Standing in aisle eight of The Dollar Store—labeled “Ladies”—I was balancing reindeer-patterned Christmas boxes, curled red and green bows, a plastic tree-topper and two tubes of metallic-trimmed wrapping paper. With around $10 in my wallet, I had almost reached my spending limit for this shopping trip.
But I needed one more thing: tampons. If you didn’t know, The Dollar Store does not carry tampons. Not even the cheapest, hardest cardboard applicator ones. So I was in trouble. I didn’t have the money to go next door to Target for a $10 box of Tampax, nor did I need thirty; I was really hoping to buy a dollar box of five or so.
The average American woman is estimated to use more than 16,000 tampons in her lifetime, according to a report by The Atlantic. I know I’m complaining about cardboard applicators, but women in ancient Rome fashioned their own tampons out of wool. Indonesian women are believed to have used vegetable fibers, and African women have used rolls of grass. Gross. Ancient Japanese women, according to Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport, made tampons from paper and secured them with bandages. They had to change the dressings between 10 and 12 times a day—so it could be worse.
A few years ago, I went from needing a new tampon every hour, because it was filled with dark, red blood more often than not, to needing one or two for one day every six months. The best decision I’ve ever made was finally making an appointment at the ob-gyn and telling her that the pain and discomfort I was feeling for seven out of the thirty days a month was unbearable. The female doctor, indifferent about my agony, put me on lo loestrin fe, a low-dose birth control pill that decreases most women’s periods to two days per cycle and creates a lighter flow—a fairly new drug at the time. It changed my life, very much for the better. My period stopped almost completely. A little disconcerting because I was sexually active but nonetheless, a blessing. I still received my visiting friend twice a year, and that December was her winter vacation—and she was ready to party.
Searching for any sign of life of the cotton plugs, the fifth time I made my way down the “hallway for women” at the Dollar Tree, I found a neon-pink plastic-wrapped and bulbous pack of panty liners.
Bingo, I thought.
Let’s just take a look at the reasoning behind my thoughts. A twenty-something-year-old woman is standing in front of a white wire basket in a discount store searching for something to stop the flow of blood from her uterus, to tell her that she is not pregnant this month. She cannot spend more than one dollar for something that goes up and into her body because she is buying holiday wrapping. Instead, she searches through her purse for a payment method to check out mostly gifts for other people and napkins that will, in fact, not stop the flow of blood. She will probably have blood stains on her underwear and will have to toss them in the garbage by the toilet.
But hey! She only spent one dollar on herself. Score.
Legend has it that in the 1920s, a Kimberly-Clark employee poked some holes in a condom, stuffed it with the absorbent filling used in Kotex pads and pitched it to his medical consultant father as a menstrual solution, according to The Atlantic. But it wouldn’t be until a decade later that a Colorado-based general practitioner introduced the first commercial applicator tampon, according to Tampax.
In the sixth grade, I was, like many other girls, underdeveloped. Gangly body, no boobs and no period. I carried a guide to putting on a pad in my Vera Bradley wallet, anticipating the beginning of womanhood. The guide wasn’t needed for another year, but I prayed every day to find spatter in my panties. God answered my prayers when I was thirteen, and I jumped up and down yelling for my mom. She was honestly surprised that I had gotten it so early, and apparently, my body was too. It wasn’t real; my period stopped for another three years.
With my parents divorced, every other weekend was spent with my single dad who was clueless about teenage girls and women in general. When I got my period for the first time, I was at his house, and I had demanded that he take me to the store.
“But, why?” he said. He was the type to spend more on a six-pack of beer than food or hygiene products for his daughter.
“Dad, I can’t tell you. I just need a couple dollars,” I told him. The conversation was excruciating.
“We will not be going for no reason! Just tell me what you need,” he said.
“Pads, Dad! Pads,” I replied.
“Well, why can’t your mom get you those?”
“I need them now. You don’t understand,” I told him. Why was I about to cry?
We drove to the store, my dad huffing and puffing the whole way. He refused to leave the car and handed me two dollars as we parked at The Dollar General.
Two dollars? I thought. What is this going to get me? A roll of paper towels?
When I entered the store with the crumpled two dollars in hand, a girl I vaguely recognized from my high school was working the check-out counter. She was reading a US Weekly (cell phones weren’t popular yet). Could this get any more embarrassing? Like a Charlie’s Angel, I crept past her and power walked through the aisles looking for the feminine products.
“Can I help you?” the dark-haired, older girl said, coming up behind me. God, she was stealthy.
“Um…no! I’m okay, thanks,”
“Whatever,” she said and turned. Did she think I was trying to steal something?
Up and down the aisles once more, I found the Holy Grail. A whole row held tampons and pads, all that I could ever imagine. With no guidance, I looked at the two dollars in a ball in my right hand, and then looked up at the shelves. Everything was five dollars and above! I couldn’t go back out and ask my dad for more. That was not an option. So my eyes darted up and down the shelves once more. Finally, I saw pads for one dollar.
For a second, I thought about putting the pads, that I would later realize were panty liners, in my coat, but I knew that my Dad would kill me. Instead, I took the package up to the counter, where the older girl, I swear, gave a knowing nod. I handed her my dad’s two dollars, got ninety-four cents back and walked out the push door.
“Did you get it?” Dad asked as I climbed into the front seat.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“OK. Change?” he said. And I handed him the quarters, dimes and pennies.
Tampax first arrived on the shelves in the mid-1930s, but a 1942 survey found that 37 percent of tampon users still used remedies like store-bought sponges, according to The Atlantic. By the 1970s, tampons had changed a lot, mostly to emphasize the secrecy they could offer a woman on her period. Before then, the period was cursed with obviousness because of thick pads that were clearly visible under shorts. Popular brands were Lillettes, Meds, Pursettes and a Kotex tampon called Fibs. Playtex also adopted a “deodorant” tampon in 1971. In 1978, The Berkeley Women’s Health Collective accused manufacturers of withholding information about the substances used in tampons, and by early 1980, 55 cases of toxic-shock syndrome (TSS) were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven of those cases were fatal. Later that same year, a total of 812 menstruation-related TSS cases were reported—38 fatal. It wasn’t until 1989 that research found a link between synthetic materials, such as polyester and rayon, and the deaths. Between 1987 and 1996, 636 cases of menstrual TSS were reported—51 of them fatal.
The Atlantic wrote that by 1990, a better tampon was being developed with changes including better fit, a newly-designed withdrawal cord and leak-guard protection. With these characteristics, Tampax Pearl became a hit in 2001. To prevent TSS, the current Robin Danielson Act, aka the Tampon Safety and Research Act, was introduced to create more transparency between manufacturers and consumers. But according to The Atlantic, the latest go-around marks the 10th time a bill will have been considered in Congress. This time, the bill is being given a two percent chance of being enacted, according to GovTrack.
I’d like to tell you that when I got to the front of the line at the Dollar Store, I decided against the flimsy panty liners and bought the frivolous menstrual napkins or tampons at Target, but I’d be lying. Yes, I make way more money now than I did at thirteen and in sixth grade, but I guess I’m still really the same girl. I’m still willing to ruin underwear like I was as a teenager, so it turns out; I guess my vagina isn’t worth much to me. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I’ve been told so many times by the media and men in my life that it isn’t. My vagina deserves more than one layer of cotton on the curves of my underwear to hold the lining of my woman parts. One dollar is all that my vagina is worth, apparently, but in reality, it’s worth so much more.
My vagina is worth hordes of one hundred percent organic cotton tampons with no weird chemicals added.
My vagina is worth Super Absorbency and a Gentle Glide.
My vagina is worth twelve-hour Midol, not the generic stuff, three times a day.
My vagina is worth substituting Christmas presents for a brand-name product going up it.
And finally, my vagina is worth my time and money.
Peters A. 2015. The tampon: a history. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/. Accessed March 7, 2018.
H.R. 2379: Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act of 2017. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr2379. Accessed March 7, 2018.
Shultz J. 2014. Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.