“It took me years before I understood that you’re supposed to press it in all the way in until you don’t feel it,” Amy Schumer tells me over the phone. “I didn’t even know if I was supposed to leave the applicator in.”
She’s talking about tampons. “You know, if you don’t have that older sister, or that best friend who has an older sister, or that super-cool mom… A lot of people never learned how to apply a Tampax. It’s like, trial and error. I don’t remember anyone teaching me,” the stand-up comedian says.
It’s a funny and relatable thing for Schumer to be sharing, and it reminds me of my own now-hilarious, then-angst-ridden fumblings with my first tampon. Learning how to use one involved tears, hands-on instruction from my mother (I guess she qualifies as a super-cool mom), a compact mirror, and a looming deadline in the form of an end-of-year class trip to the beach.
But the implications of both of our stories are, well, kind of sad. Read between the lines, and it’s clear that neither of us learned how to use a tampon at school as part of a sexual health education curriculum. And that’s why Schumer’s teamed up with Tampax on their new #TimeToTampax period education campaign, which aims to normalize conversations about periods — in part by airing a series of funny-but-informational videos.
As of June 2020, public schools in just 30 U.S. states (and DC) are required to teach sex ed; about 17 of those require the content to be medically accurate (a definition that varies by state), according to the Guttmacher Institute. The lack of information is part of the reason people feel embarrassed about their periods. It can also contribute to a stigma around menstruation that’s actively harmful.
“When we don’t offer even the basic information, like where to get a pad or how to use a tampon, we leave girls feeling scared and unprepared when they start their first period. Avoiding conversations during these pivotal development years leads to shame and embarrassment that extends well into our adult years, often causing self-esteem and relationship problems,” says Lyndsey Harper, MD, OB/GYN, founder and CEO of sexual wellness company Rosy.
Mary Jane Minkin, MD, OB/GYN, professor at Yale School of Medicine, says that menstrual education should include myth busting — women should be told that using a tampon doesn’t make you not a virgin, for instance, which she says many young women mistakenly believe. “I would also emphasize that if periods do become uncomfortable that the person should not be afraid to speak with someone, because there are things that one can do to help,” she says.
Dr. Harper likes resources including The Period Game, an educational board game about menstruation. Most of all, she says, it’s important to talk more openly about periods — without using cutesy code words or whispers. “Don’t make periods ‘a thing,’” she says. “Use the words tampon, pad, and periods in everyday language. Have positive conversations about these products, and use them as an approachable tool to educate girls and boys about puberty, health, and the magic of our reproductive systems.”
Talking more openly about periods is the first step in breaking down the stigma that harms so many people. So when Schumer, for instance, talks about how much she loves period underwear or jokingly proposes sending “tamp pics” in Growing, her 2019 Netflix special, it’s not just funny — it’s kind of groundbreaking.
“I’ve never felt shame about having my period, and I’ve always been really passionate about not feeling shame about it. It’s been really upsetting to me to see that other women, even women that I’m close to, feel shame connected to it,” she says, toward the end of our call. “I’m hoping to be more people’s older sister, and explain what took me so many years to learn.”