Jenny Diski has an amusing piece – for we, les femmes, anyway – in this edition of the London Review of Books. (Thank goodness, no more weird letters on RW Johnson this week.) For many years of my life, really too many years, I assumed that tampons were something that smokers used. My mother was, in those days, a heavy smoker. She had so many gadgets for smoking – cigarette holders, tar-reducing cigarette holders, leather pouches for her lighters that hung around her neck, filters, different types of matches & so on & so on – and I was struck by the similarity between cigarette filters and tampons. But let’s be frank: a cigarette filter would be most suitable for a doll’s period, not a real live human female period. (I may have hit on something there: I’m thinking Barbie plays tennis… Barbie goes shopping… Barbie at the riding stables… Barbie starts her period!)
For me, though, because my mother didn’t ever tell me what her tampons, which were strewn around the basin and in all cupboards near her bathroom, were for I simply assumed they were a type of filter. But they are quite big, I used to contemplate. And, I’ve never actually seen her put one in her mouth. And when I did get my first period she hugged me and, to my horror, later, told my father, who congratulated me on becoming a woman, leaving my jittery teenage self utterly appalled. But my mother only introduced me to the clumsily named, ST. She showed me where to place a fat sanitary towel in my knickers and how to keep it there. Stranger still, the ones she offered me had loops at either end, the type to be attached to a belt (just writing that makes me feel anxious), not the ones with a sticky strap as slim as a five pound note. No. My mum’s were bulky and sticky-less. Imagine rolling up a small hand towel, boys, placing it in your knickers, and then pulling your skin-tight jeans up and over all of that. Then try walking and behaving as if everything is completely normal. It was at least a year before I ventured onto the tampon. And what a saga that was. I read the instructions and tried to follow them but the damn thing simply wouldn’t go up with ease. Eventually, I gave up & decided to assume it was supposed to be uncomfortable (it all made sense, this curse my mother had discussed!) and that I should make do. Suffer – that’s what I’d been brought up to understand of life. However, I was on holiday at the time – in France – and was swimming regularly in a pool with other close family friends. Not wanting to appear different, or to draw attention, I jumped in as normal, with this thing only half-placed inside me.
How it could be, that someone born in the late sixties could possibly be stumped by a tampon still distresses me. I’m still amazed at my mum for her inability to explain to me the tampon, and amazed with myself for never ever asking her about it since.
The weird thing is, I was, in a way, partially right about the tampon and its close relationship to smoking. A friend told me recently, after she’d been to Charing Cross Road to stock up on smokers’ essentials, that the expert in the shop advised her not to bother buying proper wadding for her Zippo.
‘A tampon’ll do the job just as well’, he said.
[Note: the man-size flame in the Zippo ad. Of course!]