How Did You Learn To Use A Tampon? I Thought I Was Dying My First Time, So Thanks Puberty!

Carrie Trailer Let’s be honest: periods are terrifying. At least, when you’re 12 and it’s New Year’s Day and you were pretty sure yours was going to be a light trickle of blood rain and not…well, this. And by “this,” I mean “feeling like you’re going to die while you bleed for 10 to 12 days every month.” My period is awful and I hate it, except when it’s late, and then I’m suddenly happier to see it than I would be to get a box full of kittens holding candy canes. All that said, I both love and hate tampons.

I learned about tampons through all those sweet illustrated books that were published in the late 90s about puberty. (As a side note — and I swear, this is not an exaggeration just because I work with them nowadays — our sister site gURL created a book way back in 1999 called Deal with It! A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a gURL, and it was the first one of those books that actually told me shit about my life and body.) I looked at all the illustrations and would practice in my head over and over, awaiting the day I would need to perform the dreaded deed.

I wound up getting my period on, as I mentioned above, New Year’s Day 2002. I was 12. I specifically remember wearing purple underwear and being confused regarding whether or not I had simply peed myself. Then I realized there was blood all over me. Like, all over. Like I’d been fucking destroyed from the inside out by an alien. To be fair, I had recently seen Alien, so there were reasons for this fear. And as it would turn out, this wasn’t exactly far from the truth. My period lasts well over a week, my cycle is short, and it’s a miserable experience for at least four of those days each time. Aside from all the actual physical pain, the “flow” part of this literal mess is, for lack of a better term, obnoxious. Obnoxious like a stranger’s incessant tapping. Obnoxious like perfume in an elevator. Obnoxious like that friend you’ve hung out with once but opted to invite to a party without realizing she’s the kind of person who hates both dancing and drinking. I realized that pads, which essentially feel like adult diapers, were simply not enough. Plus, I was 12, and when you’re 12, you do not want to feel any more like a child than you already do, because it is so clear to you that you know everything once you hit middle school.

I wound up searching through my books, picking the largest tampon size I had, and — sorry, TMI — simply shoving it in. It did not feel good, but I assumed that this was a necessary evil of adulthood and that the best thing I could do was to just get used to feeling like I’d stuck an entire hand towel up my crotch.

After a couple hours of cottonvag, I suddenly remembered reading something about Toxic Shock Syndrome and, being an easily influenceable stress machine, I got hysterical thinking that I had it. I felt feverish, anxious, sick to my stomach, full of cramps, sweaty — all of it, which naturally led me to believe I truly had TSS. I contemplating telling my parents, but all I could imagine was the sheer humiliation I would face should the firefighters or EMTs need to put my gross, period-engulfed body on a gurney, or should the police come to take away my lifeless corpse from the room (these are the types of things crazy people who watch too many horror movies like myself imagined as children).

Of course, I did not have TSS. I just had cramps and was a scared young girl, as one may have guessed. I still use tampons, but I also still get that pang of fear when I realize it’s been longer than the recommended amount of time (hey, sometimes you’re working/on vacation/drunk and it slips your brain). They’re still great little items, in my opinion, though I am debating trying the Diva Cup or a similar device, so should you have any advice on that, let me know!

Now, how did the rest of you find out about tampons and how to use them? Tell your stories in the comments! Here are some of the hilarious stories my fellow staff members from The Gloss, Crushable, Gurl and others experienced these small cotton friends…

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    • Samantha

      I had to use tampons for the first time because of swim gym. I remember it was a little stressful, but I think that primarily because I was in the swimming pool locker room bathroom, and I was mortified that someone would think I was pooping because of the extra time spent in the stall. I hate pads and tampons despite not really minding my period that much, so learning about the menstrual cup was pretty fantastic. Although, that freaked me out the first time as well because I bought it at a hippie market in West LA that doubles as a dispensary, which just feels like the wrong place to buy healthy, sanitary menstrual products.

    • Emily

      I also had that American Girl book The Care and Keeping of You! I found it relatively helpful.

      • Jenni

        I think I had that book memorized.

    • Charmless

      I got my period at 11 and didn’t use tampons until I was 15 because I thought putting ANYTHING in my vagina was “slutty”. I had a very heavy flow as a teenager so it meant spending a lot of time sitting in class with a soaked pad smearing blood all over my nethers. I kept

      I tried tampons for the first time completely on my own, because I desperately did not want anybody to know I was putting things inside myself. I yoinked one from my mom the way other kids steal cigarettes. I thought it meant I was losing my virginity and that it was going to hurt. I remember sobbing in the bathroom because I couldn’t bring myself to put that IN THERE.

      In retrospect, I don’t know what I was so afraid of. My parents have always been very open-minded, so the stigma came from elsewhere. To this day, I can’t figure out why teen-me had such a messed up view of sex.

    • Tania

      I have never been able to wear a tampon without discomfort. I don’t know if I have a short vagina or what, but no matter how often I try it hurts. So I use the Pill to skip my period a lot.

    • Roxanne Marie Zoltan

      I had the American Girl book, too! I didn’t retain much of the information on periods because I was too preoccupied being terrified that my breasts would be tiny and asymmetrical (which I guess they kind of are so maybe all that worrying had an adverse effect).

      I got my period the day before my 12th birthday, on a trip with my dad to my grandmother’s. I blanked on all the period information I had learned except that I wasn’t pregnant and that when I was 7 my best friend told me that your period is when your mother sticks a needle into your vagina once a month. I wrapped some tissue paper around my underwear and used pads until my next cycle when my mom coached me through putting a tampon in during a commercial break of some show. I don’t remember what we were watching, just that the TV is on.

      • cnc55

        Great advice from your friend!

    • A

      I could not for the life of me get a tampon in for the longest time. It wasn’t until I had an *ahem* “experience” with a guy that I was finally able to use them! haha

    • anna

      I was a lateish bloomer, I looked the same from age 10-14 then BOOM! Straight to Large b-cups small c-cups summer before high school. No one even recognized me.
      I got my period and I remember calling my mom, whisper yelling while my dad was down stairs, “code red! code red!” she had no idea what i was talking about.

      Anyway, for some odd reason, I thought you were supposed to leave the plastic applicator in … So I’d put the whole thing in and then wrangle the little stick out so the plastic pod was safely inside my vagina. It worked surprisingly well, I only had to change my tampon every hour and a half or so. I remember being annoyed the cotton part kept trying to come out.

    • anna


    • ZanBrody

      My mom was completely horrified by the existence of puberty. She didn’t verbally shame me, she just couldn’t cope and thought if she ignored it, it would cease to exist. I got my period when I was 12 (on a day long trip to Shedd’s Aquarium) and I was scared to tell me mom. After a week or two I finally did and she stared at me in a panic, like a deer in headlights, and finally after a minute said “Well…if you have any questions, ask you sisters.”

      The next month I was visiting a friend out of state. My new stepdad dropped me off and I needed pads, but I was too embarrassed to tell him and kept trying to use wadded up toilet paper like a pad. When I got to my friends house, I just blurted out “I need pads!!” and told her of all my recent embarrassment. We walked to a grocery store, and she made me climb into the cart and a huge package of pads while she pushed me super fast up to the counter, to a line that had a teenage boy at the register. I handed them to him dramatically and said “I need to purchase these pads!” It was actually really effective in getting me over any shame and embarrassment surrounding my period.

    • Amanda

      I started my first period on a summer school field trip to a national park when I was 11 so we were in the middle of the freaking woods and I’m wearing bright purple pants and some girl points it out loudly. 4 days later I’m camping with my family and I want to go swimming so my cousins are like oh you’ll have to use a tampon. So every female in my family gathers in a room in the cabin while my cousin has me lie on the bed and shoves a tampon into me. Completely terrifying.

    • Sally

      I learned through reading the instructions that came with the tampons (my older sister was already using them) because I was too embarrassed (at the time) to ask/tell either my mom or sister so I figured it out on my own.

      Except, I didn’t take out the applicator (until several hours later) because I missed that part of the instructions. It was a tad uncomfortable, as I sat in a car for a few hours while enroute to a waterpark. Once at the waterpark, I discovered that I was leaking and in the restroom while changing it, I pulled out the instruction pamphlet I brought with me to make sure I did things correctly, realized that the applicator was not supposed to remain inside of me. Whoopsie daisy!

    • Anne Marie Hawkins

      I was a voracious reader with parents who swung from distant-and-uninvolved to emotionally abusive, so I learned how from the little slip inside the tampon box. My first tampon was bookended before and after with rants from my mother about how bad tampons were with serious undertones of “if you can use them/are having a period, it must be because you’re sexually active,” which seemed normal at the time but now that I’m an adult and in therapy I’m HORRIFIED that she said any of that to 10-year-old me.

    • cnc55

      Lol my mom got one stuck when she was younger (which my poor Dad had to fetch out of her) so she warned me about tampons. The day I got my period (I was 12) I told her I wanted to wear tampons, and she refused and bought me huge pads. Unfortunately for me, I had a subseptate hymen and the tampons would get caught on it when pulling them out. It was extremely painful and I only started using tampons a few years ago since the hymen went away. I hope other people had a more positive experience! :)

    • Eileen

      I learned from the American Girl book, too! Actually, not entirely.

      I found out what tampons were when I was about eight and my parents had to explain to my sister and me why we couldn’t use thrown-out Tampax applicators as telescopes. (Ew, right? But I didn’t know!)

      But I didn’t get that you were supposed to insert the whole applicator – I thought you just put the tip in and then pushed. Needless to say, I couldn’t figure them out. But I got my period for the first time shortly before I turned 12. It was such a non-event that my mom just saw my panties in the laundry and said, “Eileen, did you start your period?” And then the day came when I wore a pad to gym class, and I was not about to do that again, so I locked myself in my bedroom with a box of Playtex tampons and the instructions and just…refused to leave until I’d figured it out. Switched to o.b.s in college and have been happy ever since.

    • J

      I had the American Girl The Care and Keeping of you book too! My mom had bought me it when I was nine. When I got to the part about periods I turned to my dad asked “Daddy, what are periods? And not the ones at the end of a sentence?”

      He put down his book very calmly and asked what I was reading to which I told him that mom bought me a book. He stammered “It’s a female thing that ahhhh…. that happens a month. It makes something like a nest in your body for when your old enough to have a baby. And you know you should probably ask your mother more about it”.

      The next day at school I promptly ran around to all of me friends explaining that girls had nests in stomachs. Some of the girls were understandably upset about that idea. Some of the teachers made jokes about it to my dad but they all acknowledged that they were impressed that he did not immediately run away screaming at the thought of explaining puberty to his daughter.

      • Natalie

        Wait this is hilarious. and adorable. Your poor father was trying so hard.

      • Fabel

        Aw, a nest! That’s a pretty perfect description, actually.

    • Natalie

      You know what is funny? Every single one of my friends (including myself) thought at some point within the first few periods/first few times they used a tampon were 100000% convinced they had TSS. My first period was on my mom’s birthday, so she clearly considered it ‘the best birthday gift god could ever give me!” I still don’t understand that one. I used pads for awhile but HATED them, and my sister had a crazy heavy flow and didn’t use tampons, and my mom is sterile (my sister and I are miracle babies) and didn’t use them, so I bought a box of tampons myself. I read the little instructions, convinced myself I had TSS about 25 times, and eventually just got good at it. Those instructions, besides being horrifying, are actually pretty good. My sister still used pads a lot which blows my mind. Shes 26.

    • osteopathosaurus

      I was kind of an early bloomer so I suffered through pads only for about 5 years until I started using tampons–and I do mean suffered, I did ballet, was a cheerleader, played soccer, even pulled some complicated and daring quick sanitary napkin changes for swim lessons. I was mortified of having my period and it wasn’t helped by being the only girl my age dealing with it and having an obnoxious younger brother sharing the information with anyone who would listen. Finally one of my true (and still to this day, 15ish? years later) bff’s decided it was high time for me to catch up with modern feminine hygiene products and coached me through tampon insertion outside the bathroom stall in our dorm (I went to boarding school). The first couple of times I remember walking around like effing John Wayne or something, I think because I didn’t get them in far enough. But eventually I got the hang of it and was able to frolic around like puberty never completely happened. Then came the horrible dysmenorrhea a few years later when I would actually have such bad cramps my tampons would come out.

      Tangentially related: Now as a well-adjusted, professional adult woman I have male friends/colleagues (as in, also supposedly professional) who still find it hilarious to just happen to find my feminine hygiene products and act alternately bewildered and appalled by their existence. I love these guys so I have to laugh about it except when I actually need the products, then I want to stick a pad over their mouths (I really might do it one day).

    • Misenhammer

      I was in Spain w my gay moms and two of our friends at a seaside inn; the romanticism was lost on me at the time, I was all, “Fuck this noise”. My mom had packed a bag of tampons in case, not really thinking that maybe I should start with pads. So basically, I jammed one in in the bathroom, and I guess I probably popped my proverbial “cherry” (man that sounds gross) because I remember thinking “ow” and “black spots are happening?” And then I fainted into the claw foot tub. I spent the rest of the day confused, hurting, and walking incredibly bow legged (WE WALKED TO PORTUGAL THAT DAY WTF) to the point where I drew attention in the street. Then I got mad at one of my moms and locked myself in a restaurant bathroom and cried a lot. Ah, womanhood!

      I’m a keeper-toting girl who has a generally painless period these days. It’s nice!

    • Darya

      I, too, learned all I needed to know about puberty from the gURL book. At 22, though, I still don’t use tampons. I tried a few times when I was 14 and doing semi-competitive swimming but could never get the right angle and it was always uncomfortable. Then again, at 18, I tried because my friends thought it was super strange that I use pads. The diaper comments were never ending.
      I like to think of myself as a proud non-tampon user. I never have to worry about TSS! I also think it’s gross to have menstrual blood sit inside of me for hours at a time when it’s clearly trying to get out. Pads for life!

    • Fabel

      I’m late to this, but: 14, on vacation with my family. I had managed to avoid tampons up until this point—however, my period decided to arrive, & I was NOT going to NOT swim, so I asked my mom about tampons. She explained how to use them, etc., & I was able to insert it without issue. Where I ran into problems was getting it out :- I pulled, & pulled, but it was stuck (I’m sure the stress made me clamp up on it, too).

      So I’m screaming from the bathroom, “IT’S STUCK IT’S STUCK” & like crying, & my poor mother is on the other side of the door like, “Should I help…?” & I’m like, “NOOOOOO” still crying, & she’s trying to tell me, you know, just wait a bit more, maybe it’s too dry, whatever, but I’m like, “I WANT IT OUT OF ME NOWWWW” & finally I think I succeed? I don’t remember. But I was too scared to try tampons for A WHILE after that (maybe after I lost my virginity?)

    • Annona

      I was a late bloomer. I didn’t start my period until I was almost 15…and by then all my girlfriends had been having theirs for at least a year if not longer. So I knew all about how to use the feminine hygiene products from them (and my mother, who had no problem talking to me about period stuff). I remember having “the talk” at school in the 6th grade, where they separated out all the boys and made us girls watch a film strip about our period, which was horribly outdated and featured the kind of giant pads that hook to a belt around your waist (like from Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.) and I freaked out and my mother was like “Oh, no, honey….we use tampons now!”

      I remember wanting to start so bad, feeling like a baby because I hadn’t “become a woman” yet and everyone else had. And then I remember the first horribly painful, miserable period (because it turns out my lady parts are not normal) and thinking “Why the FUCK was I so desperate for this to happen?”

    • Lish

      If you got your period during the 70′s like I did, and you were afraid of tampons like I was, your only other choice was the “mattress” attached to a garter belt-like contraption that rolled inward in your panties and left crescent moon bloodstains for you to wash out by hand. After three years of that crap, I got brave enough to try tampons, and used them for another 30-plus years until my hysterectomy.

      • Samantha_Escobar

        Oh my god, I have never heard of that. WOW. I think you have just inspired another article, thank you!

    • Beth

      I tried a tampon during the first or second time I had my period – my mom didn’t tell me a whole lot, but she showed me where she kept the pads and tampons and how there was a little instruction packet in the tampon box. Fine, I thought. Pads got old fast, so I decided to try a tampon. I followed the instructions and it was no big deal. Then I went outside and played in the snow.

      After half an hour or so of climbing and sledding, I started to get a terrible pain and felt like something was very wrong. Like everyone else, I was convinced I had TSS (what is up with that?!). I went back inside, and found that I apparently hadn’t inserted the tampon all the way, so it was slipping out but expanding at the same time. I pulled it out and it was the worst pain ever. Agh, god. I had absolutely no idea that tampons expanded, and of course the only ones available were the uber-max-ultra absorbency. I filled the sink up with water, dropped one in, and nearly passed out.

      From that point forward, it was pads only for years. One time on vacation, I found a box of slimfit tampons, and life was wonderful for a week. I was never able to find the brand at the store.

      Now, at 26, I’m just starting to give tampons another try. I tolerate some brands but there is a serious lack of options other than super-max.

    • Leslie

      I went to Catholic school so no one there would say a thing. My mom was pretty good but had me use pads, which I hated because I was sure that they showed and that the smell would make everyone know I was on. When I got to college, my roommate insisted that I start using tampons so she did the instructions-through-the-stall-door routine and it took quite a while–actually, I must’ve had the tough, large hymen thing because I couldn’t get it in until I lost my virginity, which happened soon thereafter but that’s another story. Now I wouldn’t think of not using tampons or a menstrual cup.

    • Amber

      I am really freacked out i am in 7th grade and just started my period today, i wanted to try tampons reading all of this stuff and i put it in and i had to take a shower after so i put it in and was in the middle of my shower and my stomach started to hurt and i just remember bending down and i couldn’t open my eyes and hear anything and then i just got out, pulled it out and layed on the floor regaining hearing, i have no clue what happended im very scared!! What happend, my dad is a doctor and i don’t want to ask i feel like they wont believe me!