Menstruation has been a part of women’s lives since the dawn of time: it’s essential to how we create life. Despite this, we have often tried to hide its existence, turning a completely natural process into something taboo. Today, openly talking about your period is considered bad taste in many countries, and a lot of women are still ashamed when it comes to asking if anyone has any spare sanitary napkins or tampons.
Because of this effort to hide periods as much as possible, there is little information available about how women coped with their «time of the month» in days gone by. What is clear, is that the wide range of hygiene products we have today has not always existed … so people had to manage as best as they could.
The first thing to keep in mind is that, in the past, women had far fewer periods than they do today. This was because they married much younger and there was no contraception, so they spent most of the time pregnant – and not able to have periods. In addition, they tended to become ill more frequently and were generally malnourished, which led to irregular periods, and they also had a much shorter life expectancy.
From the little we do know, it seems that, in ancient times, the Egyptians used moistened papyrus, which they inserted into the vagina as a makeshift tampon. Meanwhile, the Greeks used a piece of wood wrapped in cloths and other materials, and the Romans used sanitary pads made of wool and cotton. Native American women used cedar bark, which might not sound like a good plan, but it’s actually very absorbent.
If we go a little further forward in time, hygiene habits had most definitely changed, but not necessarily for the better. In the Middle Ages, women used nothing to stop the flow, bleeding directly onto their dresses or underwear. To avoid people noticing, they used to wear dark colors. But the worst part was, they often wore the same blood-soaked garment for several days, since most middle- or lower-class women could not afford to change their clothes regularly.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, things had improved a little: women used what they could, from rags and fabrics, to sanitary napkins that could be washed and re-used. Finally, mass production of tampons began in the 1930s, and menstrual sponges were also used in the 1940s. Disposable sanitary pads also arrived on the scene, but they had to be fastened with pins or belts to your underwear to keep them in place. It was not until the 1960s that someone had the idea of making them self-adhesive.
Today, the situation is quite different: in many places, we have a wide range of products to choose from and can pick the one best suited to our needs so, if we’re not struggling with too much period pain, we might just be able to forget that it’s that «time of the month.» And as the ways of coping with our periods have multiplied and become more visible, let’s hope this development also applies to the way society sees menstruation: let it be accepted as something natural and beautiful, not something to hide or be ashamed of.