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I Tried Free Bleeding (And My Sheets Survived)

Writer Dawn Olsen gives us her personal take on what it was like to experience free bleeding.
Three tampons on a pink background

A photo of Dawn Olsen
Dawn Olsen; photo by Faith Blackwell Photography

I was cross-legged on the couch, watching “The One After Ross Says Rachel” for the umpteenth time and eating raw cookie dough. As I carved the spoon around the bowl, harvesting chocolate chips, I calculated how many periods I’d had.

Let’s go with a standard 28-day cycle. If you divide 365 by 28, that’s 13 periods a year. It’s been 22 years since I got my first period, so if you multiply 22 by 13, you get:

“286. Damn.”

My uterus had vomited endometrium out my vagina more than 280 times.

“Impressive,” I said to my abdomen, which rumbled uncomfortably. I’d gotten Period No. 286 a couple days before and was in the middle of the “ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ope gotta poop” stage. For me, that was normal. But unlike the previous 285 periods, I was forgoing period products and giving free bleeding a try. Which was why I was bare-assed and oozing onto a towel like some sort of menstruating Winne-the-Pooh.

I shook my head and traced around the bowl again. Another spoonful. A grainy pillow of chocolate and vanilla. “Get in my belly,” I told the dough. “You taste like memories.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

EVERYONE REMEMBERS THEIR FIRST.

I got my first period on a log flume. (This log flume.)

Looking back, it definitely feels like a metaphor. A front-seat view of the 42-foot freefall into womanhood. With splashing.

Periods are diabolical that way.

You’d think, after being on the pill for who-knows-how-many-years, I would know when the Check Engine light is about to turn on. But no. Every few weeks, I find myself whoring down a pan of brownies. Asking myself, “Are these cramps, or did my liver explode?” Crying at CVS because I’m behind someone paying for a box of Q-tips in dimes.

Again, I’m on the pill. I can see how many days I have until I take the placebos. It doesn’t matter that I’ve subscribed to Menstrual Cycle Monthly for 22 years. Every time it shows up, I’m surprised. That’s one of the main reasons all my bags, backpacks, and clutches have both a spare tampon and a spare pad. They’re there if I need them or if someone else needs them. Because uteri are really good at throwing surprise parties.

SO, WHAT IS FREE BLEEDING?

Free bleeding is when a menstruating person doesn’t use period products such as pads, tampons, cups, sponges, or in some cases, period underwear. They go with the flow and menstrual blood isn’t collected.

It might sound weird. It might sound unsanitary. But free bleeding isn’t new. As long as people have had periods, there’s been free bleeding. There wasn’t a lot of online conversation about it until 2015, however. That’s when drummer and music producer Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon while bleeding freely. Around the same time, poet Rupi Kaur posted a photo of herself fully clothed, with a spot of blood between her legs and a stain on the sheets. Instagram deleted the photo not once, but twice, for “violating the site’s community standards.” That same year, Cosmopolitan published “Beauty in Blood,” a macrophotography project focused on menstrual blood in water. It was labeled “not suitable for work.”

If I could roll my eyes any harder, my retinas would snap. Because God forbid, we talk about periods. As it were, the stigma associated with menstruation is one of the main reasons people with periods practice free bleeding. (Environmental impact is another.)

For the record, women are not the only ones who get periods. Men get periods. Trans women get periods. Non-binary persons get periods. All of us bleed, cramp, ache, eat our weight in carbs, and believe happy people in period commercials are just mythical creatures perpetuated by tampon companies. Some of us find our periods empowering. Or gross. Or dysmorphic. Fascinating. Magical. Some have IUDs and don’t really have periods at all. Others can’t help that they’ve got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina.

Which makes for a messy free bleeding experience, believe me.

YES, FREE BLEEDING IS MESSY.

A photo of Dawn Olsen sitting in a chair
Dawn Olsen; photo by Esther Boston

On Day 1 of Period No. 286, I biked from Fletcher Place to Broad Ripple and back. I wore regular black underwear beneath my shorts and thought about my period constantly. What if I bleed through? What if it gets on my bike seat? What if I get blood on that chair? Shit. I have to sneeze. What happens if I sneeze? What if I sneeze and the Great Flood rockets out my vaginal canal? What if I stain my underwear? Can you even stain black underwear? Can other people smell me? I can smell me. I feel damp.

When I got home that afternoon, all my clothes went straight into the washing machine.

That night, to protect our nice, new sheets — which are white, because of course they are — I slept on a couple of spare towels, also known as “the sex towels.” You know, because they’re the towels we put down when we have sex during my period. So we don’t ruin the nice, new white sheets.

When I woke up the next morning, the sex towels went straight into the washing machine. The sheets were fine, thank Poseidon.

SOME PEOPLE CHOOSE TO FREE BLEED. SOME PEOPLE HAVE NO OTHER OPTIONS.

I am privileged in that I grew up with access to period products. Over the years, I’ve been able to find a few products I really like, including “Unscented, Regular Absorbency TAMPAX Pearl Tampons with BPA-Free Plastic Applicator and LeakGuard Braid” and “Size 1 Leak & Odor Free Always Radiant Pads with FlexFoam and Light Clean Scent.”

Please don’t make me type that again.

I also have my own washer and dryer, which means I can launder all my underwear and sex towels and Thinx at my convenience. Which, during my free bleeding experiment, was every. single. day. But that’s not the case for persons experiencing homelessness, people living below the poverty line, and incarcerated people — not to mention people in other cultures. The United Nations describes menstrual hygiene as a human right, but most states do not have legislation that requires state prisons to distribute period products. Only 12 states and Washington D.C. have passed menstrual equity laws that require no-cost menstrual products in state correctional facilities. And then, of course, there’s the “tampon tax.” According to the Alliance for Period Supplies, only 20 states and Washington D.C. exempt period products from taxation.

Flames on the side of my face.

I DIDN’T REALIZE I CARED SO MUCH ABOUT PERIOD EQUITY.

I didn’t know that seven days of Winnie-the-Poohing it around the house would get me so, ahem, hot and heavy.

I wish periods weren’t shameful.

I wish we would stop publishing “humiliating” period stories.

I wish we would stop using unflattering terms like “the curse” and “on the rag.”

I wish people would acknowledge that it’s not just women who menstruate.

I wish restrooms — women’s restrooms, unisex restrooms, men’s restrooms — were stocked with period products.

I wish for more legislation, for laws that require prisons to provide period products.

I wish there weren’t taxes on period products.

I wish more companies offered menstrual leave.

I wish schools provided free period products.

I wish people would stop looking so happy in period commercials.

I wish Thinx underwear didn’t smell.

I wish Thinx underwear actually fit me and didn’t let my blood go all over my thighs and halfway up my back.

I wish Thinx underwear didn’t feel like squelching into a wet swimming suit every time I went to the bathroom.

I wish I had appreciated my body’s ability to menstruate before trying free bleeding.

I wish I had the poetry of language to describe how, sometimes, it felt so utterly primal and natural.

I wish there was more cookie dough.

Dawn Olsen is the founder and president of Make Words Go, an inside-joke-turned-LLC. Dawn also writes creative nonfiction and spends far too much time on Twitter. In fact, she’s probably thinking about Twitter right now. Either that or her cat, Ruth Kitter Ginsburg.

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