Interview by Elena Holmes
Cal Major is a UK-Based activist who has been paddle-boarding to raise awareness for the plastic pollution problem. She has paddle-boarded 260 miles from Plymouth to Croyde in order to raise funds for a marine conservation group. Sarah Outen MBE was the first woman and the youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean and also the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Alaska. She completed a round-the-world journey, under her own power, by rowing boat, bicycle and kayak, on 3 November 2015.
Has menstruation ever impacted upon your participation, or the participation of others you were with, in adventure? This can be either positively or negatively.
Cal: Menstruation definitely has impacted on adventures. There is always a thought in the back of your mind about when your period might come and the worry that it might be inconvenient whist away adventuring. I have learnt to manage it pretty well without it bothering me as much anymore, but certainly there would always be a worry about when and where you might be able to find a toilet or suitable facilities and supplies to look after yourself whilst adventuring. Adventuring in a group can bring problems of privacy for managing being on your period. It has never stopped me from doing any adventures but certainly adds a new element of planning and worry.
Sarah: It’s another thing to deal with in physical and mental terms, so I guess that can take its toll in arduous situations. It often makes you a bit more teary perhaps or irritable. It has the potential to be (and has been!) messy at times, particularly if there are limited opportunities for dealing with Mooncups which need emptying for example. Period pain is generally improved by exercise for me so I actually enjoy the focus of a journey.
I do remember getting very depressed when I tried the combined contraceptive pill on an expedition in my teens — I wouldn’t go near that again. I have also heard of people not being able to get hold of tampons while away in certain countries which is why I favour the moon cup as you always know you have it with you.
Do you have any menstruation-and-adventure horror stories to share?
Sarah: I have an underactive thyroid for which I need daily medication and when it’s out of sync my periods tend to go a bit nuts. If my meds are too low I tend to have very heavy periods and if they are too high they go on forever: I had a five week period during the North American cycling leg of my L2L journey. That was not the best of times to say the least as it really affected my energy and general well-being.
How do you manage menstruation in adventure, including dealing with menstrual waste, and how is this different to in daily life?
Cal: I always use a Mooncup for periods now which has revolutionised how I manage them. I don’t have to remember to take any supplies or worry about changing sanitary wear often as I’ve found I can use a Mooncup for a fairly long amount of time. It has also meant I don’t have to worry about disposing of any used sanitary products and I don’t need to worry about the environmental impacts of my periods.
I have a particular concern regarding sanitary products and their wastefulness hence the original drive to use a Mooncup to limit the amount of waste I was producing. I try to live without using any single use plastic so this has been an important change.
Sarah: I have used a mirena coil in the past to useful effect in reducing and regulating my periods for expeditions. I use a Mooncup and have done for years, making sure I have water and/or wet wipes available (biodegradable organic wet wipes and burning all rubbish). It is safe, hygienic, easy and cheap as well as being environmentally friendly.
I currently have an issue with a fibroid and have just finished antibiotics for a pelvic infection which went undiscovered for six months meaning that I bled every day. Literally draining! At the moment my periods are very heavy once again and I resorted to taking norethisterone to try and stop them for the six weeks I was away adventuring in Alaska.
I generally deal with periods by planning ahead and talking to my doctors or other pals about what they do to manage it. Trying to understand my own body and notice when things are different.
For me, dealing with menstrual waste doesn’t differ much from daily life. Instead of rinsing my moon cup out in the sink or pouring the contents down the loo I will pour it into the ocean and rinse, or do so on land being sensible about where I am doing so – for example burying it or throwing into vegetation or, if a loo is available, disposing of it in a loo.
Do you feel comfortable discussing menstruation and issues that may arise regarding menstruation during an adventure?
Cal: I generally adventure with close friends, so feel comfortable discussing menstruation with them, but have currently not been in the position where I have had to discuss it with anybody else.
Sarah: The older I get and have more smear tests and have had various gynae investigations and procedures for fibroids and an infection, yes, I do. When I was younger it was never really talked about so it was more taboo. I am really open and keen to talk about it now in team mates and pals – I think it’s really important and a useful learning conversation too.
Do you find you feel more comfortable discussing menstruation with different groups of people? And does the gender of the people with whom you discuss menstruation affects how comfortable you feel talking about it?
Cal: I am comfortable discussing it with most other women, but not with men that I don’t know.
Sarah: I feel most comfortable discussing menstruation with women, friends and doctors. I often find that men don’t really know what to say! I got quite annoyed at an RGS event one year on the topic of cycle touring. One lady asked the panel (which I was on) about how to deal with periods while adventuring. The only guy on the panel asserted that all periods stop on expedition due to the fatigue and exertion so I was very keen to tell the lady that it can be different for everyone.
How do you feel about the ways in which menstruation is regarded in the UK, and would you like to see any change?
Cal: I feel it is ridiculous that a process so vital to life and shared by 50% of the population is brushed under the carpet and not discussed because it is considered embarrassing. I feel sad that young girls often have to figure it all out for themselves without the guidance of their peers or other women and being too embarrassed to discuss it openly. I also feel that since there is very little open discussion around the subject, alternative options for dealing with periods such as the Mooncup, reusable sanitary towels and not using any products at all, are often not on people’s radars.
Sarah: For me when growing up, it felt like a bit of a taboo. My mum barely talked about it, my friends didn’t seem to and so it was really only until my twenties that I started to feel comfortable talking about menstrual health and managing periods. I would like to see Mooncups being promoted more readily in schools and surgeries and everywhere especially given the current environmental crises and the fact that many girls are facing ‘period poverty’ without enough money to buy tampons or towels. And the tampon tax should definitely go.
Do you think that menstruation is ever a barrier for women participating in adventure, and if so, do you feel it necessarily needs to be this way?
Cal: I absolutely think that some women think of menstruating as a barrier to many different things: even just daily exercising let alone being out of their comfort zone and away from facilities. It is another thing to worry about. However, if we were able to discuss it more openly and provide conversation about solutions that other women are using, and indeed share the fact that sometimes we don’t get it right and that it can be a problem (but that that doesn’t have to be embarrassing, or to have ruined the trip), then those barriers would be removed.
Sarah: Yes, definitely. I get asked a lot about what to do about periods when adventuring and often personally see it as a barrier to others. It definitely doesn’t need to be that way. Planning, knowledge, open communications, maybe meds if appropriate — and definitely a sense of humour, make periods no barrier to adventuring, in my mind.