Fifteen years after I got my first period, and after six months of experiments, I’ve just gone through a whole period using only a menstrual cup. I feel like Marie Curie might have when she discovered polonium. Or like I imagine Bachendri Pal might have when she climbed Everest. And I’m pretty sure things will never be the same again!
A year ago, I’d never have dreamed I’d be using what seemed like the grossest thing known to women with uteruses: a substantially sized thingy that you shove inside your vagina, that collects period goo and keeps it inside you, that you remove and insert using your fingers, that you wash and reuse. When I first heard about menstrual cups, I remember talking to a friend about it and pretending to gag. The goo stays inside you and sloshes around, and you use your fingers to get it out? That seemed like the kind of thing best reserved for intrepid hippy ladies willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to save the environment.
But with time, as more and more stories about menstrual cups appeared in the media, the thought of them made me want to gag less and less, and eventually, I found myself considering the possibility of using one. And the vast range of positive testimonials certainly helped. It seemed like if I could get over the grossness of it all, the rewards would be amazing – freedom of movement, reduced discomfort, going long hours without having to change, and best of all, no sanitary pads! I finally worked up the will to ask a friend returning from abroad to buy me a menstrual cup. But once I received it, I chickened out.
When people talk about how having their period is wonderful, even on a good day, I tend to respond with bafflement. (On a bad day, I want to mail people this list of fake inspirational quotes about periods. Here’s my favourite one, by the Mock President of Girls Scouts of America: “Having your period makes you a part of the club. It may not be the club you wanted to join, but hey, a club’s a club.” On a terrible day, I want to send them a clip of those puking kids from Problem Child 2.) I’m all for talking about menstruation, even if I hate terms like “chums” and “Aunt Flo”, but asking me to love my period is pushing it. So once I received my new menstrual cup, it took me a month to get over my squeamishness and actually attempt a trial run. And I found, to my relief, that it wasn’t so bad. Wash hands, wash cup, squat, insert, wash hands. Done.
Of course there were plenty of glitches along the way (more about those later – if you’d like to skip to the how-to part about menstrual cups below, click here) and I had to ease into using the cup, but in the six months since I held my breath and took the plunge (okay, fine, it was the cup that did all the plunging), things are different. No, really. My life has changed.
* * *
In school, at the age of 11, we were paid a visit by folks who said they were from Whisper. As a child, I’d seen the Whisper ads on TV, but assumed Whisper was some kind of mosquito net. Until one day in 4th standard, R, a short, pale girl in my class who had an older sister (and was therefore wise about the ways of the world) told us what periods were. I refused to believe her – much in the way I refused to believe, at the age of 12, that you made babies by doing that yucky thing described in the dictionary under “sexual intercourse”. Ignorance was infinitely preferable.
Until I hit middle school, when girls around me started to get their period. One morning, after my benchmate K (who usually supplied us with chicken at lunchtime) came to school and classes had begun, her parents showed up to take her away. As this usually only happened in school when a student’s relative had died, we assumed something terrible had happened. When she returned to class three days later, it was to tell us amidst bashful pauses that she woke up one morning to stained underwear, tried to hide them, and came to school. Her family found the undies and figured out what happened. And then they held a ceremony – to announce that she had got her period. To which they invited people. She wore a sari. The whole world knew. None of this sounded real, even though, by then, the people from Whisper had told us what periods were.
They’d come, pointed at diagrams and charts and explained things to us – Fallopian tubes, uterine linings, ovaries. A woman in a lab coat poured the obligatory blue liquid onto pads to show us how pads worked and tell us stuff our teachers never would have. Then she cut the pad in half to show us the absorbent gel inside. And we were given pamphlets that told us things about “vaginal discharge” and exercises to soothe stomach cramps and how in the old days, people used cloth, which was “unhygienic”.
Moreover, it was the turn of the new millennium – the Age of Ultra. Whisper Ultra had just entered the market, and we were each given two ultra-thin pads as samples. As I hadn’t had my period yet, I gave those to my mother, who didn’t want them. As a loyal user of the soft and cottony Carefree, she wasn’t impressed by Whisper Ultra – to her, they were plasticky and suspiciously thin. She didn’t like the idea of feeling like you didn’t have your period, which was the Ultra’s dubious selling point. But pre-teen me was sold on the idea that the ultra thin pad was cool and New Age (even though Carefree was, I eventually found out, a gazillion times more comfortable than Whisper Ultra and its replicas in the market), and anything else belonged to the Day of the Dinosaur.
Of course, when I got my first period in July 2000, it was still with a sense of disbelief. I used my mother’s Carefree, with its hilarious elastic belt (ultra-thin pads were too expensive). In a couple of years, I moved on to a similar fluffy version by Stayfree, with glue beneath so it wouldn’t shift in your panties. And it was finally around the 10th standard that I moved to what I’d always wanted: ultra-thin pads (but the Stayfree version, which was cheaper than Whisper. It was only after I started working that I felt like I could buy Whisper Ultra, which I aspired to, guilt-free). Like the ads promised, I could finally wear tight clothes – gone were the tell-tale bulges of bulky pads, sometimes one layered over the other on heavy days. I was the cool and modern girl in the ads now, playing sports and wearing tight pants with my super-thin pads. My mother, meanwhile, who had used cloth when she was younger, soldiered on quite happily with Carefree.
I was so keen on being cool and modern that it took me years to admit to myself something I should have long ago: I hate the ultra-thin sanitary pads. I could write you a Ramayana about how much I hate them. They felt like sheaths of plastic attached to my undies, and after an hour or two, I’d get hot and itchy. They also, ironically, made playing sports difficult. I avoided jogging or long walks when I had my period because sometimes the skin of my upper thighs would be raw from chafing against the sides of my pad. And I had to face the fact that I still had accidents with ultra-thin pads – I’d still sometimes stain my clothes, I’d still wake up to find I’d stained my bedsheets, and (whatever the advertisements said) my sleep was still troubled during my period, because I was shifting uncomfortably to make sure I only slept on my side. And I still couldn’t lie back in bed while reading a book with my knees up. The pads I was using changed none of that for me.
At university, I was so cool and modern that I tried tampons. Despite my high threshold for pain and discomfort, I never figured them out – they weren’t leak-proof, they felt uncomfortable, and I was terrified of being at a higher risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome (read this horror story about Lauren Wasser, who survived TSS but had to have a leg amputated – a reminder, if any was needed, about how little companies who make sanitary products care for the health of the women who use it). In the years since, I’ve used tampons now and then – even the awful uncomfortable kind that come without applicators and are so gross to put in – when swimming. But I hate them too, and I don’t think I’ll ever use tampons again.
* * *
The first thing I did when my friend gave me a menstrual cup was to go out and buy a small steel vessel (it’s recommended that menstrual cups, which are made of silicone, are boiled to sterilize them before use). Then I boiled the cup. Then I did nothing – I couldn’t work up the courage to try inserting it.
The next day, I boiled it again. I read the instructions that came in the packaging: you squat. You fold the cup to make the wide end of it smaller, so it can go into your vagina, and you gently push it in – far enough that the entire thing is inside, but not so far that you can’t reach the stem or knob on the bottom of the cup, for when you need to pull it out again.
Grab the base of the cup and rotate it by a full turn, to ensure that suction is in place. And then unless it’s a heavy flow day (when you might need to change your cup an extra time or two), you can forget about your cup for up to 12 hours. When it’s time to change, you squat and push down as if you’re going to poop (the instructions for my cup had a fancier way of saying this: “bear down as if making a bowel movement”), until you can get a grip on the bottom of the cup and pull out gently. Empty the blood and goo into a sink or toilet, wash the cup with a mild soap that doesn’t use fragrance – which can irritate the vagina – and insert once more. Of course, there are a number of variations of these steps (you don’t need to squat to put a cup in, which happens to be what works best for me – apparently, standing or sitting works too). Time and patience helped me figure out what I was most comfortable doing. There’s plenty of how-to material and lots of videos available online, but for best results, head to your cup manufacturer’s website for specific info on the model you’re using.
The horror of getting so up close and personal with my insides eventually faded, although six months down the line, I’m not sure if that feeling has entirely disappeared. And my confidence in being able to manage the cup needed building over time. The day after the first time I tried the cup, I had to give a talk to students at a college literature festival. I woke up that morning and went to work wearing my cup, intending to go straight to the college from there. But then I chickened out – what if I hadn’t yet figured out how to wear a cup right, and what if it leaked? The last thing I wanted was to have a period accident in front of a room full of people. So I went home and took out the cup, put on a sanitary pad, and headed to the literature festival.
I only wore the cup one other time that cycle, but in the months that followed, I wore it for longer and longer. I loved that on most days I could wear a menstrual cup before I went to work, and that I’d only have to change it on my return at the end of the day. But one thing I wasn’t able to figure out was how to prevent tiny leaks. While wearing my cup had given me a new, amazing freedom – I was sleeping better, without worrying about the position I was sleeping in; I could exercise without worrying about leaking while lying on my back or about chafing while running, and I didn’t have to deal with the wetness in my undies that was a constant reminder that I was on my period; the risk of TSS is said to be low – I’d have the occasional, very minor, leak. Rarely enough to stain my clothes through my underwear, but annoying nevertheless, so I decided to get help.
I’d been following an amazing group on Facebook called Sustainable Menstruation India – a closed, women-only group where people post questions, give advice, and share their experiences. And where a large army of women who love their menstrual cups and cloth pads resides. There, I became used to reading women talk about their bodies and menstruation in gross detail. It was awesome, it was liberating. I learned things I never knew I wanted to know about other women’s bodies: did you know some have a low cervix and need a shorter cup? Sometimes there’d be a real-time emergency when someone would post about how she was panicking because she couldn’t get her cup out, and members would rally round to give advice (in the event that you aren’t able to remove a cup, the thing to do is relax completely before trying again. A good thing to remember is that a cup cannot get “lost” inside you, even if it feels like it. If you’re really struggling, a doctor can help). I thought I’d ask if anyone had had the same trouble as I was having, and if they knew how to prevent the leaks. I received several bits of cheerful advice from the good ladies on the group – none of which worked in my case, sadly, so I tried another tack.
While on the Facebook group, amidst the posting of queries and achievements (such as managing with a menstrual cup during a long train journey with a toddler in tow, with several messages of encouragement and appreciation from users), I’d seen lots of people talking about the Shecup, made and marketed in India. I wondered if my leaks had to do with the cup brand I was using (DivaCup), so I purchased the Shecup for Rs 760 off Shycart. (Menstrual cups can be reused for a few years – Shecup claims that if maintained right, it can last a lifetime). As far as I know, it isn’t stocked in shops, although writer Mitali Saran tried her luck – with hilarious consequences. Another thing I’ve learned from the Facebook group is that not all gynaecologists have heard of menstrual cups. Good to know.
Shecup, by the way, is lovely – it’s more comfortable than the DivaCup. But I still have the same problem. I’ve discovered that the leaks tend to happen on my heavy days, although it isn’t because the cup is full to overflowing. I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe it’s just that my anatomy is funny. Until I figure out how to solve this, though, on heavy days, I’m using Eco Femme’s washable pantyliner as backup. Reusable cloth pads are always an option, but the menstrual cup seems like a lot less effort to me.
I’m never going back to plasticky sanitary pads again. One reason is because they’ve more plastic in them than I could ever have imagined – almost 90 percent. I learned this from a terrifying piece by Nidhi Jamwal, who also reported this:
The use of disposable sanitary napkins has also been linked to endometriosis in women. Most major brands use chlorine bleach to whiten their products, the burning of which is linked to the release of highly toxic dioxins and furans, which are carcinogenic even in trace quantities. Furans are present in pesticides that are sprayed on inorganically-grown cotton (which is used to manufacture a pad). Dioxins and furans, some of the most toxic substances known to humans, are linked to various health problems, including reproductive health issues and hampered development in children.
Apart from the risks to wearers, there’s also the compromised safety and dignity of wastepickers who come in contact with sanitary pads. And the quantity of menstrual waste is significant: according to Jamwal, over 9,000 tonnes of it litters our landscape every month. This outweighs any squeamishness I may have about coming in contact with my own menstrual blood. Jamwal’s piece gave me the kick I needed in order to stop merely thinking about using environmentally sustainable alternatives to disposable pads, and actually start using them.
In a recent conversation with Jamwal, she told me about how she had switched to reusable pads herself, and now used them most of the time. “I remember when I hit puberty and Carefree was the in thing, my mom would tell us how she grew up using cloth napkins and I would feel nauseous at the thought of washing a pad! I was like, yuck! How could you wash all that blood? At 38, I now do the same.”
Yesterday, as I was buying eggs at my local grocery store, I saw a massive “Super Saver” pack of Whisper Ultra on the shelf. Six months ago, I’d have pounced on it with delight. Now, the corner of the shelf in my cupboard that I used to reserve for those giant packs is occupied by the two tiny cups that have made a world of difference to my life. I know they haven’t necessarily had the same impact on all those who’ve tried them, and I hope there’ll soon be even more ways of managing one’s period sustainably.
But for now, I’ll go back to feeling like Bachendri Pal, thank you very much.
Disclaimer: The Ladies Finger does not intend to promote any products or brands in this piece and has not been paid to do so.