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The Boychick’s Bookshelf: Board Book Round Up #1

Welcome to a special edition of The Boychick’s Bookshelf! In this entry in the series, I review a small collection of children’s books of interest to those who want to raise children free from and opposed to kyriarchy. These reviews will focus on books which showcase stories and lives beyond the dominant culture of white straight middle-class families, or which contain explicitly anti-kyriarchy messages (anti-racism, anti-ableism, anti-sexism, anti-heterosexism, anti-cissexism, anti-violence, anti-colonialization, and so on).

Many people have not-exactly-complained about how the books reviewed on The Boychick’s Bookshelf are great, but too advanced for their six, twelve, twenty-four month old. So, to remedy that, here’s the first edition of a special Board Book Round Up: smaller reviews for smaller books, but more of ‘em at once.

To commence:

More More More, Said the Baby by Vera B Williams

The Boychick loved this book, once upon a time. It’s a trilogy of short stories, all with the same pace and many of the same words, in which we meet Little Guy and his father (both apparently white), Little Pumpkin and hir grandmother (apparently black and white, respectively), and Little Bird and her mother (apparently Asian or Latina). I love it for depicting a variety of caregivers — showing loving fathers to the Boychick is especially important to me — , a variety of races (including the apparently-white grandmother to black Little Pumpkin), and both the Boychick and I loved getting to act out the belly kisses and toe nibbles. As with many board books, it ends with Little Bird falling asleep and being put to bed, making it a good choice for nap or nighttime reading.

Downside: The text, while colorful and artistic, might be hard or painful to read for people with visual or focusing difficulties.

Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora

Peekaboo Morning follows a black toddler through hir waking up, with visual clues leading to each next page, from “I see… my mommy” and daddy, through getting dressed, eating (and feeding hir breakfast to the dog), playing with toys, then going outside and greeting Grandma and Grandpa and a (apparently white) friend, and finally engaging the reader with “I see… you!” I wasn’t sure at first about getting the Boychick a book written in first-person with a non-white protagonist, fearing it might be appropriative, but I bought it anyway because books featuring families of color are so scarce, and it really is an enjoyable (if repetitious — but it makes it especially great for toddlers), quick read, with realistic paintings with enough detail to maintain interest over repeated viewings. It is very heteronormative, with a mommy and daddy, and grandma and grandpa, and very suburban (there is, truly, a white picket fence in one scene), but given the stereotypes of black families as urban and “broken”, I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing.

Downside: I’m reaching to find anything beyond the heteronormativity and repetitiousness (though again, that’s something of a plus when writing books for toddlers) to name as a downside. I will say that the painting of the dog looks like there is a smudge on the dog’s face, and it bugs me every time I look at it. But I have Issues.

Mommy, Mama, and Me – and – Daddy, Papa, and Me, both by Leslea Newman

These are two books, but a symmetrical pair, and we bought them together. Each is told from the perspective of the toddler-aged child of same-gender parents, describing how both Mommy and Mama or Daddy and Papa take care of hir, each alternately engaging complementary games or childcare duties. Besides the same-gender parents, these are fairly run-of-the-mill white suburban follow-the-child’s-day books, and the Boychick enjoys them. That very banality, though, is likely the point of the books: “Look, two-mother/two-father families are just like you!” or “we’re just like other (white, middle class) families!” This makes them a good intro to same-gender parents for the unfamiliar (and helped the Boychick accept that his friend with two moms did not, in fact, also have a dad), or normalizing books for kids who don’t get to see families like theirs very much, but also reinforces the white- and middle-class-ness of the “default family”.

Downside: In addition to the aforementioned issues (and I cannot emphasize enough the problems with only ever modeling white queerness), although each book stands well on its own, with many examples of gender-role breaking (especially in Daddy, Papa, and Me, as is expected in a culture that says toddler-parenting is women’s work), when I compare the two, there is a greater emphasis on play in Daddy, and more on nurturing in Mommy: Daddy ends with Daddy and Papa collapsing in exhaustion at the end of a park trip, Mommy with being tucked in and getting kissed goodnight. This relatively minor difference wouldn’t be problematic except that it reflects and reinforces cultural memes, that fathers are playful (and easily overwhelmed), and mothers are nurturing and organized.

Global Babies by The Global Fund for Children

The Boychick, along with every other child I’ve heard of who has been introduced to Global Babies, loved this book for its close-up, face-focused photographs of babies and toddlers from all over the world. Babies, in general, are fascinated by other babies, and this gooey-sweet simplistic text’d book fills that desire perfectly. The Boychick and I loved especially that so many of the babies are shown being worn: of the 16 total photographs, 7 are shown in or apparently in carriers (this does include one baby in a cradleboard being help up but not on a person). Each of the photos is labeled with the country the baby is from, and although two are from USA, this includes one white seemingly-middle-class baby, and one Native child (in the aforementioned cradleboard). Not all of the babies are smiling (or indeed, awake), which seems to increase the appeal; the young reader is able to study faces reflecting a variety of emotional and alertness states.

Downside: The text is far less interesting than the photographs, with sometimes just one word per two-picture page; I’m not sure the Boychick ever absorbed the “[all babies] are beautiful, special, and loved” message with it being read so slowly, interspersed with up to several minutes of studying the photos. There is something of a photo-safari feel to the book, though I think this is somewhat mitigated by the lack of depicting less-advantaged children as “pitiful” or “unhappy”, as many such projects do. I must also say that I know nothing of the Global Fund for Children beyond the noble goal printed on the back of the book (“…advancing the dignity of young people around the world.”), and cannot speak to its work, good or otherwise.

Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers

(Note: Cover pictured is for the hardback edition of the book.)

I love this book almost as much as the Boychick does. There is more text than in many other board books (including all of the ones mentioned here), but the text has a brilliant bounce and simple (but not overly so) rhyming rhythm. The text loosely follows a diverse crowd of babies from birth to the first year, often with several scenes on each page depicting many different races of babies and configurations of families (including an apparently-single mom of twins, multiracial and multigenerational families, and a two-mom family). Although very Western and moderately sub/urban and middle-class, the wealth of diversity shown in what “Every day, everywhere babies” are doing helps make it a delightful read. It’s also a favorite in the attachment parenting community for explicitly showing and mentioning breastfeeding (and I love that the mom shown breastfeeding is a woman of color, fully dressed, passed out in a rocker holding a book) and babywearing.

Downside: Along with depictions of breastfeeding and babywearing — though the ring sling appears to be drawn by someone who has never actually worn a baby in one — are abundant depictions of bottles, pacifiers, and strollers, as well as less than ideal carriers, and a baby in a carseat not in a car; I’ve somewhat mellowed on this since first reading Everywhere Babies, but on some level it still bothers me: these things are all ubiquitous in the culture the Boychick is growing up in, and the more he — and everyone else — sees them, the more they become/are reinforced as the cultural defaults. (An astute reader will note, however, that I haven’t let this stop me from enjoying this book with the Boychick, but I do usually change the words to the “babies are fed” page, to skip bottle, spoon, and cereal feeding.) I am also irked that the final scene, which depicts a single baby at hir first birthday party, features an apparently all-white, heteronormative family. It doesn’t completely negate the racial diversity of the rest of the book, but it does, once again, ultimately center whiteness, and reinforcing the white family as default. Also note that there are no visibly disabled parents or children depicted, and no assistive devices beyond one cane half-hidden behind an old woman seated in a chair.


I would recommend any or all of these books as additions to a beginner anti-kyriarchy bookshelf; though a handful of books featuring racial and sexual diversity read to pre-literate and mostly pre-memory children are not going to subvert the dominant paradigm or counteract a culture of hate all by themselves, they’re not a bad way to start. Buy any of these or other titles online at Powells.com or Amazon.com and support your friendly neighbourhood blogger; or find or order them at a local independent bookseller.

Have you read any of these with your child, and what did you or s/he think? What are your favorite pro-diversity, anti-kyriarchy board books?

Reviewing Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

Cover for Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation

I was grinning as I opened the package a reader had sent to me – the first hint that my plea “Like this blog? Buy me a book.” wasn’t entirely pointless – and giddy when I realized I had been sent Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation… but I was also so afraid I would discover it to be full of fail, as so many pop-culture feminist works are.

I was quickly proved right on both counts.

I wanted to like Flow. I wanted to love it – a book entirely about menstruation? discussing its place in (USian, at least) culture? this is right up my suspiciously vulvaesque alley! – but I found it did not live up to its so very great potential.

My trepidations began with the thin, smiling, blond, white-looking woman on the cover — but alright, all the images in the book are, or are based on, femcare advertisements from the 1800′s to now, I can get past that. But with the first lines my free-flowing love really started cramping:

“Females make up more than half of the world’s population. And at some point, every single one of us… gets a regular period.” [emphasis mine]

Oh Flow. Why we gotta start out like that?

Because no. Not every woman. There are all kinds of women in that 3.5ish billion who do not get a regular period, or a period at all — trans women, some intersex women1, women without uteruses, women with atypical hormones, women with atypical chromosomes, women who have been artificially infantilized, women with various disabilities, women who bleed but irregularly or anovulatorily. And they are no less women for it. And? Some people who are not women also have periods — and some of them might even also care to read a book about it. But you would never know this from reading Flow — the idea that only women, and all women, menstruate underlies all 270 pages of this could-be-wonderful tome, and probably 3/4 of my angry notes scrawled in the margins (and there are many in my now-beat-up, dogeared, adult- and child-scribbled copy) boil down to protestations of this one fallacy. 2

The word I keep coming back to with which to describe Flow is frustrating. If it were a book I entirely disagreed with and disliked, its flaws wouldn’t be nearly so grating. But so often a phrase or a point or section would be so almost excellent, yet would subsequently or simultaneously fail so very hard — or, there would be a long section of fail with a nod toward nuance thrown in at the end, stopping me from the simplicity of hatred — and I would be left sputtering, tense from the internal conflict, angry at the inherent contradictions. Here I offer a (very small, percentage-wise) sampling of what I mean:

  • Despite beginning the book with an entire chapter of critique of the negative language we use to talk about the menstrual cycle, elsewhere they entirely succumb to the same impulse, presumably in an effort to be “cool” and “funny”.3 And perhaps this is a level of humor I might otherwise have glossed over, but for being made aware in the very first lines that Flow was going to get so many things wrong.
  • While Flow presents itself as The Cultural Story of Menstruation (emphasis added), it very much means The American (or USian) Story of Menstruation, and much of my initial frustration with the book came from making that US-centricism invisible, when it so easily could have been explicated, and thus not (nearly as) problematic.
  • A critique of PMS in which doubt is repeatedly cast on whether such a thing exists or whether “women who claim to suffer from” (emphasis added) it are instead deluded lasts eight pages, before acknowledgement that yes, actually, some people really do experience and often suffer from it.
  • The entire chapter on “Sex and Religion” reads as a second-wave feminist outsider’s analysis4, largely focusing on Orthodox Jewish menstrual taboos, with two sentences at the very end acknowledging the work that some women within Judaism are doing to reclaim the mikvah.
  • In Back to Basics, there is a mostly-accurate and entirely readable retelling of the menstrual cycle and its affects on the body, but for anyone who has read Taking Charge of Your Fertility it is obvious that in some fundamental ways the authors don’t quite get it, as when the explanation given for why an amenorrheic woman is able to get pregnant is “…she was actually ovulating all along.”5
  • After I-don’t-care-to-count-how-many iterations that “all women” menstruate, finally, on page 205, in the chapter titled “When Good Periods Go Bad”, there is mention of two women (not types of women, but individual women!) who, in fact, did not menstruate: Bloody Mary (English Queen Mary the First) and Joan of Arc. From this it would be easy to conclude that such persons only existed in historical times, are exceedingly rare, and exist only as “an interesting new lens through which to view history”.
  • When at the last Flow finally discusses alternative, largely reusable, menstrual products — and in a largely positive light! — the information is nevertheless distressingly inaccurate in the details. We are told that menstrual cups must be washed, possibly “in a communal sink” (when a quick dump and wipe with toilet paper works fine), sea sponges don’t need to be washed between cycles (except “periodically… to be kept safe” — which is true if by “periodically” they mean “between every period”), and cloth pads “[f]requently… also need a good hard hand scrubbing first to get rid of the those stubborn bloodstains” (seriously? I have never done this, and never heard of anyone who does, any more than cloth diaperers routinely dunk and swish in the toilet).

In addition to the problems above, Flow, though having an abundant bibliography, lacks any kind of notes or citations (foot or end or otherwise) making declarations like “[Depo-Provera is] linked to an 80 percent greater-than-usual chance of the child dying in his or her first year” without having any way for the now-astonished reader to verify this perhaps controversial assertion. One might argue that it is a pop-culture book, aimed at the casual reader more than the scholar, but to include such statements presented as fact without offering any support or clues for the casual-but-curious reader to investigate further seems to be lazy at best, irresponsible at worst — and combined with the inaccurate details in the topics on which I am more knowledgeable, makes me question their veracity entirely. Nor, as I repeatedly ran up against whilst writing this review, is there an index, making it necessary to guess based on chapter title where or whether a specific topic might be covered; a minor irritation, perhaps, but reducing Flow‘s usefulness for those of us who might wish to turn to it as a convenient reference of information that is disturbingly difficult to find anywhere else.

While there is much to complain about in Flow, as you have by now gathered, but so much to love as well. The chapter on advertising is arguably worth the price of admission (not just the US$27.99 of the book, but the cringe-inducing cissexism and ableism). Here, Flow flows, and the sub rosa introduction to sociology is solid, providing ample evidence that “our collective menstrual mind-set is the result of effective advertising campaigns.”6 Here, finally, is the critique of the centering of the menstrual conversation around “exquisite, exclusively white, fabulous wealthy ladies of fashion and leisure.”7 Even if I’m inclined to take their Freudian analysis of the excessive abundance of water in menstrual product ads (“In purely visual terms, the message is loud and clear: all women need to be ritually cleaned and sanitized after their periods…” p 133) with a grain of salt — or sand8 — this chapter was the one in which positive thoughts outweighed negative ones in the margins.

The writing, when not crossing the line into offensive (as with repeated uses of “lame” and “crazy” as derogatory terms), is engaging and enjoyable, and more than once made me laugh out loud. For all the annoyed “No!”s scratched in the margins of my copy, there are also hearts, and exclamation points of agreement, and — perhaps most worthy of mention — numerous rants not against the text but inspired by its insight. Although I learned little new information from Flow (though it might be argued that I am a somewhat more educated on the topic of menstruation than average reader9), having the blatant misogyny of the American menstrual story laid out in such detail was illuminating. I may have known before how much menstrual advertisements affect the way we think and talk (or don’t) about periods, how profit-driven pharmaceuticals have contributed to the pathologization of menstruation10, and just how poorly many people understand their cycle, it’s lovely to have it all presented so clearly and compellingly, in one shiny mainstream package I could point the disbelieving toward.

And yet, would I, given all its problems? I remain highly ambivalent. I am loathe to recommend anything so thoroughly cissexist, but as long as this is the best option available — and to my knowledge, and perhaps until I write my own book on menstruation, it is — I recommend it but reluctantly, with numerous caveats. Yet those who most need to be made aware of its numerous problems are those who would most enjoy reading it (and perhaps wonder what all my fuss is about), and those who are most cognizant of the marginalizations it perpetuates I imagine would be least inclined to subject themselves to them.

Ultimately, I find I simply can’t “Just go with the [F]low.”11


In case you wish to check out Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation for yourself, I offer these links, through which I get minimal compensation for any purchases made. Although I encourage you to support local independent booksellers whenever possible, if you are going to purchase a book online, why not support your friendly independent blogger?

Buy Flow from Powells.com * Buy Flow from Amazon.com

  1. The only mention of intersex persons comes when discussing potential reasons for primary amenorrhea (when one does not start to cycle and menstruate after age seventeen), and the term they use is the out-dated and oft-offensive “hermaphroditism” — which they then only-sort-of-correctly assure the reader “can be treated”, erroneously assuming that being intersex is something that needs to be fixed and that the end of goal of any treatment should without question be to have a menstrual cycle.
  2. At one point, I had the idea of counting every incident of this idea being expressed in the book, every “all women” or “all females”, every “intrinsic part of being female”, every missed opportunity for inclusivity, every silence that screamed for acknowledgment of trans people or nonbinary genders. I abandoned it somewhere in the second chapter, realizing it would take me far too long, and the number would be far too high.
  3. “From one’s mid-thirties onward, one’s egg cells start to degenerate faster than potato salad on a hot day.” Emphasis added. Flow, 190
  4. At least one of the authors is herself Jewish, though not to my knowledge Orthodox.
  5. Wrong. To understand why, first we must know that while calling bleeding the start of the menstrual cycle is a convenient social fiction, it is physiologically inaccurate: menstruation is the culmination of the cycle, and only comes after all the rest of the hormonal dance — including ovulation. The reason an amenorrheic person can get pregnant despite not menstruating is that at any point hir cycle might start (or, having been trying all along, might “succeed”), and ze ovulates and conceives. But if ze had not had sperm waiting for the egg right then, ze would have, finally, menstruated, for ovulation does not occur without subsequent menstruation or conception.
  6. Flow, 114
  7. Flow, 120
  8. As I wrote the in the margins: “…’kay… or, ‘so leak free you can go in the water!’?” especially since all of the example ads they offered as proof appear to come from Tampax tampons, and one of the major selling points of tampons over pads is the ability to submerge yourself without ending up with an embarrassing sopping sponge between your legs.
  9. Of the “Five Things We Didn’t Know Before We Wrote This Book”, I knew three, and could have guessed at a fourth.
  10. While we still dismiss and under-treat many other menstrual disorders or conditions.
  11. Flow,  254: the book’s final sentence reads “Just go with the flow.”

Sea Pearls (menstrual sponges): a review

Warning: This post contains explicit descriptions of internal menstrual products and the use thereof, cervical and menstrual fluids, and my sex life. If you are particularly squeamish, or a member of my family, navigate away now.

Sea Pearls menstrual sponges

Sea Pearls menstrual sponges

Although I’m a happy home-made cloth pad user most of the time, I decided to invest in an internal product a couple cycles ago, for the (rare, for me) occasion when a pad is ineffective or inconvenient (swimming and massage come to mind). Because of my pelvic organ prolapses, neither traditional disposable tampons nor menstrual cups, reusable or disposable, work for me; that left, to my knowledge, Sea Pearls1.

And so I ordered some from a friend of mine, Zoom Baby Gear2, and after picking them up I spent nearly an hour giggling at the, as advertised, full-color pamphlet. I’m not sure what I found so amusing about it; maybe the starfish and shells on the cover, the obligatory bisected woman picture (to show insertion), the endorsement from Cleopatra3, or what. Perhaps I’m just not quite as enlightened as I like to think. I did, eventually, get over the giggles, and looked forward to testing them out.

Because it was the end of my period, I didn’t get a chance to try them until nearly a month later. And that is when I experienced Backpocalypse 2010, and about all I can say from that cycle is that 1) at least I didn’t leak while I was collapsed on the floor for nearly two hours then standing up wandering around in agony for another nearly two, and 2) The Man had a hell of a time getting it out for me (back spasm = couldn’t even reach to wipe myself, much less retrieve the sponge), but did, eventually, manage it.

The next month, I finally had them, a period, and the ability to get them in and out unassisted. So, I’ve had one cycle and one day of using these puppies, and finally feel like I can give a decent review.

Yes, you have to touch yourself: getting the Sea Pearl in and taking it out

Let me start by telling you that I’ve used disposable tampons with an applicator all of maybe twice in my life, and I hated it; I used non-applicator tampons throughout high school and for years afterward; I’ve charted my cervical fluid and cervical texture, position, and os width for years; my idea of a brilliant used-book-store find is A New View of a Woman’s Body: A Fully Illustrated Guide4; and I masturbate, rather a lot, including while menstruating. So I’m kinda used to the idea of touching myself, reaching into my genitals, and, when called for, getting my hands pretty darn messy. (Hey, skin cleans up great.) If you are not, consider this an opportunity to discover that our bodies really aren’t as gross as we’ve been led to believe: we can touch them, and survive!

So, the sponge. When dry, it is hard, kind of scratchy, and not at all squishy. But, run it under the tap for a moment, and, as a sponge should, it becomes soft, pliable, and very compressible, which are all very good things when looking to insert it into one’s vagina.

(A note: the sponge should, as the pamphlet says, be inspected5 and cleaned — more on that below — before first use.)

To insert, I get it wet, squeeze out as much water as possible, and compress what had formerly been a perhaps 1″ diameter, 2″ long sponge into the size of a very large pill capsule between my thumb and first two fingers. Sitting on the toilet, or standing up with a leg on the back of the toilet, I then insert it into my vagina; I try to at least get all of it between my vaginal walls at this stage so that it does not expand in the air, although it is not yet in its final place.

Next, I use my forefinger or fore and middle fingers to navigate the compressed (but slightly more expanded now) sponge into place in front of my cervix (which, because of my prolapse and sideways tilt, means it winds up in a sort of crevice high up and off to the right); I find it helpful to bear down slightly while keeping my fingers in place, effectively bringing my cervix to my fingers rather than vice versa: when I relax, the sponge is pulled back up. If necessary, I poke it around a bit more to get it just so, but at this point, I usually find I can’t even feel it anymore, and everything is quite comfortable.

The pictures and instructions have the sponge more in the vaginal canal rather than right in front of the cervix; that doesn’t work for me, since around menstruation — when the ligaments relax and the uterus and cervix usually drop a bit anyway — there’s not a whole lot of vaginal canal to use, and having anything there feels pretty uncomfortable. But it might work better for some to place it there, more like a traditional tampon.

When it comes time to remove it, I find the sponge has expanded (makes sense, since it’s filled with fluid now, right?), has moved/expanded more into the vaginal canal, and I am able to reach it fairly easily between my two fingers to gently pull it out. This can, if my flow has been heavy, squeeze some menstrual fluid out of the sponge, but since I always do this step over the toilet, I don’t find that to be a problem.

Some people, apparently, tie floss or string around the sponge, making it even more like a tampon, and so you only have to pull, rather than reach, to retrieve it. I suppose you could, but I have no desire to do so; either way, unlike a single use tampon you’re going to plop in the toilet, you have to hold the thing to get it to the sink, so your hand’s gonna get messy anyway.

Isn’t that messy?? Well, yes. Rinsing the menstrual sponge

This bit is the part I find really cool, but also sometimes annoying: I get the sponge from my vagina (or rather, from in my hands sort of floating in the toilet basin) to the sink, and rinse it out. (I have so far been lucky/able to plan it so I am only removing it in a toilet from which I can reach the sink; this stage would be a lot more complex logistics-wise if using a public toilet or one not in reach of a sink, and frankly, I hope I never have to figure out what to do then.) If my flow has been heavy, this has sometimes left drips of bloody fluid along the path it travels through the air, but so far has not landed on anything not easily wiped off.

The cool bit? The sponge usually (except on really heavy flow days) doesn’t look like much; there might be some red bits on the outside, or a brownish tinge around the sides, but it certainly doesn’t look like the movies lead us to believe a blood-soaked sponge should look like. But! When I start rinsing it, out comes all this bright-red water. Almost out of nowhere. I find this fascinatingly cool. (See above statement of midwifery/sex ed geekery.)

The annoying part is that there is almost always a spot on the sponge, I believe where it was pressed against my cervix, which is simply plastered with mucus6. And that stuff does NOT like to come off. I’m getting better at it, and no longer need to run the water for five minutes (!) to get it off; I find a bit of friction, and scraping it with my finger nail, breaks it up enough to let go of the surface of the sponge, and I can get it thoroughly rinsed in a minute or less. I’ve never read a mention of this elsewhere, so I assume it has to do with my placement of the sponge directly against the cervix, but since that’s where I’m gonna keep using it, I’m gonna keep having to deal with it, so I might as well tell y’all about it, right? Right.

After it’s rinsed, you can 1) disinfect it, and then leave it out to dry for later use, 2) set it aside to disinfect later (keeping in mind that the longer after use and before disinfection, the longer bacteria etc have a chance to settle in and multiply), or 3) pop it back in. I’ve done all of these; although I don’t use the sponge as my primary menstrual collection product, I find it easier to rinse and reuse than try to store until I can get home and clean it.

A nice relaxing soak… in vinegar: cleaning the sponge

The Sea Pearl pamphlet lists a number of ways to clean the sponges. They recommend against boiling or using soap, as these break down the sponge more quickly, but have a number of other suggestions, all of which come down to soaking in a disinfecting solution of some kind. Suggestions include baking soda, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, tea tree oil, sea salt, and colloidal silver.7 I’ve so far only used apple cider vinegar (since I have it in the bathroom for my hair anyway), and it seems to be highly effective, leaving no odors and only one spot of discoloration.

ETA: I just tried a hydrogen peroxide soak (about 1:4 H2O2 to water), leaving it in for, ah, about two hours (I was watching Doctor Who and got distracted…), and it not only got clean, it got clean, and is now the same color it was when I first bought it. No more stains whatsoever. I would recommend very thoroughly rinsing afterward, as the same reason H2O2 is an effective disinfectant makes it rather harsh on living tissue.

The sponge requires slightly more attention than disposable tampons (though there’s no risk of clogging the toilet *cough*), and a different sort of attention than cloth pads, but overall I find it quite easy to care for.

Yeah, but does it work?

Yeah, it really does work. Other than slight spotting that comes from putting it in when my vagina already has menstrual fluid in it (and thus it continues to work its way out), I haven’t had any leaks or failures from the sponge. It expands to fill the space given it, so there’s little chance of a leak past, and I haven’t yet “overfilled” it. What I do find is that when it starts to get full, I start to feel it — and that prompts me to take it out, rinse, and reuse or return to primary pad use. It’s not uncomfortable, unlike a full tampon used to be (I used side-expanding ones, and those things had some edges!), but it is there, and nags at me until I do something about it.

Because I don’t use the sponge regularly, and haven’t used it overnight ever, I haven’t had a chance to test out the claims that it’s fine to leave in during penetrative sex, and I don’t really see that happening soon. I do think it would be fine, though. My main concern would be if the sponge was already “full” — I’d worry both about leaking (from compression) and being more in the way (from having already expanded). There’s also the cleaning issue; if cervical mucus is tough to clean off, how much more so the abundant mucus of ejaculation? But, it’s good to know the option is there, unlike with disposable tampons or a reusable menstrual cup.

FDA, TSS, and pollution, oh my!

(You can calm down, those are three different topics.)

Now, what does the FDA8 have to say about this? Way back in 1980 (the year before I was born!),

twelve “menstrual sponges” were examined by the University of Iowa Laboratory and found to contain sand, grit, bacteria, and various other materials. The sponges were voluntarily recalled by the distributor.

(As the pamphlet points out, Sea Pearls, just like single-use tampons, are not sterile, and — unlike single-use tampons — might have minor debris and thus should be inspected and cleaned before use.) I have read in many places that their sale is, because of this, “technically illegal”, but what the FDA actually says is:

Sea sponges labeled as “menstrual sponges,” “hygienic sponges,” or “sanitary sponges,” intended for use as menstrual tampons, are regarded as significant risk devices requiring premarket approval under Section 515.

I have been unable to discover whether Jade & Pearl has obtained such or not.

Does this scare me away from their use? No, not at all. At the risk of sounding conspiracy-theorist, the businesses with money to spend are, in general, the ones who get products approved by the FDA. The disposable tampon and pad industry have lot of money; sponge harvesters and distributors, not so much. While this doesn’t make sponge sellers “good” and disposable menstrual product manufacturers “bad”, it does make me take any promotion of the ones with more money, and defamation of the ones with less, with a grain — haha — of salt.

As for TSS9, I have found reference to one confirmed case of TSS due to menstrual sponge use, in 1980 (compare this to “more than 800 cases and 38 deaths” in the USA in 1980 from tampon use). TSS risk from tampon use, primarily found during the era of using hydrogels in tampons (the same super-absorbent polymers still used in abundance today in disposable diapers), is caused by microscopic wounds created in the vagina’s mucosal walls when they get too dry (and then are roughed up by friction, such as the removal of a tampon), allowing a common bacteria, usually Staphylococcus aureus, to enter the bloodstream. The Jade & Pearl Sea Pearl pamphlet reads “Rest assured that Sea Pearls sea sponge tampons do not have the same drying effects as single use tampons.”

I, however, am not completely sure: the sponge is absorbent, though not greedily the way a tampon is (consider: the sponge is inserted when damp; a cotton or rayon tampon when dry), and at the end of my period, when there is not so much menstrual fluid, but my vaginal and cervical fluids haven’t yet geared up in anticipation of ovulation, I find the sponge more sticky, as it were, to remove. Do I think, therefore, I am at high risk of toxic shock? No, certainly not. Definitely no more so than using a conventional tampon (whose risk is already quite low), and, based on comparative feel alone (and worth what you paid for it), probably less.

A concern that some people have raised which I find more compelling than TSS is pollution, and the potential of toxic chemicals embedded within the structure of the sponge. Sea sponges are (very simple) sea creatures; they grow wild in the ocean, and although they are quite low on the food chain (as opposed to, say, tuna, or swordfish), they still spend their entire life-cycle soaked in the oceans we have made nigh-unlivable. How much of that gets absorbed in the matrix we use as a sponge? And how much of that then gets absorbed into our bloodstream via our highly permeable vaginal membranes? Could it possibly be worse than the dioxin-traced tampons millions of people use every day? I have no idea. But it’s something to think about.

But… a sea sponge?? A conclusion

Totally, a sea sponge. Granted I can’t compare it to a menstrual cup, single-use tampons haven’t been comfortable for me for years, and I’m still gonna stay loyal to my cloth pads for most of my menstrual needs, but for when I want to really get my gluts worked on, or long for a dip in the hot tub, or simply want a back-up? Sea sponge, all the way. They are soft, comfortable, easy to use, effective, and fit my body like no other internal device I’ve tried. I’m definitely going to keep them around.

Your turn: Have you ever used a menstrual sponge, and what did/do you think of them? What internal menstrual products have you used? Do you have any questions or concerns about the use of sea sponges as a reusable tampon? Might you now take a second look at those strange lumpy things you’ve seen in the health food store?


  1. Jade & Pearl Sea Pearls are the only menstrual sponges I have been able to locate, although several sources say you can buy cosmetic sea sponges and re-purpose them for menstruation.
  2. Disclosure: I received no compensation for this review from Zoom Baby Gear nor any other company or entity, and paid full retail price for my Sea Pearls, though I did receive $1 off my wet bag in the same purchase.
  3. OK, the exact quote is “Actually Cleopatra used sea sponges as tampons.” How exactly do we know this?
  4. My love for this book cannot be overstated: it perfectly appeals to my midwifery/reproduction, feminist history, and sex ed geekery.
  5. For debris or bits of sand or shell; I found none.
  6. I’m normally a big fan of saying cervical fluid rather than cervical mucus; after all, we say seminal fluid not seminal mucus, although it’s almost exactly the same stuff! (Except for the sperm, of course.) But this? Mucus.
  7. I would personally recommend against using tea tree oil, as it has estrogen mimicking/endocrine disrupting properties, and I’m not sure I want any extra estrogen pressed against my mucus membranes for hours.
  8. The Food and Drug Administration of the United States of America
  9. Toxic Shock Syndrome