by Ariel Meadow Stallings
It was one of those trips to Walgreen's that found me a bit more rushed
than usual: roommate had "borrowed" my last tampon and Aunt Flow
had come to pay a visit and there I was, scanning the shelves for the o.b.s
but the familiar box was nowhere to be found. The strange stubborn streak
that runs deeply through my body stood and faced the much-despised "Feminine
Protection" section and glared at all the pink and blue boxes. I refuse
to buy a tampon with an applicator. I am woman, damnit, and I don't need
some landfill-clogging applicator to prevent me from myself! So, in my decidedly
desperate and stubborn state I searched the shelves for something, ANYTHING
that didn't smell like baby powder and have the words "petal"
or "soft" on the label. And there they were: INSTEAD. I don't
know what emboldened me to use myself as a guinea pig, I'd never even heard
of this product, let alone heard anything about how it worked or didn't
work. But I was starting to get that familiar panicked, "I need to
go the the restroom now, right now!" feeling so I bought the box and
ran home to the comfort of my own home to try the notably applicator-free
I did something first that most of us probably haven't done in many
years: I read the package insert. Interesting reading, actually. There were
questions and answers and even a little statement by "Audrey Contente,
Inventor." It carefully lead you through the insertion, wearing and
removal of INSTEAD. It also told you the history of the product. As someone
who was raised by a women's health care specialist, I know for a fact that
the idea of INSTEAD isn't "the first significant new alternative in
feminine protection in over 60 years" as the packaging claims. INSTEAD
is best described as a menstrual diaphragm of sorts, a form of which has
been available at women's health care clinics for a decade or so. What this
is is the first mass marketing of the product in a distinctly disposable
So, there I was, pants around ankles, reading my little pink pamphlet
and having some of my concerns addressed. The advantages are that you can
wear it longer: twice as long as a tampon. Unfortunately, even the enthusiastic
pamphlet authors had to admit "consumer usage of INSTEAD has not been
extensive enough to date to quantify the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome."
I made a mental note to use caution. Next advantage: INSTEAD doesn't absorb
the body's natural vaginal fluids, which tampons do. Those natural vaginal
fluids are there for a reason, ladies! The pamphlet's way of saying this
was "when you remove a tampon, sometimes the vaginal tissue can become
dry and irritated, swollen or chafed." Here, here! While I don't think
I've ever felt discomfort quite that strong (let's not put the words "vagina"
and "chafed" too close to one another, alright?) it is true that
tampons absorb everything, not just menstrual blood. This can disrupt the
natural vaginal environment (those are my words; maybe I should consider
pamphlet writing). And INSTEAD's most prominent promise: "INSTEAD is
the only feminine protection product that allows you to engage in clean
and comfortable sexual intercourse." All that and "no embarrassing
odor!" Well, blow me down! I was convinced!
I took my first INSTEAD out of its purple baggy. It really does look
basically like a diaphragm, except really pink. It's got a soft yet resilient
plastic rim, and a thin plastic "collection area" that's about
the thickness of a super-strength condom. It looked harmless enough, kind
of like a baby jellyfish. Now, without going into too many details (you
really don't want to hear it any more than I want to type it) I will tell
you that inserting INSTEAD necessitates a confident familiarity with the
inner workings of one's body. Here's how the pamphlet describes the process:
"Keeping the rim pressed together, insert INSTEAD completely into the
vagina. Then use your finger to push INSTEAD downward and back as far as
it will go. It will slide into place under the cervix and behind the pubic
bone." See? In order for this not to be a traumatic experience you
must know exactly where those two things are.
Luckily for me, I do. The whole process wasn't too bad and it was true
that once it was is place there was no sign of it at all! Couldn't feel
it, couldn't see it. Not even the Telltale String. Yes, a great product
So there I was. The guinea pig. I went about my usual activities and
everything seemed pretty OK. No sign of leaking. No sign of anything. Eight
hours went by. I was in heaven! I was preparing to become a poster child.
I could see my face plastered all over the sides of busses, holding my baby
jellyfish, with a smile of self-assuredness and the words "Try INSTEAD,
instead!" underneath. It was relatively cheap too, considering how
long you could use it, I figured a package of 6 for $3 would be fine for
the whole cycle. How thrifty!
Then I decided to experiment. I was going to take the thing out soon
anyway, so I did what is commonly referred to as "bearing down."
You know: I pushed. I pretended to cough really hard, laugh really loud
or relieve myself in a big way. Disaster. Total disaster. Eight hours of
menstrual fluid leaked out all at once and with a vengeance. EIGHT HOURS.
Have many of us ever experienced eight hours of flowing all at once? No,
and there is a good reason for that.
It is the fatal flaw of INSTEAD: when it rains it really pours. Unlike
a pad, which is just the Benign Absorber, or the tampon, which is kind of
an Absorber/Plug, INSTEAD is like a dam just waiting to be broken. I don't
know what happened to the "gentle seal that works to prevent leakage"
as the Holy Package Insert promised. Luckily I was at home, close to clean
clothes but it would have been a really big problem if I hadn't been.
This brings us to the removal of INSTEAD. This is where familiarity
with your body must be elevated to total and complete acceptance and comfort.
Removing INSTEAD involves a lot of things. Again, relying on my pamphlet,
I was told to "hook your finger under the rim . . . pull steadily."
Let me tell you, one finger does NOT do it and I don't care how steadily
you pull, it is still a strange sensation. And yes, it is a mess. A big
mess. A huge mess. Hand-washing is seriously necessary. And to make it even
worse here I was, trying to be environmentally conscious and I've now got
this soiled pink plastic baby jellyfish that has to be wrapped in huge wads
of toilet paper and THROWN AWAY. Much more garbage created than an applicator!
As you can imagine, my spunk was sputtering. Here I was all proud of
myself - saving money, being environmentally conscious and comfortable with
my own body, and where did it get me? Deeply stained clothes, a stuffed
garbage can and you can bet I sure as HELL wasn't going to test out the
promise of "clean and comfortable intercourse."
I did however use INSTEAD for few more days and gave it good long chance.
I will say that it works really well on light flow days. There definitely
isn't an "embarrassing odor" (although there was the aforementioned
embarrassing huge stain on my pants). When it worked it did in fact work
for much longer than a tampon. I was, however, disturbed by the "disposable"
nature of INSTEAD. The pamphlet cautions "Never reuse INSTEAD, since
doing so may expose you to the risk of vaginal infection." While I
don't doubt that this could be true, why is it that we can reuse a diaphragm
or a cervical cap after cleaning them yet we have to throw away INSTEAD?
Why, because if we reused it we wouldn't BUY MORE. Important: I am NOT recommending
reusing them. I am merely stating that disposability is not everything.
Now, if I really believed this maybe I would use myself as a guinea pig
for flannel menstrual pads or natural sponge tampons. But I'm not quite
ready for that article yet.
My experience safely a few weeks behind me, I have this to say about
INSTEAD: there is a rebate on the package that is good for the cost of the
box. Basically, you can try them for free if you remember to save your receipt.
Be educated, be smart, be spunky: give 'em a try. It's in your best interests
to be educated about what you put in your body. So read up, fellow spunksters,
and make your own decision!
This article appeared in the February 1997
issue of the San Francisco women's magazine "spunk!"
Ms. Stallings is the editor of Lotus Magazine.