Several weeks after my 11th birthday, I am camped out at the final swim meet of our summer league. It's the big shebang, where the fastest kids in the region swim their little brains out for the glory of a flimsy, brightly-colored ribbon. It'll be five hours before I am to swim the 500-yard freestyle, and I'm giddy on getting my mom all to myself, so I manage to convince her to take me to Red Robin while we wait. "Order me a grilled cheese, I'm going to the bathroom," I tell her. And it is there, in that Red Robin bathroom, that I get my first period.
After two years of sex ed and a lifetime with a progressive mother, I was prepared for this moment. The blood itself was minimal, and my mom and I basically shoved some toilet paper into my underpants and snuck a pad into my bathing suit when it came time to race. (Yes, it was gross, but I was 11 and you probably weren't there, so calm down.)
I do have some memories of my mom explaining to me how tampons worked shortly thereafter — first when I was 11, just so I'd know they existed, and later when I was a teenager and still hadn't figured out how to use them — but I was pretty determined to drop the issue whenever it came up. Using a tampon was frustrating to me the way calculus was. I had never really touched my vagina post-puberty, and had no clue where my vagina even was in that fleshy mess down there — an unfortunate state of being that would, awkwardly enough, persist until I was 18.
Yeah, I know. How the hell did I not know where my own vagina was? I paid attention in health class and had a mom who was hella open about talking about that kind of thing with me (anybody else get gifted The Period Book in 2002?), but the idea of actually having to touch myself freaked me out nonetheless. It's not like anybody set me up to feel that way, but by my teenage years, something (cough, cough society) had conditioned my brain to be extremely embarrassed about it, so I didn't ask. I was the oldest girl in my family, and a late bloomer if there ever was one.
I tried to use a tampon once more when I was 16. I got it in halfway and panicked, and as I dragged it painfully back out of me, I determined that I was done with them forever.
Luckily, my vagina and I have a much healthier, significantly less awkward relationship with each other now than we did back then, thanks to frank discussions with friends and my eventually becoming sexually active. But I still have had no motivation to try a tampon. As far as I was concerned, pads worked just fine.
In fact, it was other women who seemed to be a lot more concerned about my lack of tampon usage than I ever was. My senior year, I had to wear pleather pants as Sandy in Grease, and the entire cast felt compelled to comment on the slight outline of my pad that you could see through them. My swim teammates were incredulous the few times I had to miss practice because I wouldn't wear tampons — which, admittedly, was extremely frustrating in high school, and one of several reasons I ended up dropping the sport for more land-based endeavors.
These days, when I've offered a pad to someone in a tight spot, they've balked as if I were suggesting an adult diaper or that they ride side-saddle. Even as recently as a month ago, in the wake of some discreet-but-unfortunate public leakage on a commute home, multiple people in my life implied that at this point, my aversion to tampons — their purported solution to this problem — was ridiculous.
The more people pushed me to use tampons, the more resistant I became.
I had the same logical fears most people did as teens; that it would get stuck up there, that it would hurt, that I would do something wrong, that I would be the exception to the rule and end up getting Toxic Shock Syndrome (or that I would panic over some imperceptible change in my biological functioning and assume that I did). More than anything, though, it just seemed invasive. Why stick something up there when you don't have to stick something up there? Apparently, I'm all Netflix without the chill.
It wasn't until I volunteered myself for this experiment and was facing the prospect of shoving a tampon into myself that I acknowledged for the first time in my adult life that I was, for some reason, still afraid of tampons — and I wanted to overcome that fear. I decided to give tampons another try.
In my usual graceless manner, I decided to watch a tampon tutorial video just to make sure I was doing it right, and accidentally blared it at top volume through my whole apartment at 6:45 a.m. (Shout-out to my roommate, who either slept through it or kindly pretended not to hear Laura Adams of "How To Insert A Tampon" saying, "WHEN I FIRST GOT MY PERIOD ..." echoing through our walls before dawn.)
I was both apprehensive and hopeful as I propped my leg up on the cabinet, successfully aimed for my vagina (take that, teenage me!), and after a minute or so of psyching myself up like I was about to walk into a Hunger Games arena, managed to get it up in there. And can I just say for the record — coming from a non-virginal perspective — that the first time still felt a little weird? Like, it tapped some places I have definitely had different associations with in the past. But it was up there, and I couldn't even feel it.
I was feeling very smug. How smug, you ask? Smug enough to send this text to a coworker immediately after, is how smug.
I was actually kind of amazed by how little I felt the tampon. Like, I knew that if I put it in the right way, I wouldn't feel it — that's the whole point — but the one other attempt I'd made in the past had gone so heinously wrong that I couldn't believe my good fortune. It was like the Period Fairy had #blessed me at last.
Only, that lovely moment didn't last long. By the time I commuted into work, it kind of ... well, sagged a little, or something. And before you tell me that it's because I was using too small a tampon, you should know that it was actually a pretty jumbo one (what can I say, I'm an overachiever). It just proves that my uterus sees a tampon and thinks, "Game, set, and match, punk." It was starting to get uncomfortable, and I was suddenly paranoid that after three hours with a tampon in I was going to spontaneously combust from Toxic Shock Syndrome. So I decided to hazard the work bathroom and — gasp — switch it out.
I was still so triumphant about getting the tampon in that it didn't occur to me until that moment that I had to also figure out how to take it out. Suddenly, I was standing slightly dumbstruck in a very public office bathroom, trying to fish something out of my human self that didn't want to come out. As my vagina protested by clenching up even more, all I could hear over and over again was Hermione getting stuck in the Devil's Snare in Harry Potter and impatiently saying, "You have to relax."
Eventually, praise be to Pizza Rat, the tampon freed itself from my nether regions. Unexpectedly, it was almost kind of disappointing for a second to be all dry down there. It’s almost as if when you’re all grossed up in your own period gook, you’re like, Look at the shiny red evidence of my suffering! You feel weirdly triumphant about it. I imagine it’s how I would feel, say, slaying a dragon — except while blogging about Taylor Swift.
What’s weirder is that I felt a little sentimental about that first bloodied tampon. Was I really just going to throw it away? (Also, what does it say about your mental health if you consider, even for a second, saving a bloody tampon the way parents save their kids’ teeth?)
The rest of the day was actually pretty uneventful. I wore the tampon. I took out the tampon. I put in another tampon. (At this point, I was just showing off.) I wasn't getting any faster at it — it still took a lot of adjusting and talking myself through it, and at least a couple of minutes probably passed with each switch — but at least I wasn't making a colossal fool of myself.
And then something unusual happened. Within 48 hours of my usually long, heavy, ridiculously apocalyptic period starting, it kind of just ... stopped. For the first time in the history of my uterine line shedding, it decided to peace out a good five days ahead of schedule.
Apparently, I'm not the only person this has happened to. There is something of a debate as to whether tampons prolong or shorten your period. Some tampon lifers swear on All That Is Absorbent that they reduce the length of your period; others are pretty adamant that the opposite is true. Health experts suggest that perhaps this is a psychological phenomenon, and that how a method affects depends on what you find more of a hassle to use. If you think it's more stressful to stick on a pad, then you will perceive your period as being longer, and vice versa with tampons. (Though I certainly didn't simply "perceive" that my period was five days shorter.)
My vagina was as confused as my eyebrows were fabulous. I slept without the tampon overnight, and the next morning, there was barely enough flow to justify putting in another one. I did anyway, for the sake of the experiment, and for the sake of doing the one thing I feared doing most in years past — swimming whilst on my period.
Within seconds, I entirely forgot that this was my first time ever jumping into a pool mid-period without becoming immediate shark bait. Only about halfway through the hot mess I'm going to call a workout was I like, "Whoa. Wow. I can swim with a tampon in. I can do anything. Does Beyoncé need someone to tour with in 2016?" It had taken many years, but I could finally do something that had benched me during meets and family beach trips and summer days at the water park. It was a freaking miracle.
This joy was short-lived, however, when I discovered the one pitfall of tampons: getting your pubic hair stuck in the string. Cut to next scene, featuring me mouthing the words "no, no, no, no" from the gym bathroom stall and genuinely wondering if "a tampon got stuck in my pubes" would ever be an acceptable reason to tell your boss you were late.
Days Four Through Seven
I endured, and lived to bleed another day. Another few days, in fact — days that were arguably milder than any period I've endured in a long, looooong time. All in all, my period was three days shorter than usual, and less aggressive by far.
You would think I'd be a true convert, but even in the face of overwhelming support for the tampon — less mess, the ability to go swimming, and a period so much shorter that it would be impossible to ignore — I gotta say that I'm still a pad loyalist through and through.
See, I am an obnoxiously fast-moving human. I like the rip-toss-rip of taking off a pad and shoving another one on. It is mindless and quick, and I can get back to doing whatever I'm doing without spinning three times in a circle, chanting in Gaelic, and surrendering my firstborn. Plus — and I know I am in the minority on this — I just find pads more comfortable. Having a period that is lighter and shorter just isn't worth the awkward learning curve of getting used to pulling tampons in and out, and I doubt that there is ever going to be a part of me that is fully relaxed knowing I have a tampon in.
I'd like to think that if my 16-year-old self could read this right now, she'd be relieved. I used a tampon and the world didn't implode. In a lot of ways, figuring this out was one of the last holdouts in a long list of things I was a little late to the game to compared to the rest of my peers, mostly due to willful ignorance. I used to panic that I'd never be attracted to anyone, or that I'd never be able to figure out how to have sex in the first place. These were all pretty ordinary pubescent fears that fixed themselves with time. But for some reason, the whole "wearing a tampon" thing got lost in the shuffle on the getting-to-know-your-vagina front.
Looking back, I think it is a little strange that in all my years of health classes, nobody seemed all that concerned with us knowing about our vaginal anatomy, or even understanding that women could masturbate and achieve orgasm, when we were all taught that boys could and given specifics about it year after year. I was 17 when a girl my age brought up the female orgasm to me, and I thought she was kidding. When I Googled and figured out she wasn't, my teenage brain decided that because teachers told us how boys orgasm, but didn't tell us that girls could, it was wrong. Sad, right?
Even writing about my vagina at age 24 still feels a little weird to me — as does alluding to sex, even though I work in one of the most sex-positive places on the planet. Which is why this was more than just a tampon experiment: It was one more exercise in owning my body. On a personal level, it is powerful to know now that I can finally change the narrative on my tampon phobia, and explore the feelings about it that I adamantly ignored in my teenage years.
But for me, home is where my sanitary napkins are. Putting one on again as my period drew to a close was an immediate relief — one that was only heightened with the knowledge that, if I ever needed to, I didn't have to use a pad. After all this time, I finally have a choice. And it turns out my vagina wouldn't have it any other way.
Images: Rosanne Salvatore/Bustle; Emma Lord(7); Giphy(2)