Trying it on for size

Tampon shopping is enough to confound the most thoroughly modern man, mainly because he just can't go with the flow. By MIKE WILLS

Periodically I like shopping but I never enjoy shopping for periods. As a modern man, no, make that A Modern Man, I'm comfortably familiar with almost every inch of the supermarket aisles, oozing confidence from pesto to Pampers, from haloumi to Handy Andy.

My one requirement is a good list. It must be comprehensive, don't expect any intuitive freestlying' ('surely you knew we needed tomatoes?'). And The List must be exact – please specify whether it's the Nut Crunch With Raisins or the Raisin Crunch with Nuts (shops are full of hapless men on cellphones meekly checking with their partners whether Bulgarian and natural yoghurt are the same thing).

However, and it's a mighty big however, in spite of decades of gender sensitivity training, there remains a single zone of serious discomfort in the retail experience for me. To be precise it's on the left, halfway down the second section of aisle six in my local Pick 'n Pay. The board reads 'Female Hygiene' and the shelves are stacked with sanitary towels. Whenever the word 'tampons' appears on The List, usually because my wife has assumed she will be doing the shopping, my lips will brazenly utter 'no problem' while the rest of my body screams, 'big problem!' This is like going into a Gobi desert sandstorm without a GPS. I will have no clue where I am or what I am looking for.

Firstly, I have no brand reference points. The names and the packaging mean nothing to me mainly because I have never had to use a tampon (although I'm told they're very useful for tidying up filigree paintwork in hard-to-reach places) and the ads for them never appear at halftime in the rugby.

Then I have no clue what size of box to buy. How many of these things get used and would it be wastefully insulting to come home with four dozen or laughably impractical to only buy five? And I'm not sure if they have a sell-by date but I do know I will have a very imminent one if I don't get this vaguely right.

And finally there are the different grades. If I've been told to look for regular and there's only medium available, is that the same thing? And is it better to have the right brand in the wrong flow size (if that's what it's called) or the wrong brand in the right flow? I suppose women might have the same problem when the requested Windhoek is out of stock and they try to determine whether Windhoek Light or Castle would be the best bet (answer: neither – opt for Heineken).

And while I'm pondering this among the trolleys, I can't help wondering whether its lekker to be light or healthier to be heavy. A British comedian, whose name escapes me, once had a routine entitled 'If Men Had Periods' in which males automatically got into boastful contests about being 'heavier' than anyone else and the manufacturers having to re-calibrate the packaging. Just as condoms, because of male insecurities, only come in large, extra large and Caribbean, so tampons would have to be heavy flow, extra heavy flow and Niagara.

Some men argue that buying lingerie presents a worse shopping dilemma because, unlike with the tampon, there will be a strong suspicion among the staff that you want the underwear for your own use. And they will also assume you're buying for a mistress – something you're hardly likely to do with sanitary towels.

But with underwear, men at least know what we like to look at and in terms of fit we can always use any available female as a scale reference. I am yet to work up the courage in the dreaded aisle six to say to a fellow shopper: 'Excuse me, my wife is the same size as you, do you recommend an Always Heavy or a Tampon Light?'

This is an edited version of an article originally published in Fairlady Magazine, February 2007.

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