For a span of about six months in my early 20s, I didn’t buy tampons, and not because I didn’t want to. Working nights as a commercial janitor during college, I trimmed my expenses in any way possible, including helping myself to the menstrual products from the industrial-sized boxes used to stock the machines in the office bathrooms.
It wasn’t my most ethical moment, though I’d argue that the expense and relative unavailability of menstrual products isn’t particularly humane, either.
The menstrual product market is estimated to be worth about $15 billion, with a “B.” In Seattle, where tampons, pads, and other menstrual products are, unlike food and prescription medication, subject to the retail sales tax, the cost of these necessary items is increased by 9.6 percent.
As a result, one woman who wished not to give her name said she’s often shoplifted these products.
“I don’t like to do it, but I don’t know what else to do,” she said.
It’s hard to believe that a period could ever break the bank, but for menstruating people who live outdoors, that time of the month isn’t just an inconvenience. It’s a nightmarish combination of added expense, physical pain, mess, shame and even potential disease.
Finding a bathroom that’s accessible is already a difficult task for unsheltered individuals. Most public restrooms are for paying customers and many Seattle parks and other open spaces don’t provide reliable bathroom access, which can make changing menstrual products regularly a challenge. This heightens the risk of toxic shock syndrome, a potentially life-threatening disease. Getting a period (particularly for a person who struggles with food instability) can often increase the possibility of iron-deficient anemia.
This especially sensitive issue has gained more attention recently. There are service providers, particularly those for women and children, which make sanitary products available. But not everyone has access to those services (and, of course, people of all genders menstruate). At food pantries, including Northwest Harvest’s Cherry Street Food Bank, these products are available, but you have to know to ask, and the stock is limited.
Specific outreach programs and drives have begun cropping up around the city. Last March, the All Cycles Outreach Project collected, according to its website, 19,489 pads and tampons during a spring donation drive. All Cycles will be hosting another in the fall.
The resurgence of reusable menstrual products, such as the DivaCup, has also been potentially groundbreaking, though the learning curve is steep and the initial price point — $25 or more for a cup — is certainly a barrier.
In a culture that already can barely bring itself to say the word “period” and substitutes blue liquid for blood in advertisements, it’s no surprise that this is another way we turn away from the daily struggles of unsheltered folks.