As a child and younger teenager I had never taken much interest in my body. I remember my first period because I told my mother about it. Her response was very matter-of-fact. Sanitary pads, she said, were a waste of time. Only fussy, immature girls who couldn’t cope with tampons used them. There was no reason for me to try them because I could go straight to the adult solution: tampons. However, tampons were a gross waste of money and there was no need to buy them. Instead, she took me to the bathroom, ripped off 8 sheets of toilet paper, and placed one sheet on top of the other to make a pad. Next she rolled the wad of paper into a tube, and then folded it in half. This is all you need, she said passing me the roll-your-own tampon. And that was pretty much it. Over the years I perfected her version by making the fold first, then rolling — it was much neater.
The problem, of course, was that the toilet paper tampon had no string. During heavy flow it didn’t matter because the paper became so sodden that the whole thing would more-or-less fall out of its own accord. You’d feel it as it began to poke out past the opening to the vagina. Towards the end of the cycle it was much more difficult to remove. It always seemed to work its way further in, making it almost impossible to reach. I can recall long spells spent sitting on the toilet, trying desperately to hook the thing out with my fingertips, tearing bits and pieces of paper off its end as I pushed down as if trying to give birth. Meanwhile, other members of the family would wander past the door (which had no lock) yelling, ‘What are you doing in there?’
The only other thing I need to mention about these cigarette-rolled tampons is that they required decent toilet paper in order to function. At school the paper was thin and shiny, like brown packing paper, and was therefore next to useless.
Anyway, when I was around sixteen I went skiing at Mt Dobson, near Fairlie, and discovered Our Bodies, Ourselves on the bookshelves of the cottage where I stayed. The owner of the book was Jos Lang, a ski patroller, mountaineer and guide, an amazing woman who allowed us to use her house while she worked in Canada. I read the book in secret, absorbing the material contained within. It was the first time I had encountered anything remotely useful or informative about women’s bodies: chapters on sexuality, reproduction, contraception … it was all there and all presented in a practical and positive way. It was a godsend.
The Kate Sheppard Women’s Bookshop in Christchurch opened around that time and I ordered my own copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. It took months to arrive but it was worth the wait. The cover was terrific: two women holding a ‘Women Unite’ protest sign. One of the first things I learnt from my nightly read was that diaphragms could be used to capture menstrual blood. For some bizarre reason getting a diaphragm seemed preferable to facing the embarrassment of buying tampons so I made an appointment at Family Planning.
In the examination room I was handed a kind of ‘Viewmaster,’ a plastic stereoscope with a winding handle, and told to watch. I held the instrument up to my eyes and started winding the handle. A figure flickered into view and started demonstrating the best way to insert a diaphragm. By winding the handle anti-clockwise I could reverse the demonstration. By winding more vigorously I could speed up the instructions. Fast, slow, backwards, forwards — the image clicking and flickering in a humorless version of a ‘What the Butler Saw’ silent movie.
The nurse left me to it and I was stuck with the Viewmaster for a good fifteen minutes before she returned. “Did you understand everything?” she asked. I nodded. Next I lay on the bed while she brought out a selection of diaphragms. They were all massive, about six times bigger than anything I had imagined from the images in the book. The diameter was similar to the rim of my coffee mug, and it made me question just how much space there was ‘up there’. The nurse inserted one. She frowned. Pulled it out, tried again. This went on and on until, exasperated, she said my cervix was very difficult to find because it was tucked too far back and down to the left. Informing me that my cervix felt like the tip of a nose, she then handed me the diaphragm and I stuffed it in as best I could. When I stood to leave the whole thing began to pop out and I had to shuffle off to the toilets to remove it.
I went back to Our Bodies, Ourselves and researched ‘difficult cervix’. There was no such thing. Then, following another suggestion, I found a hand mirror and crouched over it, appalled at what I saw. Next I found a paragraph on natural sea sponges and decided they offered the solution I needed. The sponges, bought from Brush ’n’ Palette art supplies shop, were small, squishy, frequently smelly and hard to clean. They seemed to get greyer and more tattered with each use. But they were more comfortable than wads of toilet paper or diaphragms, and so I stuck with them. Eventually, though, I went against my mother’s strict advice and bought a box of tampons. With that problem finally resolved, I turned my attention to contraception.
Note: When the author’s mother was consulted about this article before publication, she was somewhat bemused. She says:
This is a gross exaggeration of the truth. The toilet paper was only meant for emergencies and not for heavy flow … although they worked perfectly well at any time, provided you had soft enough toilet paper.”
Laurence Fearnley is a novelist and essayist who lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her ten novels include the 2011 NZ Post Book Award winner, The Hut Builder. She was the joint winner of the 2017 Landfall essay competition, and has has recently co-edited To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand Alpine Writing (Otago University Press, 2018).
Read more by Laurence Fearnley on Corpus:
Read more about Our Bodies, Ourselves here.