Period Woes: A Play in Two Acts

Hello, I'm 14, and I'm always scared of having my period unprepared, so I always wear a pad when I go out. How can I get over my fear of getting my clothes dirty ? Thank you.
Sam W replies:

Ah yes, the unexpected period gambit. Also known as the "I am not wearing white shorts until I hit menopause" phenomenon. I know it well, as do most people who menstruate. The image of the spreading, red stain on your pants (inevitably in front of the people who pick on you and/or the person you're crushing on) is a scary one.

I have some inside information though (by which I mean this has happened to me multiple times).

It's not the end of the world.

An unexpected bleed-through is uncomfortable, sticky, and embarrassing (there's nothing embarrassing about having a period, to be clear, but sudden stains on the pants can make you feel self-conscious). It's also survivable. You find a bathroom, put on a pad or, in a pinch, toilet paper (I've even heard of people using their socks as improvised pads). Maybe you have to wear a sweatshirt around your waist for the rest of the day, or change into your gym shorts. Yes, maybe someone who is a jerk will make a comment about it, but in all honesty that's one of those times where you have to go, "yep, you're a jerk" and let their comments roll off of you.

One thing to remember that might ease your worries is that the spot where you'd bleed through is kind of hard to see, especially if you're wearing dark clothes. Most of the time the blood won't just come gushing out, so you're talking a small stain at most by the time you're able to get to a bathroom. That means that, more often than not, someone would have to be looking pretty closely at your crotch to notice what happened. It might feel like everyone can see what happened, but really most people are just not going to notice. They're too busy worrying about their hair/their body odor/their homework/whether or not their period has started.

Even if that's the case, it's normal to want to take some measures to make a surprise bleed less likely. Wearing pantyliners (thin pads) is one way to do that, although that can get expensive as an option. There are companies now that make underwear with pads of different thicknesses sewn into them (Lunapads is one such company), and while they do require an initial investment you get more bang for your buck because they're reusable (and comfier than your average plastic pad). Another precaution you can take, and something you're probably already doing, is to have a pad or tampon with you in your purse or backpack. If your period starts suddenly, you won't have to scramble to find what you need.

Something I recommend is learning how to track your period (you can read about how to do that here). This will help you in two ways. First, it will make it easier to figure out where in your cycle you are, as relying on just a count of days (particularly in the first few years of having your period) is not reliable. Having a more accurate sense of where you are in your cycle will make it easier to predict when your period will arrive. Second, it will help you feel more in the know about your body and what it's doing. Even if you've been in the throes of puberty for a few years, all the changes you've gone through can make your body feel like a foreign space that you've found yourself trapped in. Taking steps to get to know it, to observe its rhythms and changes, goes a long way towards making it feel like a home.

Going along with that, journaling or otherwise finding a way to track the way your body feels before a period will help its arrival feel less unexpected. PMS symptoms do vary from month to month, but the longer you track, the more you'll start to notice patterns and the more common indicators that your period is on its way. So you'll feel more prepared when it does arrive.

r0sesm0th asks:
"I have a question about tampons. I've been having my periods for about 5-6 years now and I just started using tampons last month... Yes, they are more convenient but I feel like I'm not pushing them up all the way? They feel uncomfortable for me. Do I need to put it in at an angle? And when I change my tampon, it feels like it's not going to come out then it feels like a little bit of tearing when it's about out. Any tips? thank you. Am I changing it too early?"

With tampons, there is a definite learning curve to putting them in without it resulting in discomfort. Angle is a factor for sure. Many people find insertion works best if they prop one leg up on something like a toilet seat or bathtub, but this is one of those instances where you'll need to try out different positions to see which one works best for you. You can also try different sizes of tampon. Some folks who have trouble inserting the "standard" size find they have more luck with a "slim" or "junior" size, and some people find that putting a bit of water-based lube on the tip before insertion can help, too. If you've been using tampons with applicators up until now, you could see if switching to ones that don't have an applicator helps: they can sometimes give you a bit more control over the angle and how far you insert them.

As for whether or not you're changing it too early, the maximum time you should keep a tampon in is eight hours. Obviously, if it gets saturated before that time, you change it. There's not really a way to change it too early, unless you're being overly cautious and changing it, say, once every hour. (Changing it that often might also be part of what's behind that tearing feeling you're describing - taking a tampon out when it's still quite dry can be a bit ouchy sometimes, and can feel like it's sticking a bit. Making sure you're not using a higher absorbency than you need can help with that too.) This is often why people will pair tampons and pads. Not only do you have a back-up system, but wearing a pad allows you to use the tampon to its full extent, because you've got a buffer for it to bleed on when it's full that isn't your underwear.

You also don't need to fuss at all with tampons if you don't want to. If you're finding them convenient to use, then all it will take is some more practice to get the hang of them. If you're finding them more trouble than they're worth, you can ditch them and go back to pads only. You can also explore other options, like menstrual cups. Those have the convenience of a tampon, plus they're reusable (which saves you money) and can be left in longer than a tampon can.

Ultimately, becoming comfortable with the rhythms of your cycle, and the equipment needed to deal with it is a learning process. For some, it's a lifelong one. As you go through more periods and begin to know your body better, you'll find things like tampons no longer feel like a big deal and become just another mundane part of having a body.

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