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Tampons Were a Millennial Milestone, But How Do Today’s Tweens Feel About Them?

Tampon with string on blue background
Malte Mueller/Getty Images

After giving birth, I wore pads again for the first time in a really long time, and it brought me back to my first period, just before my 13th birthday. It happened at night, and I woke up in a bed that looked like something out of a Netflix true crime series. My younger sister stood in my doorway horrified as I screamed for my mom, “I’m DYING!” Once we all accepted that I was not, in fact, dying, my mother returned with a handful of menstrual pads.

“These are pads, you put them in your underwear and always make sure to change them when they are full.” I remember there also being some vague dialogue about how I shouldn’t have sex because I can get pregnant and, oh yeah, this will happen every single month for the rest of my life. My mom quickly left to call every person she knew to tell them the news, and I was stuck with a handful of pads and the murder scene that was my bed.

The next month, my period coincided with a pool party. My mom said I wasn’t ready for tampons, so I sat on the sidelines in shorts. It sucked. Thankfully my best friend Carrie had two older sisters, and they insisted I was indeed READY for the tampon experience. I was excited and scared—my mom said these were forbidden! What if it got stuck up there? Was I still a virgin after using a tampon? And most importantly–was I going to die of toxic shock syndrome?!

After Carrie performed her one-woman show entitled: “How to Put in a Tampon,” I was ready. I went into her bathroom and closed the door while she sat on the other side cheering me on. I tried 100 times—it just wouldn’t go in! I was tense and scared! Maybe I should just use pads. My mom said I wasn’t ready, what if she was right?! After an hour or so, Carrie got so fed up she marched right in and stuck the tampon in herself. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a true friend.

I instantly felt like I could walk on air, so much lighter! No blood-soaked pad weighing me down. I wore tampons now! When you’re a tampon girl, the possibilities are endless. Was I a cardboard applicator type of gal? No, too rough! Was I more of an OB type of woman? No applicator, just brute force?! No, way—I would NEVER get that close to my own vagina! Was I a Tampax Pearl plastic applicator girlie? Ding ding ding! I felt so cool sneaking my brightly colored oh-so chic Pearl up into my sleeve as I casually walked to the bathroom to change.

Now, if you are not a millennial and reading this, you might ask yourself, “What the hell is a Tampax Pearl?” If you are a millennial, you’re probably wearing a Tampax Pearl as we speak, because I am convinced that tampons (and my beloved Pearls) were a millennial milestone. I spoke with six of my fellow millennial period-havers about their experiences. Five of the six had pad pushers as moms and learned how to use tampons from a friend (guess everyone has a Carrie). And we all agreed that the one who’s mom taught her how to use a tampon was always “the most progressive mom.” What the heck?! Why were tampons so taboo?!

Were the majority of parents simply terrified of us tweens all dying from toxic shock syndrome? Actually…yes. TSS panic was a real thing after the Centers for Disease Control issued a 1980 report linking super-absorbent tampons made with modified cellulose to TSS. And while there’s truth to the TSS panic of the ‘80s making tampons scary, there’s more to it in a generational sense. My education about menstruation and products came from a boomer. And how boomers discussed periods was, well, they didn’t. Dr. Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, authors of This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained, tell me that the biggest generational difference is that people talk about all of this a whole lot more, from body changes to periods. “Some families celebrate a first period, but even for those who don’t, it’s an acceptable—even expected—topic of conversation at the dinner table or in the hallway at school,” the authors share.

Talking about menstruation might not seem groundbreaking, but just for reference, the first time the word “period” was mentioned on TV was in 1985 by Courtney Cox in a Tampax commercial. The Pearl, the sleek, “cool” option, was only brought to market in 2002—which explains the millennial affinity.

I remember harboring so much shame when I got my period before my friends, waiting until my pad was completely soaked before changing it, trying to coordinate the best time to go to the bathroom without anyone noticing. In retrospect, of course, I felt shame. The elephant in the room, as Natterson and Bennett tell me, is that what we’re actually uncomfortable with is the meaning behind the first period: a girl’s budding sexuality and her ability to reproduce.

“Some people experience real grief when witnessing the transition from little kid to tween to teen. Yes, unpleasant mood swings can certainly play a role in that grief; but so too does the mourning that they’re not our babies anymore.” Pulling on my heartstrings, the authors remind me that in spite of this transition, menstruating doesn’t make a kid any less in need of the love and care of a trusted adult.

So how can we better guide kids today through their first period without relying on a Carrie and her older sisters to show up and save the day (God bless them, honestly)? “Our advice,” say Natterson and Bennett, “is to prepare, prepare, prepare.” Have conversations with kids about what periods are (kids love the actual science!) and how to manage them. While no one can perfectly predict when a first period will come, there are all sorts of ways to prepare by giving kids information and showing them how different products work. “Pack a period pack with pads of different sizes and show your kid how to unwrap, stick them in underwear and dispose of them.” Why must the mystery of used a tampon applicator won’t make anyone break out in a cold sweat? Finally, familiarize yourself with menstrual cups and period underwear—the products of choice for many millennials and Gen-Zers—so that you can have real conversations about how to use them.

And those conversations might be way less cringe than when your mom threw a box of pads at your head and wished you luck. (We kid, but you get it…) As Olivia Galli reports for the New York Times, “Members of Gen Z and beyond are more forthcoming about their periods than generations past, and they are more likely to care whether the products they use are environmentally sustainable.” The next generation/s are proving that, indeed, the personal is political, opting for reusable products like menstrual cups and period underwear, that are not only supposedly gentler on our bodies, but on the planet.

***

At a postpartum checkup, my OB finally cleared me for tampon use, and I literally squealed with excitement. Tampons, my old friends, how I have missed you! I had purchased some of this “period underwear” the kids are wearing these days to see what the fuss is about, but they don’t hold a candle to my tried and true. When it comes time to educate my daughter about menstruation, I’ll make sure she knows that the Tampax Pearl is a fabulously chic option. She’ll probably think I’m completely old-school and out of touch. But hey, at least we’ll be able to talk about it.

How to Use Menstrual Cups: My Journey into the Great Unknown



purewow author
Anna Callegari

Freelance Writer

A UCB writer and performer since 2010, Anna Callegari was raised in Chicago and graduated from NYU with a degree in musical theatre. You can find her most recently as Samantha in...
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DaraKatz
Dara Katz

Executive Editor, Frazzled Mom, Bravo-Holic

Dara Katz is PureWow's Executive Editor, focusing on relationships, sex, horoscopes, travel and pets. Dara joined PureWow in 2016 and now dresses so much better. A lifestyle...
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