ve written to them about it). The cloth they use is also a bit rougher, and takes some time to “break in”. There’s another brand called Jaioni that I really like – they’re made of really soft cotton fabric, and they don’t have thick branding labels on them. I do have friends who use menstrual cups and find them really comfortable, but I’m wary of that stuff – I’m uncomfortable with the idea of tampons and things going into me. That’s the only reason I haven’t tried them yet – cloth pads work so well for me that I’ve never had to find an alternative.
I find using cloth pads most convenient when I’m travelling (something I never anticipated!). When I’m travelling around the time of my period – when I’m expecting it but not exactly sure when it’ll arrive – using cloth at that time is the most comfortable thing. It lets my skin breathe, it doesn’t feel suffocating and it isn’t stinky – the most comfortable option I’ve tried.
Managing the cloth pad is like managing your underwear – I wash the pads clean when I shower, hang them out to dry and use again. When I’m travelling without access to washing, I carry a separate pouch. I wash the pad in a sink, squeeze it out and carry it in the pouch so it can be properly washed and dried when I reach my destination.
What made this transition to cloth pads easier for me was the fact that another woman in my life had used cloth before – my mother. At some point in her life she used to use cloth – old sari material, or soft cotton fabric – which she found very comfortable and chose to use over readymade disposable napkins. That made everything easier for me. I knew how she would use it – she’d wash out the cloth after use and hang it in a particular place in the house. She used regular cloth folded up, but it had a particular politics – a politics that we were used to.
My mother, throughout her menstruating years, subjected us to her Brahminical notions of “madi” that attaches itself to a woman during her period. We couldn’t touch her, she wouldn’t cook or enter temples and Puja rooms, she wouldn’t even touch her own wardrobe, everything she needed had to be chucked to her from a safe distance. Gosh! It was such a massive pain the neck for everyone in the family, but especially for me and my sister, it was more so. The idea that a menstruating woman is incapable of being independent bothered us. No one asked my mother to subject herself to this disenfranchised behavior, it was something she did of her own volition. The reason why I was resistant to cloth pads in the beginning was I saw them as carrying the stain of oppression. During her period, my mother had a specific way she would deal with her cloth pads. It would be scrupulously washed and hung off a separate clothes line. I remember them, soft cotton cloth from her old sarees, carefully chosen and neatly washed, cut up and hemmed and plied with years of use. My brother and my father, my sister and me, the two maids and several generations of the family cat and her kittens kept a safe distance from that cloth. It had to be touched only by her, kept away by her in a separate place, it could not be mixed with other cloth. We’d get a “No no no, don’t touch that cloth!” if we went near it. It was a highly political piece of cloth.
When I first got my period, I couldn’t imagine myself using cloth – the cloth pads meant oppression, denial, social ostracism. I ran from cloth pads like they were the plague. It’s only now, when I look back at my mother’s cloth pad usage, that I can see past the oppression and appreciate the finer tones of ownership of body and blood, and I see how sustainable that practice was. I see the silver lining more than her self-imposed oppression. I see how that cloth was fiercely hers, the most private piece of clothing that she ever owned. I can separate the oppression associated with that cloth and embrace its liberating idea. This journey was a long one, and was the main reason it took me so long to embrace the cloth pad. Of course, peer pressure also played a part in it – everyone was using disposable napkins – I was afraid people would say, “What’s wrong with you?” Using disposable napkins was ‘modern’ and cloth was ‘cave woman’ behavior. But I can assure you, its not like that. It can be a liberating, sustainable and body friendly, soul friendly activity.
Now, when I talk about using reusable cloth pads, I feel like it’s usually a specific kind of person who likes the idea. I work in theatre, and when I’ve spoken about it to fellow theatrepersons, the ones who are already interested in alternative stuff are usually like, “Hey, what is that and where can one get it?” They may not be in love with the idea, but they’re open to learning more. And they’ll ask me questions about things like how I manage on heavy flow days.
But more commonly, the reaction from people is, “You actually touch it? How do you do that? Yuck!” I get that a lot. And I find that really sad. It’s from your own body, what’s the big deal? I like being in touch with my cycle, and with my body. It’s something to embrace. When I wash my napkins and touch the blood soaked cloth, there’s a sense of ownership of my body. I wash them, hang them out to dry. Sun-kissed and clean, I put them away for next month – they’re softer, more pliable and gentler than they were. Its such a beautiful way to menstruate.
You know how in the first phases of dating, when you first meet someone, when you pretend that you don’t have any bodily functions – when that stuff seems really embarrassing and you pretend none of those things happen to you? I think that’s the sort of relationship that we have with our bodies as women – we learn that we have to be decorative and to smell good and look good, but beyond that, the mechanics of it are quite yucky. I think advertising has a great deal to do with how we look at our bodies in this respect – as being ornamental, without considering them as also having a function. Every ad for sanitary napkins uses some sort of blue liquid instead of red. It’s never an indication of the fact that a woman bleeds. And it’s about how you can wear tight white pants and nobody will know that you are staining, masked under the idea that it gives you more freedom. I buy that, you know – I completely understand that sanitary napkins (much like contraception) give you freedom. But I’ve been able to do all of those things with cloth pads too – it’s not like they leave me incapacitated and sitting at home. Sure, you may have to figure out your clothing choices on days when your flow is heavy and you’re wearing a thicker pad, but that’s about it.
When people want to start using cloth pads but are apprehensive about it, I always tell them to keep a few handy. Cloth pads are very easy to carry in your purse, just the way you would carry your disposable pad – they come with a travel cloth pouch that fits snugly into a handbag. And for those worried that cloth pads may not be enough on heavy flow days, I usually suggest that they use regular disposable ones during the heavy days, and try out the cloth pads on the 3rd or 4th day. That’s a good way to begin the transition to using them all the time. The assumption that cloth pads mean you stain more is false. The risk of staining your clothes is equal. It can happen no matter what you’re using. And if you DO stain while menstruating, I’d say, “Go with the flow”. What’s the big deal with a stain anyway? Unlike the one Lady Macbeth had to deal with, these can be washed out.
I have to mention, though, that I don’t think we ought to be using cloth pads for martyrdom’s sake – there’s no need for women to say “I may suffer, but the let the environment be safe.” I think we go through enough in our lives as women – no need to use that as a reason to martyr ourselves to menstruation as well. It’s completely right for us to demand a modern, safe, ecologically sustainable way to manage our periods, which disposable sanitary pads are failing to provide. And there’s a growing market for better alternatives that women should be aware of – good quality cloth pad manufacturers like Luna and Jaioni, menstrual cups which are viable, safe and empowering options. As more and more women turn to these options the market in turn will grow to support our choices.
It’s time we embrace our bodies, dump the myth of the tight white pants and have an empowering period.