York Festival of Ideas

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been very busy!  It’s been the Festival of Ideas which is an amazing array of talks, lectures and workshops, the majority of which are free and accessible.  It’s my idea of heaven and came with a book stall…  What more could you want?!?!

There were many interesting topics and I thought an intriguing way to share my experience would be to share titbits from each lecture.

The Magic of Numbers
Children learn number words before they learn the concept and they learn the concept of numbers before the digital representations.  The step after that is comparing numbers but you can see that even just the initial process is quite complicated and I find it amazing that such young children are able to acquire the knowledge as quickly as they do.

Disposing of mass murderers
What happens when mass murderers die?  Should they be entitled to a funeral like everyone else?  Should their wishes be respected even if they violate the wishes of the victims families?  Are the remains of mass murderers toxic, and if so why, and who is toxic and who is not?

Whilst this talk did look at some specifics, the wider questions it raised were very interesting.

The Science of Sin
Why do we do the things we know we shouldn’t?  An interesting kick off example was that we don’t touch ovens because we get instantly burnt, we how many of us go without suncream and later pay the price?

On a smaller scale, each of the 7 sins aren’t that bad and can even be helpful, but anything taken to the extreme seems to turn out awfully… Take pride, it can be a healthy dose of self confidence, or it can be narcassism.  Envy can motivate you to raise yourself up, but can also lead you to tear someone else down.

Write what you wonder
Tackling the idea that you should write what you know, this workshop asked us to look at the world through a lens of wonder, of curiosity and of childlikeness.  Look at what is under the surface.  Be an explorer.  Be open.  Be uncertain.

Love Factually: The science of who, how and why we love
Laura Mucha turned to science in a quest to understand love it all it’s many forms, be it lust, romantic love or companionate love.  She unpicked the idea of love as an object – “the one” – and turned it into a skill that requires us to work at it.

The Gendered Brain?
The myth that there is a female brain was tossed out in this talk, in fact all brains are different and because they are plastic, they are always changing.  Our environment shapes our brains and our brains shape our environment.

Whilst there is no female brain, there are brains that have been moulded by society’s ideas of gender and what women are and aren’t good at.  If you give a girl a test and tell her that it’s ok if she doesn’t do well because girls are bad at the topic, then she will perform worse than if you hadn’t said anything.

This is important because society has scripts for gender and children seek to understand and perform these (on the whole).  They become aware of gender from birth to 2 years old, they detect gender and align themselves with their gender between 2 and 5 and from 5 to 15 they start to or continue to comply with this gender script.  With this in mind, it is so important that we start to unpick and break down the scripts and stereotypes and roles that permeate our society.

Nine Pints: The mysterious, miraculous world of blood
Blood is fascinating.  It is priceless.  And yet it is also disgusting.  Especially if it’s menstrual blood… If it’s blood being donated then it’s the gift of life.  If it comes from a vagina, then at best it tends to be considered dirty, at worst, toxic and contaminated.

Unseen, blood keeps you alive.  Seen, it signals a problem.

The Wonder of Trees
Trees teach us that everything is connected.  They teach us respect and cooperation.  They give and give and we take and take.  Not just the wood that makes their trunks, but the oxygen they give out, the food they provide, the medicines that they create.  And we take and we take.

We plant rows of trees, uniform, in plantations.  But these are not wild trees.  They will not talk to each other, care for each other and nurture each other like a wild forest.

In a naturally grown wood, the trees communicate, they share resources and they share warnings.  They give each other space to grow, they cross species boundaries and they sacrifice themselves for others.

Trees literally make us healthier.  The air around a tree is cleaner, as the tree absorbs pollutants.  Studies have shown that time around trees improves our attention span, our memory and makes us heal more quickly.

When you can, take the time to say hello to a tree, get to know it, and thank it.

Advertisements

A life of pain

There are a lot of posts online about how long it has taken for people to be diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). I was thinking about joining in as it is the helpful way to raise awareness of both the condition and the struggle that people have to be diagnosed.

However, I don’t know when I first became aware of my symptoms. For me, they were normal. I remember coming out of exams in school surrounded by friends who were telling me how much their hands hurt. My hands hurts so badly that my handwriting was virtually illegible, my pain was through the roof and I hadn’t been able to write everything I wanted to. I assumed my pain with the same as theirs and that I was weak, overly sensitive and over-dramatic. I didn’t know my pain wasn’t normal.  I didn’t know what I was experiencing wasn’t ok.

I was told over and over again that I was useless at sports and PE because I was unhealthy and unfit.  I assumed the pains shooting through my legs were because of this.  It never clicked that it was or could be something else.  I restarted dance lessons when I was 12 because I wanted to get healthier.  I quickly lost track of the number of times my ankles rolled and twisted and sprained.  We did a week of performances in the summer of 2000.  I danced every night on a strapped up, sprained ankle.  I went to school and walked around as if everything was normal.  Because for me it was.

My friend’s mum was horrified and suggested I try this and that to reduce the pain.  I was used to a mother who glossed over these things.  To have someone treat my pain like it was legitimate and a big deal was weird.  But sprained ankles come and sprained ankles go and after all, this was an intense week – I was performing every night for a full week and walking round school and walking home.  All of this factors came together to explain why this particular pain was so bad.

As I got older, I still carried the baggage of being dismissed, invalidated and told I was in pain because I was unfit.  It took breaking down in tears with my then partner because of the pain in my hands before I really started to realise that this wasn’t normal.  That people didn’t go around in pain day after day.  That people didn’t get shin splints from a short walk.  That writing notes in lectures shouldn’t leave me in agony.  I had lived with the pain for up to twenty years before I realised this.

I don’t know when I first noticed my pain.  I don’t know when it first became a problem.  All I do know is that by the time I was 22, I had finally realised this wasn’t normal.  This was the start of my journey towards a diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the first step on this journey involved a rheumatologist telling me I was hypermobile but it wasn’t a problem, that I was experiencing growing pains and that I would grow out of it.  He couldn’t understand why I burst into tears.

I was living in agony, I had realised that this wasn’t ok but here he was telling me that I was fine.  I spent the next couple of years in a weird grey space, not quite sure if I was overreacting to my pain, not quite sure if I was being dramatic and not quite sure if I was just overly sensitive.

I am now 32 and I know that my pain is real, I have a diagnosis and I have pain medication.  But I still ask myself whether I’m faking it or not.

Me and death

Having looked at death around the world and considered the various rituals and ways that the grieving tend to their loved ones, I wanted to think about my own experience with death.

The first time I can recall being confronted by death was my grandad, who died when I was five.  He had been ill and I don’t have many memories of him although I do remember a sort of sense of him, a sort of feeling for his aura.  I wasn’t at the funeral.

Growing up we had a lot of pets.  We had a dog, guinea pigs, hamsters, fish, cats and obviously having pets involves pet deaths.  They were all buried in the same patch in the garden.  All except my guinea pig, Hunny (spelling courtesy of Winnie The Pooh), who had died whilst we were on holiday.  My neighbours had been looking after her.  They buried her and marked the spot with a little wooden cross, inscribed Honey.  Looking back, I think this was my first experience with a bad death.  Other losses had been expected or at least peaceful.  This time I wasn’t there.  I don’t really know what happened.  She was buried in the wrong place and memorialised with the wrong name.

When I was 14, my granma, my beloved granma, passed away.  It was incredibly sudden.  She got ill on Christmas Eve and died in the very early hours of the new year.  She didn’t want grandchildren in the hospital or at the funeral.

I didn’t tell anyone at school.  I didn’t want to talk about it and jinx it and make it real.  But then I was forced to.  On the way home from school, an elderly man stopped to talk to me and my sister.  He knew my granma but they weren’t as close friends as they had been.  He asked after her.  No one had told him she’d passed away.  My younger sister started to move away, making it clear that she wasn’t going to be the one to break the news.  Telling him, uttering those words, remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I can still remember his shaky words, “No one told me… No one told me…”

During my first year at university, I went to Ghana on a voluntary placement to help build a school. Our contact in the village was also the village chief. While we were there, his estranged wife died. She lived over the border in Togo.  Where in the UK, this would be a private moment, in Ghana, it was a public one.  He invited us to hike over to the village she lived in and join him for the funeral.

In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at the funeral of a stranger, surrounded by a visceral, almost violent, outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  And yet, the chanting and singing and wailing felt like it was a healing expression of love and pain.  It felt like a release.  It was an intense introduction to funerals.

The next funeral I would attend would be back in the UK, a few years later.  My then-partner’s grandad had passed away.  I knew him a little but obviously my presence was much more for support.  It followed the UK model of death and funerals.

A while after, me and that partner separated, but remained friends.  And then I got a phone call from his mum.  His dad had died.  Suddenly, unexpectedly.  A heart attack that struck from nowhere.  She wanted someone to be with him when she rang him.  Waiting for the taxi to arrive seemed to take a life time.  And then the journey across town seemed to involve every red light available.  When we arrived, I grabbed £20 out of my purse and flung it at the driver, severely overpaying him.  I couldn’t wait to get my change.  There was another lifetime spent trying to find him.

When he finally found out, he slumped to the floor, overwhelmed with tears – and shock – and a bystander wanted to know if they could help, could they get him some water?  Some tissues?  But nothing can help with that pain.  Later, when I finally got home, I slumped to the floor.

The funeral was the first I went to where I really experienced grief.  Grief for myself, not the grief that comes when someone you love has lost another.  Although there was a lot of the latter as well.

It wasn’t long after this that my aunty got suddenly ill and died not long after.  This was a church ceremony, followed by a trip to the crematory then back to her local pub.  There were hymns and memories and a lot of trying to figure out exactly how people were related to me.

She left me a little money and, as she loved to travel, I used it to go to Bali.  Here I encountered another death.  Or at least the cremation prep.  Driving through the luscious rice fields and stepped green hills, we stumbled onto large, decorated sculptures.  Our guide assured us that, being a public affair, the mourners would not mind if we got out and had a quick look.  He explained that often the family can’t afford a cremation straight after death. They temporarily bury the body at a funeral ceremony and visit it, leaving offerings.  But this cannot be the end point.  It is believed that the body must be burnt in order to free the soul from the body so that it can be reincarnated.

 

When it comes to the cremation, the whole village work with the family to prepare.  The body is placed in a sarcophagus, made of paper and wood, which can take the shape of holy animals; the one we saw was an ox.  Later this will have been burnt and thus the soul will be ready to continue its life.

A year later I went to Cambodia and as part of the trip, I visited the Killing Fields.  It was a powerful experience, the atmosphere felt heavy and there was a hushed nature to the place.

“BETWEEN 1975 AND 1979, TWO TO THREE MILLION PEOPLE WERE KILLED IN CAMBODIA BY THE EXTREME COMMUNIST GUERILLA GROUP THE KHMER ROUGE. THIS WAS GENOCIDE IN ITS PUREST, MOST EVIL FORM.”
Responsible Travel

As you walk around the Killing Fields, you confront death in a way that most of us have never experienced.  There are no tarmacked or paved paths here.  You follow the worn groves of paths made by other visitors.  And as those makeshift paths erode with use, the dead begin to appear.  Scraps of clothing.  Bits of bone.  Brutal reminders that these were people.  People who were forced to dig their own graves.  Starved, beaten and exhausted, the graves they managed to dig were shallow.  So now, today, they reappear, forcing us to face the atrocities that happened there.  Forcing us to face the brutal realities of this world.  At the Killing Fields, death is not glossed over, not subject to platitudes and not something you can escape from.

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?”
– Edgar Allan Poe

What I wish I’d known about periods

I had a basic intro to periods, very much the nuts and bolts and much less about the experience of it all.  There are so many things we don’t really discuss and really should do so that girls don’t go through their teens and twenties wondering if this or that is normal.  And we really need to get over euphemisms…  And boys and men really need to learn about periods…

When you are on your period you may…

  • have clots. Clots that look a lot like something has been living inside you and died. Clots that look a lot like images anti-abortion people use to argue against early pregnancy abortion. These clots are normal.  They are made of blood and tissue.  Everything I’ve read suggests you only need to be concerned if they are larger than a 10p piece.
  • find that the colour of the blood changes.
  • think that everyone can smell that you’re on your period, but really they can’t.
  • have diarrhoea. The body releases prostaglandins which cause your uterus to cramp and your digestive system is very close and can cramp by association.
  • use products other than just tampons and towels.  See period pants and menstrual cups as well as other reusable options.  You can use whatever works for you.  If you go with tampons or cups, you may need to practice.
  • have period pains that affect more than just your uterus.  You may get headaches, back pain, sore breasts, leg ache…
  • feel bloating
  • leak on your underwear, clothes, pjs and bedding.  A great way to get blood out of fabric is to soak it in cold water with salt.
  • get blood on your hands. You probably will.  It washes off.  It’s cool.
  • get the wings on your sanitary towel stuck to each other and have to fight with them to get them apart.
  • want to use a period tracking app – technically not what i wish i’d known as smartphones weren’t around but use technology to help you!
  • if you need period products when you’re in public, you can ask a stranger in the bathroom.
  • a bit of an aside but your discharge changes throughout the month and you can use this to tell if you’re ovulating.

What do you wish you’d known earlier in your menstruating life?

Death Around The World

In America, death has become a big business since the start of the 20th century.  Before this, families were in charge of the body, the funeral and what happened after that.  It would have been seen as odd if you weren’t involved in preparing your loved one for the afterlife.  Today, we are very detached from death and the rituals we have around death echo this.

Whilst this might be the case in America and the UK, other parts of the world do things very differently.  This is the topic of From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty and I would highly recommend giving it a read.  See what takes your fancy for your own death, and have a think about what really grates on you and why.  And most importantly, have a conversation, or multiple, about death.

A few themes weave their way through the different cultures that are covered in the book, including that of an intimate goodbye and a much more natural seeming option for what happens after death.  For example, a 30 year old man from Belize, told Doughty that when he dies, he’d like to “be buried in a simple hole, shrouded with an animal skin, with leaves lining the walls of the grave.  He plans on designing the animal shroud himself.”

Religion and culture are often the forces that define when death occurs.  And that seems an odd thing to say from a Western perspective but death is more ambiguous that we give it credit for.  Even within Western cultures, we find a physical and a social death.

Physical death: the point after which the body begins to break down

Social death: The point at which a person is no longer a socially active member of a group – you can persist as a social entity long after physical death through memories, mementos etc.

“The way that the corpse is understood effects the way we look at its disposal”
– Olson, 2014 (I forgot to note a first name, I think it was Phil, sorry if it wasn’t!)

In Indonesia, the people of Toraja have a different defined point of death.  Whilst a person may have stopped breathing, they are considered to be in a state more like illness.  This illness will last until an animal – buffalo or pig – has been sacrificed, then the person will be able to die.  During the illness phase, the body is kept in the home, and this can last several years.  Whilst in the home, the family cares for their family member, making sure they have food, changing their clothing, speaking to them and even sharing a bed with them.

This can seem, to eyes from another culture, to be disgusting or disrespectful but that is far from the truth.  The acts are seen as a way of showing love and respect and a way of caring for a loved one that recognises the strength of that bond.  It is an intimate process and a meaningful way to stay connected to a loved one.

After death, most of us think that of burial and cremation, with the latter occurring within the context of a professionalised crematory.  But we have been dealing with death since humanity first began and thus our versions of these rituals are just a touch of the ice burg.

Possibly the earliest example of cremation is found in Australia and refers to the bones of a woman who lived about 42,000 years ago.  She is known as the Mungo Lady and was cremated, then the remaining bones were crushed, and in a second cremation were burned.  We also know that other parts of the world, such as the Ancient Greeks and ancient Romans, and Hindus have practised cremation as a way to cleanse and liberate the soul.

In Italy, in 1869, burial was announced to be unhygienic and thus cremation was touted as the best option for your corpse.  It was presented as being a way to save yourself from being eaten by worms.  The machines used in cremation today, closely resemble those from the 1800s and have a heavy impact on the environment.  To burn quickly, it’s recommended that you have a wooden coffin as cardboard – which intuitively feels more environmentally friendly – burns too quickly so more fuel has to be used to burn the body.  Additionally, there are various byproducts which aren’t that great…

Most cremation in the western world goes on behind closed doors, away from the family, away from view.  Then the ashes are turned into something unrecognisable from the human that the family knew and loved.  As an aside, these are not like on films, they will not scatter into the breeze.  One friend described them as more like cat litter…

One thing I found very interesting is that in the UK, any metal that is left after the body has been cremated gets collected by a company from the Netherlands which then turns it into cars and bikes and taxis.

Japan has the highest rate of cremation, with 99.9% of dead people being cremated.  They also have some fantastically innovative options for the cremated remains, which are normally devoid of individuality.  With an ageing population, the dead may not have someone to tend to their grave or the site of their ashes and so technology has stepped up.  Large buildings store multiple sets of remains and thus the care and tending is carried out by monks.  If you are a relative who cannot get there, you can check in on your relative online, even experience a virtual gravestone with virtual incense and flowers and offerings.

Traditionally, after a Japanese cremation, the family will pick bones from the ashes.

“The family are handed pairs of chopsticks, one made of bamboo, one made of metal.  The chief mourner begins with the feet, picking up bones with the chopsticks and placing them in the urn.  Other family members join in and continue up the skeleton.  The skull will not fit into the urn intact, so the cremator might intervene to break it up into smaller bone fragments using a metal chopstick.  The final bone, the hyoid (the horseshoe-shaped bone underneath the jaw) is placed in the urn last.”
– Doughty

There is an aspect of caring going on here, as well as following reassuring rituals at a time when nothing seems to make sense.  It provides the opportunity for you to carry out something meaningful, something that you can do when there is very little you can do.

Another obvious model for death, dying and grief comes from Mexico where traditions, including the Day of the Dead, embraces and exists alongside death.

“For the families, this night is not just a one-way acceptance of offerings for their dead; it is an exchange with the community.”
– Doughty

There are so many amazing, fascinating death rituals that can be found all round the world and of course I will only be touching on a few.  With this in mind, I really suggest reading up about sky burials.  Many of us have heard of them but know little about the actualities of the ceremony.  In part of India, cremation and burial are considered off limits as post-death options because unclean dead bodies are thought to defile the sacred elements of earth, fire and water.  Hence the body must go to the sky.  In Tibet, wood (for cremation) is scarce, and the ground is too hard and cold for burial, so again, we have turned to the sky.  This is where the vultures come in.  These sky dancers carry the body, in pieces, up into the sky and your body is returned to nature.

Where America and the UK avoid death, formalise death and deny death, Mexico embraces it and in bringing death out of the shadows, they create space for grief, and thus for healing.  My own experience of non western death comes from Togo.  In a remote, mountainous area, I found myself at a funeral and there was a visceral, almost violent outpouring of grief.  To my 18 year old eyes and ears, it seemed intense and felt uncomfortable.  But even then, it felt more authentic than what I imagined a western funeral to be like (my own granma had asked that children weren’t at the funeral when she died).  There was something in the chanting and singing and wailing that felt powerful, and healing.

Whilst I have been hard on the west, things are starting to change.  Just a few weeks ago, I went to a few talks about death as part of York’s Dead Good Festival.  This included a talk about the cremation process, about natural burials and about what happens if you donate your body to medical education.

In the UK, traditional burial is waning in popularity, with 77% of people choosing cremation by fire and with natural burials becoming increasingly popular since 1994.

“The poet Walt Whitman spoke of soil and earth as the great transformers, accepting “the leavings” of men and producing “such divine materials.”  Whitman marvelled at the ability of the earth to reabsorb the corrupt, the vile, the diseased, and produce new, pristine life.”
– Doughty

And what could be more inspiring that that?!  As one person Doughty met said, it takes nine months to grow a baby, perhaps it should take the same time for the body to disintegrate, rather than the few hours that cremation takes.

Natural burials can be more personalised, more intimate and have more family involvement.  You can say goodbye to your loved ones in a way that reflects who you were in life and, in giving your body back to nature, you feed the very landscape you will spend eternity in.  And that’s a really important point – very often, if you choose traditional burial, you are only guaranteed that site for a set number of years, after that, you may find yourself getting rehomed.

Another way to die as you lived, is to donate yourself to medical education.  As a clarification, many people seem to muddle whole body donation with organ donation.  The first is where your body is used by medical students and the second is where your organs are given to a living person who needs them.

In the UK, you can tick a box on your drivers license to agree to organ donation and as of some point in 2020, it will become an opt out system instead of opt in.  This means your organs will be up for grabs, unless you have specified otherwise.  For whole body donation, you need to contact an anatomy unit.  If you visit the Human Tissue Authority you can get more information about body donation as well as find out where your nearest unit is.

If your body is accepted for organ donation, it is unlikely to be used for medical education – they need whole bodies, preferably ‘normal’ bodies for the students to learn from.  If you are accepted for whole body donation, you may be used for either up to three years, or indefinitely depending on what you choose.  After you’ve been used, there will be a funeral and a thanksgiving ceremony.  Family can be involved as much or as little as they want but the funeral is free and provides a way of memorialising the death.  The thanksgiving ceremony is an opportunity for the medical school to acknowledge this ultimate gift.

In the UK, you donate directly to medical schools but in the US, there are body brokers and some of these seem to be profit driven so do your research. Other uses for bodies include researching specific conditions, for military weapons testing, for car safety and even in body farms.

Further reading:

A short history of period products

Today we are lucky to have a choice of period products, including disposable and reusable options.  Traditionally, however, people who menstruate haven’t been so lucky…

Back in ancient Egypt, papyrus was used and in ancient Japan paper was used.  The Native Americans made a version of sanitary towels using buffalo skin and moss, which, comparatively, sounds heavenly!

That said, as an aside, it’s not always clear what is true.  Take the case of Tampax telling website readers that in ancient Greece, wool was wrapped around wood and used as a tampon.  As appealing as the myth seems to be, it’s likely just that.  Although it could be a misunderstanding of an ancient Greek treatment for vaginal issues, it could be an attempt by tampon companies at naturalising their product, especially given we’ll see the concerns around virginity later… Another problem is that most of history is written by men… And upper class men at that…

“Part of the reason that there is little extant evidence is located in the dual nature of sanitary protection.  This subject is both taboo and mundane, leading to an apparent lack of contemporary early modern sources.  Menstruation is a commonplace experience for women the world over, yet it is often considered a subject to be left unspoken.”
 – Sara Read

Evidence that Read has found, suggests that in the 17th century, some women were using ‘clouts’ or ‘rags’, folded cloths used to absorb blood.  However, this wasn’t across all classes.  She has found other evidence that suggests only higher ranking women would wear sanitary protection.  Sponges may have been used, possibly just by prostitutes.  Her paper, linked below, is a very interesting read about attitudes and beliefs around menstruation in early modern England as well as practices.

Whilst DIY methods were certainly used, and especially in more recent history we know rags or homemade pads were used, for much of history, it’s likely that free bleeding was the main ‘choice’, especially amongst the poorer strata of society.

In the second half of the 19th century, a variety of patents were filed in the US for various period paraphernalia – and as an aside, much of what I’ve been able to find is based on period products in the US.  These included horrific sounding early takes on a menstrual cup – generally made of metal or hard rubber, rubber pants and period aprons…

“The menstrual apron and pad holder in front are cloth-covered rubber. The wearer pinned absorbent cloth, such as bird’s-eye diaper cloth, onto the inner side of the holder. Of course, the woman wore the whole contraption “backwards,” under her dress, and over her buttocks, to keep the menstrual blood away from her clothing.”
– Museum of Menstruation

You can see an advert for one of these over at MUM.

Whilst all the options pre-20th century sound awful, they were also being used at a time when people had fewer periods.  Between a later age of menarche, more pregnancies and time spent breastfeeding and poor nutrition, menstruation was often suppressed during an adult’s life.

A lot changed at the back end of the 19th century when disposable sanitary towels went on sale.  By the 1890s, middle class women were ordering mass produced sanitary napkins, or buying the fabric to make their own at home.  Disposable options were particularly revolutionary.  Before this, women were trying to deal with bloody cloths and handwashing but now, they could simply be thrown away – funny how things go full circle!

In 1899, a female German doctor wrote the following in a book aimed at middle class women:

“It is completely disgusting to bleed into your chemise, and wearing that same chemise for four to eight days can cause infections.”

This suggests that this was a very common practice, and also adding weight to the move towards contraptions to deal with bleeding.  This also came at a time when, in America at least, menstrual blood was considered dangerous and so reusable rags were thought to harbour germs and gases which could contaminate the user.  Advertising claimed that doctors supported disposable options as healthier.  For anyone starting their period at this time, commercial options seemed to be the ideal, a basic necessity.

A common method of protection in the 1900s included linen belts with napkins pinned to them and by the 1920s, the belts were sued with disposable napkins.  During the first world war, nurses had noticed the cellulose that was used for bandages absorbed blood better than cotton.  They realised the potential and began using it for their periods.  Kotex saw the market opportunity and manufactured these new, highly absorbent, disposable napkins.

The 1930s saw the arrival of tampons for married women but were not for unmarried women as it was thought they would break the very precious hymen.  It was 1929 that Dr Haas created the tampon, likely based on earlier prototypes, and it was also likely that being a male doctor gave him some kudos.  A businesswoman marketed them under the name Tampax in 1936 and whilst it was adopted by some, others thought because it was worn internally it was little more than a dildo.  In reality, tampons offered freedom from belts, pins, pads and chafing and allowed for physical activity.  Dancers and swimmers in particular welcomed them.

Around this time, Leona Chalmers patented the menstrual cup, but it didn’t take off.

Concerns around tampons were addressed in the 1940s. Dr Robert Latou Dickinson gave tampons a boost when he said that they are narrow enough not to break the hymen and hence are not a threat to virginity.  He also said that any sexual stimulation from the tampon was momentary and nothing compared to how the sanitary pad rubbed against the body.

Despite the expectation that women should work through their periods during World War Two, the 50s found women encouraged to be quiet and restful instead.  It was at this time that PMS was labelled.

In the 1960s, washable cloth pads came back into fashion and with the hippie movement, the menstrual cup was relaunched but again it didn’t take off.  In 1969, the self adhesive pad came out and allowed you to get rid of the belts and pins.

By the 90s, sanitary towels had grown wings and although bulkier than the pads today, they were very recognisable.  Despite many people using tampons, fears over the hymen remained.  A Tampax advert in Seventeen, showed a concerned girl asking if she’d still be a virgin if she used a tampon.

In the 2000s  and 2010s, menstrual cups finally took off and period pants hit the market and reusable and environmentally friendly products have grown in popularity.

Links

A short history of wheelchairs

As a wheelchair user, I started to wonder how my life might have been had I been born 100 years ago, 500 years ago or 1000 years ago and (assuming I actually survived) this would be very dependant on the types of wheelchairs that were available.  With this in mind, I ventured into the history of wheelchairs.

Early images of wheelchairs are found in stone carvings in China and on a Greek vase.  The former showing a wheeled transport device and the latter a wheeled bed for a child.  But despite these early records, the first known dedicated wheelchair was invented in 1595.  It was made for Phillip II of Spain and had small wheels at the end of the chair’s legs, a platform for his legs and an adjustable backrest.  It wasn’t self propelled but then again he was a king so was probably surrounded by servants anyway!

Sixty years later, Stephen Farffler made a self propelling chair which was mounted on a three wheel chassis and had handles on the front wheel which allowed the user to move without assistance.  The handles operated a bit like a hand bike…

Possibly the best known early wheelchair is the Bath chair, named after the city, not the washing facility.  It was created by John Dawson and had two large wheels and one small.  It was steered using a stiff handle but was very heavy and had to be pushed or pulled.  This version of the wheelchair outsold others in the early 19th century but it wasn’t comfortable and so adjustments and improvements were made over time.

In 1869 we have a patent for the first wheelchair with rear push wheels and small front casters, something we would easily recognise today.  Again, this model needed improving and a few years later, hollow rubber wheels were used, pushrims for self propelling were invented in 1881 and in 1900 we find the first spoked wheels.

Injured soldiers returning home from World War Two were more likely to survive certain injuries because of the discovery of antibiotics.  This meant that there was a sudden influx of people who had spinal injuries etc that would previously have killed them.  In turn, this meant an increased need for wheelchairs.  Depending on their injury, some of these veterans would have been unable to self propel and, having previously been active, would have found themselves dependant on others.

It was one of these soldiers, who was frustrated with his situation, who advocated for a better wheelchair.  This combined with Canada’s commitment to veteran support, resulted in a request to George Klein to build a brand new type of wheelchair.  After Canadian vets had been given their electrically powered chairs, an effort was made to engage manufacturers.  One of which was Everest & Jennings.

Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair in 1932 for his friend Herbert Everest.  They then joined forces to set up Everest & Jennings who monopolised the wheelchair market for years.  In 1956 they were the first to mass produce electric wheelchairs.  These were fairly rudimentary, had only two speeds and were very bulky but still, they paved the way for the plethora of electric wheelchairs we have today.

Whilst slightly off topic, it’s worth noting that 1952 saw the beginning of wheelchair sports and by 1960, the first Paralympic games were being held.  The increased visibility of people with wheelchairs alongside the more specialised uses for them, almost certainly aided the refinement and variety of chairs that we are now lucky to have.

Moving forward, in the second half of the twentieth century, developments to the wheelchair happened quickly.  Motors were added to standard wheelchairs, then lightweight aluminium was used and the availability of plastic inevitably led to further innovations. Further, as computer technology boomed in the last fifty or so years, we have seen these enhance and improve the available powerchair technology.

Today we have wheelchairs that can be used in sports, that are very lightweight, that can raise the user up so that we can sit at bars, that can be controlled in different ways and which ultimately allow many more people control over their movement.  Wheelchairs, powered or not, are highly customisable and although I haven’t sat in a pre-20th century one, I can imagine, are significantly more comfortable and allow for a better quality of life.

Aside, please don’t use the term wheelchair bound.  A lot of wheelchair users can walk or stand, and even those who can’t, aren’t tied to their chairs.  It also makes it seem like wheelchairs are a terrible burden and whilst they aren’t perfect, they are amazing and significantly improve people’s lives.

Links