I got my period for the first time during sleepaway camp. We were about to hike Tumbledown Mountain in Maine—yes, it is actually called that—and I discovered three thick, wet dots in my underwear moments before we unloaded the bus. Consequently, I was both socially chastised (no one else had their period yet, so menstruating was widely considered “uncool”) and forced to go on a six-hour hike while wearing a pad that felt more like a diaper. It was all they had in the med kit.
As soon as I could convince myself to experiment with tampons, I did, and I have worn nothing but since. Like me, my period has gone through countless iterations of itself in the last decade-and-a-half, depending on the birth control method (none, the pill, a generic form of that pill, a different pill, none again, then the IUD) and the time and place. During a summer I spent doing home stays in Turkey, I would collect my used tampons in a Ziploc bag, which I’d sneak to a nearby dumpster when it became full. (I was told by a group leader that tampons were not customary there, and I didn’t want to seem rude in someone else’s home.)
Appropriately, menstrual products have also gone through several transformations since then. As the multitude of ways to deal with your period have expanded, so has our collective curiosity when it comes to experimenting and questioning if what we have always used is actually what we prefer. Suddenly, few people I know just buy tampons. There are now menstrual cups, menstrual discs, tampons with reusable applicators, and, of course, period-proof underwear: designed for free bleeding and backup protection.
Free bleeding is when someone on their period intentionally abstains from using traditional period products like pads, tampons, liners, etc. My personal experience with free bleeding has been sometimes intentional (like when the volume of my flow has all but ceased completely) but more often situational (like when I forget to put a tampon in my purse). When it is intentional, here’s what I do: Once my period seems light enough, like we’re really in the home stretch, I stop wearing tampons altogether. Very simple. As a result, I’ve stained almost all of my underwear, which is fine.
I don’t really know why I do this—why I don’t just wear a pad if I don’t feel like having a tampon inside of me, or why I don’t try the cup if the waste I create from tampon after tampon is what bothers me. It’s difficult to put any other way, but in essence, I like the feeling of being natural. I do not mean this in the way of “I like feeling the remains of my uterine lining in my Hanky Pankies,” but rather in the way of “I like not having to worry about the various tools and material items women have become accustomed to needing,” and I sort of convince myself that if I pretend my period is over, or I’m no longer having it, it will magically go away. (I realize this isn’t how periods work, but here we are.)
I knew period-proof underwear was a thing, but before I could even get around to trying it, I heard about period-proof running shorts.
THINX, founded in 2014, has long been a staple in the period-proof underwear market. Their underwear and activewear are said to be leak-fighting and blood-friendly, meant to be worn instead of or as a complement to traditional period products. Recently, the company came out with THINX Training Shorts ($ 65, shethinx.com), which are meant to hold up to two tampons’ worth of blood while you run, skip, jump, or play in any way you’d like. According to THINX’s Chief Brand Officer, Siobhan Lonergan, the shorts should be able to hold up through running, yoga, or “any other activity you might want to do over your period,” she says.
I had never tried THINX before, largely because I didn’t know if I liked the idea of free bleeding at the heaviest points of my period and didn’t feel like spending $ 34+ to try. In the thick of things, I only bleed enough to need two regular-absorbency tampons a day—enough to justify the continual wear of tampons, as they cause me minimal trouble or discomfort, but also enough to know that period-proof underwear could be a viable option for me.
The idea of free bleeding is one thing. The idea of free bleeding while working out is another. When I first discovered these shorts, I immediately thought of Kiran Gandhi, who ran the 2015 London Marathon sans tampon on the first day of her period. The event went viral, and by the end of the race, there was a red stain running down the thigh of her pink leggings.
This is where I decide to dabble in the classic adage, “Go big or go home.” Curious to try the shorts, I reached out to THINX, who generously gifted me a pair for the purposes of the story. What continues below is a first-time free bleeder’s review.
As far as fit, the shorts felt like high-quality running gear.
Upon first try-on, the shorts looked a little…well…short, but flattering nonetheless. They also feel really high quality—comparable to a pair of Lululemon running shorts, I’d say. I knew they were legit when I discovered a handy zip pocket, where I kept my credit card and keys all day. The only downside was that the shorts are pretty low-waisted, which is different from the activewear I generally opt for. I wore a long, loose shirt with them, so once my day got going, the low waist was easy to forget. But if I were to exercise in a sports bra, no shirt, like I usually do, I’d probably feel a bit more exposed than I prefer.
The shorts have built-in underwear, as most pairs of running shorts do. But—surprise!—these aren’t just any plain old underwear. They’re actually THINX’s hiphugger—their most popular (and most absorbent) period-proof underwear cut—built directly into the shorts.
On my first go, I wore the shorts for an outdoor jog.
I took the shorts on a leisurely Saturday morning jog along the Hudson River. It was day three of my period, where I would normally still be wearing a tampon. There was definitely something liberating (and unusual) about pulling out that tampon in the morning and not having to replace it. It was exhilarating in the way of heating up a thermometer before putting it in your mouth and showing it to your mom, or driving around the block when you only have your permit. In other words, I felt like I was successfully sneaking around, or getting away with something I wasn’t supposed to be doing.
A big misconception about periods, especially among people who don’t have them, is that we have a gushing river coming out of our vaginas that needs to be plugged like a bathtub drain. Although it is a much more exciting way to imagine the miracle of menstruation, this description is far from accurate. And for those who knew that already, you’ll understand why my free bleeding didn't feel all that different from bleeding with a tampon in, at least in the beginning.
During my jog, my shorts felt dry and fresh as a daisy. As far as fit, I never had to hike them down, nor did I feel like they were riding up. Actually, I pretty quickly forgot that I was free bleeding. I jogged (and then walked) for an hour, and then went straight to meet some friends for brunch. So far so good.
After two hours, I began to feel a little…wet.
It crept up on me slowly, but after some time it became unignorable. It wasn’t like I-sat-in-a-puddle wet, and it wasn’t like there-was-no-toilet-paper-so-I-had-to-drip-dry wet, either. It was more like I-feel-like-I-peed-in-my-pants-a-little-bit-but-not-in-a-way-that-makes-me-totally-itchy-and-uncomfortable kind of wet.
According to Lonergan, people with light or medium flows (me) should theoretically be able to put the underwear (and thus, the shorts) on in the morning and then take them off at night and be totally fine without having to change pairs of underwear throughout the day, which would be an obvious inconvenience. Is that…hygienic? Her answer was yes: “Because our technology is moisture-wicking, waterproof, super absorbent, and leak resistant, the fluids are drawn into the layers of the [underwear]. So you should feel fresh and dry most of the day.” So why did I feel so…damp?
At one point during brunch, I went to the bathroom both because I had to pee and because I was incredibly curious what the state of the union was like down there. I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled down my shorts. For one, there was not period blood all over the place. Not on the inside of my thighs, not on…other parts. Two, there was barely anything visible on the built-in undies. It didn’t look like what happens when you free bleed (albeit accidentally) in your underwear.
I wore the shorts for the rest of the day, where business carried on as usual. There was never any mess. I still felt the dampness I had previously described, which increased as the day went on. I was admittedly ready to take the shorts off by the end of the day—it still was not itchy, but just wet in a way I’d prefer not to feel.
Because I hadn’t sweat much during the jog—it was the first cool morning—I can’t attribute the wetness to that. As Carrie Bradshaw would say were she to discuss menstruation, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was the slight discomfort I felt a product of free bleeding in this particular pair of underwear? Or was the dampness inevitable, something I simply wasn’t accustomed to since I never wear pads?
I have a feeling it was the latter, even though there are obvious differences between THINX products and wearing a pad. The first is the bulkiness—or lack thereof—and the second is that thing that happens when the sticky flaps of a pad attach themselves to the insides of your legs, which can be painful. However, as Lonergan confirmed, there are similarities. “Both will wick and draw moisture in, so it is comparable,” she says. “You know how when you use a pad and know that it needs to be changed, and that's probably because you're on a heavier day and that's just the flow and the nature of that day. It's the same thing with our products. If you're starting to feel like it's getting wet, then it's getting full.”
Basically, if you’re familiar with the feeling of needing to change your pad, the slight dampness that you may feel in THINX on heavier days is probably pretty comparable to that.
At the end of the day, I rinsed the underwear under cool water, as you’re instructed to do before throwing them in the wash.
After the rinse, I rung them out and hung them to dry. A few days later, I put them in the wash with the rest of my dirty laundry, and they came back as good as new. They look, feel, and smell clean, as does the rest of my laundry, and as far as athletic ability goes, they didn’t lose their quality. I’d definitely recommend not putting them in the dryer, as it could cause an already-tiny pair of shorts to shrink even more.
The one roadblock I saw is that I regularly practice yoga, where I prefer to wear leggings and bend in many a spread eagle position.
I tried doing a flow (no pun intended) in my shorts at home one morning and felt a bit exposed. But again—that wasn’t the shorts’ fault, I just prefer to practice yoga in leggings. Plenty of people practice yoga in shorts, and if you’re one of those people, this product very well may work for you.
If you’re a runner, I’d recommend the shorts a bunch of times over. For those with a heavy flow, the shorts would be perfect backup, so you don’t have to worry about leakage on long runs or while you’re out and about. For those with a light flow, or people on the last day or two of their periods, the shorts would probably be a good first/only line of defense.
Free bleeding into period-proof running shorts was both a fun and introspective experiment.
It is cool to feel like we have choices. However, it is even better to realize which of those choices you prefer, and then do that choice, whatever it is. Would I (and will I) purchase another pair of THINX? I think I’d opt for the underwear before I’d need a second pair of shorts, but that’s also because it’s winter and I don’t imagine myself needing or wearing shorts any time soon. That said, I have friends who swear by THINX, who wear them exclusively, so perhaps at one point I’ll bite the bullet and make a small investment in them myself.
On the phone with Lonergan, I kept asking how long it’s acceptable to wear period-proof underwear or running shorts. Without exactly realizing it, what I really wanted to know was: Can these enable me to go about my life, pretending my period isn't there at all? “It’s very difficult to give a time. It’s basically managing your period and your products the same way you do when you think about other [period] products as well,” she said.
Then, Lonergan said something that made a lot of sense: “There’s no magic solution. You just have to have a sensible approach in how you use them.” What I had been looking for, in free bleeding, was an emergency exit window through which I could escape the perils I associate with maintenance and menstruation. Yes, a product like this may make your life easier, but the job that we have to manage our bodies once a month isn’t going to change. Of course, my period won’t disappear because I ignore it. There is no magic solution.
In wrapping my head around it all, I keep going back to Kiran Gandhi, who once echoed a lesson I learned when I was a camper in Maine and am still trying to fully figure out: “For me, the problem with not being able to speak confidently or comfortably about your own body is that we then can’t make decisions that are best for us,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Independent. “What's more, the path to coming up with better solutions for women is slowed down because no one wants to talk about it.”
I think the path is being formed. So, let’s keep talking.