For as long as I can remember, there's been this sort of mysterious aura shrouding the topic of menstruation. When I was in elementary school, it was talked about in excited whispers and curious guesses. Once my friends started to hit puberty, a period was then viewed as a mile marker of sorts, to measure and keep track of who had become a woman and who was still just a girl. Back then I never thought to ask, "What is free bleeding?"; I just knew how humiliating accidents could be. Of course by high school, getting your period was just this annoying event that happened every month and you and your friends rolled your collective eyes at the childish taunts and remarks made by your classmates if you happened to leak through your pad or tampon.
By the time I entered early adulthood, I still felt an odd twinge of embarrassment when purchasing feminine supplies. My brightly colored package of pads and econo-size box of tampons seemed to sit on the conveyor belt for ages as I waited to hastily purchase them and then dash to my car for some chocolate relief. Sure, it may be a bit cliché, but in my late teens I was still very much buying into the social cues that dictated how I, and other women, were supposed to feel and act about our periods.
Not until I was halfway through college, my mind bursting with the realization that not everyone grew up the same way I did, that I began to see a shift in my relationship towards menstruation. I wasn't ashamed of my period and more and more I was seeing that my fellow women weren't either. Recently, with the rising popularity of leak-proof "period panties" and the notoriety gained by Kiran Gandhi free bleeding during a marathon, the notion of period-shaming thankfully looks like it's on its way out.
I was, however, still curious about issues of hygiene and practicality when it came to free bleeding. Friends had already introduced me to the Diva Cup and it just wasn't for me. My combination of scoliosis and a connective tissue disorder just made the whole process uncomfortable and unnecessarily complicated. Yet, now a mother and fully experienced with most every aspect of the feminine reproductive system, the environmentalist and gender equality activist in me still yearned to push boundaries and redefine menstruation on my own terms. So I decided, for better or for worse, I would try free bleeding during my next period.
The concept of free bleeding is fairly simple and pretty much explains itself in the name. Essentially, it's when a woman goes through her menstruation cycle without the use of any feminine products to obstruct or contain the result of her uterus shedding its lining. Sure, people can be squeamish about blood and it's certainly not the easiest thing to get out of fabrics, but it isn't the end of the world, either.
Since my main job allows me to work from home and my secondary job only requires me to be out of the house for a handful of hours a week, I felt I had the luxury of trying out free bleeding. Speaking of luxury, it's also worth noting that having easy access to sanitary pads and the like is a privilege not shared by the entire world. Many women bleed freely not by choice or as a statement, but because it's their only option.
So with underwear I didn't mind staining, plenty of towels for sitting on, and my comfiest (and thickest) pants, I was ready to let Mother Nature do her thing, completely uninhibited.
Day 1: Breaking The Habit
When my period first arrived, I actually had to catch myself because my instinct was to reach for a tampon and pantyliner. So there I sat, on the toilet, staring at the blood in my underwear and contemplating my next move. I changed my underwear and washed out the stain, then proceeded to wear a pair of exercise shorts that were already covered in paint and other marks.
Careful to place a thick bath towel wherever I sat, I was surprisingly not as worried about making a mess as I thought I'd be. My confidence would prove to be short-lived, however, when I stood up and realized that I'd been sitting with my leg tucked under me and gotten blood on my sock.
Not ready to throw in the towel (pun intended) over one sock, I laughed it off and chalked it up to inexperience and went on with my day, resisting the urge to pop in a tampon or use a pad. It's not that I really wanted to use those products, it just felt like routine after doing this process for over a decade.
Day 2: What. Is. That?!
You know how people say that as soon as you buy a green car, for instance, you suddenly start seeing green cars everywhere? It's not that there's been an increase in actual green cars, it's just because you have one that you're more aware of them. All of this to say that I wondered if this was the case when it came to free bleeding.
I wouldn't say my flow is abnormally heavy, but I definitely wouldn't describe it as light either. So I was expecting frequent wardrobe changes. What I wasn't expecting was, well, that it would be more than just blood. Perhaps this had been happening all along, but my tampon use just prevented me from seeing it. Or maybe because I finally was letting everything flow freely did this occur.
Sparing you the graphic details (mostly), I noticed actual matter, for lack of a better term, instead of just liquid blood. Thank God my sister is a nurse, because she was quick to calm my fears and tell me that it was completely normal. What I was seeing was either blood that had begun to congeal or the lining of my uterus was allowed to shed in larger pieces due to the lack of a tampon preventing its exit. Still, it was quite a shock upon first seeing it.
Day 3: I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar
Again, this could all have just been hormonal or in my head, but I truly felt like I was more in tune with my body than I had ever been before. It actually seemed like I could feel my body menstruating. Cramps weren't just cramps anymore; they were evidence of my reproductive system hard at work and showing me I still had life-creating potential inside of me.
Like most women, though, I'm still not elated about having a period. But I understand that just as many women desperately wish they could go through the sacred experience of menstruation. I have friends who have medical conditions and as a result, had to have parts of their reproductive system removed, so in a way, this experience allowed me to be more appreciative and aware of the significance of something as seemingly simple as menstruating. And as I mentioned earlier, all around the world women aren't able to just pop a Midol, grab a pad, and go about their daily activities. Free bleeding forced me to be more conscious of all that my period encompassed.
Day 4: Short & Sweet?
Usually my period, from start to finish, lasts about six days. On day four, however, I noticed that my flow had slowed to barely a trickle. I would equate it to the type of spotting you might have right before your period begins. At first I wondered if my uterus, along with the rest of my body, had just "woken up" and if my flow would increase as the day went on.
Yet, much to my surprise and relief, the opposite happened. By the time my son got home from school, there was barely anything coming out at all. I'm not an expert and this was by no means a highly scientific experiment, but I found it too much to be just a coincidence that I experienced such a departure from my normal period for the first time in about 192 periods (yes, I did the math) without free bleeding playing a role in things.
Since my period only lasted four days, with the first and last days being on the light side, I really didn't have the messy Carrie-type scenario I was afraid of. Aside from a few stained garments, taking caution to wear thicker pants when going out in public, and remembering to put a towel down on upholstery and bedding, it went relatively smoothly.
When free bleeding didn't cause the disruption to my daily routine that I thought it would, any reservations I had about hygiene or inconvenience went away. The only difference I think I'll make going forward is to use some type of pad or liner so I don't have to take quite as many precautions to avoid stains.
Overall, I found the entire experiment liberating. Free bleeding wasn't freeing, as the term implies, solely because I let my blood flow unrestricted; it was freeing because I was able to mentally and emotionally step back from how society dictates I should feel and handle menstruating. I'm not saying everyone should do what I did, but that's the beauty of it: every woman can and should have the right to choose how she lives with her reproductive system.