The Adventures Of Gynomite Girl

My foray into the world of alternative menstrual products takes the shape of a super hero's quest. Special powers: a death-defying ability to contort my vagina around recalcitrant products. Shazam! An unruly sponge is tamed. Holy nappies! One more double-thick pad is wrestled into submission beneath jeans. My mission: to make the world safe for femi-nazis. My motto: no super plus is too great, no junior/lite too insignificant. Only one thing can bring me to my knees. The Kryptonite of the body-and-blood set: celebrate-our-cycles liturgy.
Sadly, New Ageans dominate this market. Take New Cycle Products for example. The catalogue cover looks innocuous enough. Just another sea nymph dangling from a slivered moon. But inside affirmations--``May our sunlight-consciousness illuminate the vessel of our moon-womb-chalice'' --attack me from all directions. Moon Bowls, pots to soak used pads in before washing them and returning this ``rich soaking water'' to plants and gardens for ``amazing results,'' reinforce the over-riding theme: ``Women have an innate understanding of the Universe that is directly linked to their ability to cycle.'' And catalogue copy is not content with your cycles. It wants your firstborn as well. First timers are sucked into celebrating menarche with the Cycle Celebration Crown Kits.
In the hope that readers will profit from my own misadventures with these alternative products, I offer up these notes from a menstrual odyssey.

Cloth Pads

Major bummer for the city dweller who hasn't got her own washer and dryer and sometimes doesn't do laundry for weeks at a time. Plus, it's very much a drag when you discover, a week or two after the fact, that you've forgotten a used pad, now buried and fermenting at the bottom of your gym bag. True, cloth pads are comfier and less bulky than commercially sold paper ones, but it's a little like comparing a corset with a girdle. (Glad Rags, P.O. Box 12751, Portland, OR 97212/phone, 1-800-799-4523; Many Moons, 14-130 Dallas Road, Victoria, B.C. V8V 1A3; Modern Women's Choice, P.O. Box 245, Gabriola, B.C. V0R 1X0/phone, 604-247-8433; New Cycle Products, Inc., Menstrual Wealth Catalogue, P.O. Box 1775, Sebastopol, CA 95473.)

The Keeper

This is a peculiar rubber contraption that seems to work the way a diaphragm does. It's cheap--$35 for a product designed to last 10 years--and makes a lot of sense environmentally. Made of gum rubber, the Keeper is a receptacle for menstrual fluid. The concept's been around for a while. A 1962 Good Housekeeping ad advertises the Tasset, an identical device, so the product's continued obscurity seems odd. Until you try it. While I love the idea of this one, the technology--or at least the instructions--need improving. The four times I used it, it leaked. (The Keeper, P.O. Box 20023, Cincinnati, OH 45220.)

The Sea Sponge

Technically speaking, sea sponges are not allowed to be sold as menstrual products today. According to Bonnie Ferguson and Teri Dowling, who sell a $1 brochure about sea sponges, the FDA banned menstrual sponges in 1981 after a University of Iowa study reported that sand, chemical pollutants, bacteria, and fungi were found in natural sponges. ``Since sponges are a natural, organic product, the levels of these substances can not be controlled or regulated,'' they explain. Like tampons, no further studies have been done to see whether the presence of these pollutants corresponds to other health problems. Unlike tampons, sponges have been yanked from the market. Sort of.
Carefully including a lawsuit-averting disclaimer that this is ``not intended to recommend the use of menstrual sponges, but simply to give women the information they need to make an informed choice,'' Ferguson and Dowling's brochure explains that silk sea sponges can be purchased at any cosmetic counter and cut down to size. And indeed they can. Charmed by cost and minimal environmental impact, I bought one, took it home, and boiled it for five minutes, as suggested, then inserted it. It worked fine--in an around-the-house kind of way. After all, when you sneeze or cough, the accompanying muscle-clenching response can cause a near saturated sponge to leak. Also, for some women I talked to, rinsing one out in a public restroom or at work required a whole new level of intimacy with colleagues. (For details: Sea Sponges, Medea Books, 849 Almar Avenue, Suite C-285, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Or call: 1-800-41-MEDEA.)

Chlorine-Free Disposable Pads

Clearly preferable to most commercially produced pads for environmental reasons, I'm conscience-bound to recuse myself from this consumer report since I hate the whole nasty lot of them--pads, that is. But for those who've acclimated themselves to the bul k, there are some dioxin-free alternatives. (Seventh Generation, Colchester, VT 05446-1672/phone, 800-456-1177; Today's Choice, 500 American Way, King of Prussia, PA 19406/phone, 800-262-0042.)

Non-chlorine Bleached, 100 Per Cent Cotton Tampons

My favorite by far. Traditionalist that I am, my menstrual odyssey began and ended with tampons. As I began trying these products some months ago, I kept wondering why they couldn't just make a tampon that was good for you. Or at least, not bad for you. Or at least, not as bad for you and the environment as dioxin-laced plugs. Then, inadvertently, while waiting in the snail's-pace check-out line of the Park Slope Food Co-op, I discovered Natracare. (I later found out about another environmentally friendly tampon called Terra Femme. See below.) Natracare tampons are o.b.-style, advertised as ``chlorine-free and nonirradiated...and do not contain synthetics, surfactants, optical whiteners, fragrances or rayon fibres.'' According to Natracare founder and president Susie Hewson, the company uses a high grade of long-fiber cotton, since the cheaper, short-fiber cotton can disintegrate more easily, leaving particles behind in the vagina. Sold to health-food stores and drug stores at a cost of $3.54 per box of 20, the subsequent markup means they're costing a bit more than most brands. Still, stack these stubby plugs next to their taller commercial cousins and the health and environmental advantages loom larger than cost. (Natracare, 191 University Blvd., Suite 219, Denver, CO 80206; Bio Business International's Terra Femme tampons, 178 Hallam Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M6H 1W8.)