At the gym, my mind is usually blissfully blank. For 45 minutes I do nothing but obey the barked commands of my instructor. But on one recent occasion it was different. Panic replaced my usual serenity: was it a mistake to wear pale grey leggings? Was I about to be the subject of horrified glances and tittering? I caught myself looking in the mirror every 30 seconds or so, half expecting to see the blood-drenched figure of Carrie, from the horror film based on Stephen King’s novel. Even though periods tend to begin at the same time of the month, every month, most women I know fear that theirs will one day catch them by surprise. But my terror was especially acute that day because I was trying out a new sanitary product: period pants (or underwear, for our American readers). “Free bleeding” into reusable, absorbent pants sounded messy and dirty, like something that somebody who lived in a New Age commune would do – not me. I did not trust that it would end well.
So why bother to test them at all? The sanitary-product industry – worth $19bn worldwide – has long been dominated by tampons and sanitary towels. But their ubiquity does not make them cheap or convenient. Like friends and colleagues, I’ve often sighed at the thought of the huge sum of money I’ll spend on such products over a lifetime. Sanitary towels are not particularly ergonomic, while tampons have a nasty habit of making a loud rustling noise as you shove one up your sleeve before nipping off to the office loo. Neither is a great option at night, due to the annoying habit sanitary towels have of drifting out of place and because of the risk of developing Toxic Shock Syndrome, which can be caused by wearing a tampon for too long. An increasing number of women concerned about the environment (plastic applicators tend to end up on beaches and in landfill) swear by Mooncups, reusable silicone vessels that can be worn for up to 12 hours at a time. But since I am a somewhat clumsy person, the prospect of carefully removing a cup full of blood in a public toilet spelt trouble.
Over the last several months, I began to wonder whether period pants might be the product for me, thanks to a series of striking ad campaigns. Checking out the adverts that popped up in my Instagram and Twitter feeds, I was struck by how different they were from promotions for tampons and towels, which tend to be either squeamishly euphemistic (“Modess...because”) or absurdly enthusiastic (“Tampax makes life worth living”). Thinx states that they are just “better underwear for women with periods”. Dear Kate, which also makes period “activewear” (ie, leggings), shows women going about their daily lives: working, lounging at home and playing cards. What these companies are selling is convenience. WUKA promises that, with its underwear, you'll never need to make another last-minute dash to the shops for supplies. Its underwear can be used time and again – and at £24.99 a pair, are cheaper in the long run than the alternatives. And there’s no need to worry about changing them regularly for fear of rare but life-threatening conditions like TSS. Here is a product, according to these companies, that demands no change whatsoever to your daily routine. After all, what could be easier than wearing pants?
Nothing, as it turned out. Depending on how absorbent they are – some hold two tampons’ worth of blood while others hold four – the knickers I tested, from Dear Kate and WUKA, were more or less thick, but even the most heavy-duty pair didn’t feel like a nappy. Though the material used by each brand felt like polyester, it wasn’t plasticy and neither design was ugly or overly large. They were tight – presumably because baggy pants would make them more liable to leaks – but not uncomfortably so. My editor asked me whether it felt like “liquid is sloshing around your crotch”. Happily, it did not.
This does not mean that they didn’t take a bit of getting used to. Each company emphasises that you must “know your flow” and pick pants suited to your needs – if you’re a super-jumbo tampon kind of gal, these may not be the products for you. It takes time to trust that the horror-film scene won’t be enacted on the tube or in the pub. But eventually, after wearing the pants for several days and gaining confidence that I wasn’t going to end up looking like Carrie, I came to enjoy the comfort and ease the underwear provided. I didn’t feel dirty or smelly. Nights were much improved by the absence of thick, ungainly sanitary towels; days were less awkward without the tampon-sleeve ceremony. Preparing the pants for reuse was straightforward too – rinse, wash as normal, line dry – and I became smug about how eco-friendly I was being. I find myself cursing the fact I only have three pairs.