A warning to my dad and anyone else who’s not keen on reading about menstruation in general and mine in particular: you may want to skip this post. If you feel up to it, though, by all means read on! This is human biology: the topic and your interest in it are nothing to be ashamed of.
It is estimated that modern women experience about 450 periods in their lifetime. At 5 days a piece, that’s 2,250 days with Aunt Flo, or 322 shark weeks. More than six years of my life will be spent bleeding from a major orifice! If I live to be 70 that will be almost 9 percent of my life on the rag. I will spend significantly less time, say, brushing my teeth, but I have no qualms about talking to the strange woman beside me at WinCo about floss and bristles. If we were ten feet further down the very same aisle, however, (in front of “feminine hygiene”) chances are we wouldn’t even make eye contact with one another. While I can acknowledge intellectually that this is a total crock, I cannot force myself to throw aside conventional manners and strike up a conversation with a real life person about vaginas in the grocery store.
That, my friends, is the beauty of the blog. Even someone with social anxiety such as mine can pose as a self-assured woman of the world in digital print.
* tosses hair triumphantly and looks into middle distance *
(Or, to paraphrase a text post from Tumblr: Some things are so private you can only share them with 17,000 strangers online.)
Longtime readers know of my obsession with natural alternatives and all things reusable. I use washable cloth coffee filters. I go nowhere without at least one canvas tote bag. I wash and reuse zip-top baggies. I bring my own mug to the espresso stand. I special-ordered a reusable K&N air filter for my beloved Volvo. But until very recently I was still using disposable pads and tampons — and putting myself through paroxysms of guilt and anxiety about it. Guilt for continuing to create unnecessary landfill waste once a month and anxiety about the alternative methods that would prevent that waste. (In my defense I was using Natracare products, which are organic, plastic-, perfume-, and chlorine-free and just about as awesome as disposables can hope to be.)
I had toyed with the idea of reusable pads for yeeeeeeeears. They are easy to make if you can so much as sew a button, and are plentiful online in sizes and colors and shapes and fabrics galore if you can’t sew so much as a button or just enjoy supporting cottage industry. Initially what kept me away from reusable pads was the mess: without a plastic layer there is still a chance for soak-through if you aren’t diligent about changing them. Also, the idea of a bucket under the sink full of water and used pads was too much even for this home butcher of backyard livestock. Many pad makers use PUL (polyurethane laminate) fabric on the backside of their pads to prevent the evil from wicking into your panties, and while the cloth diaper movement has made PUL fabric widely available, machine-washable varieties were not available until fairly recently.
But what finally pushed me past the “intermediate” step of washable pads to the greenest of all menstrual options, the cup, was yoga and my bum shoulder.
I have kvetched in a previous post about hurting my shoulder in the spring of 2014 (and subsequently re-injuring it twice). I have regained almost my full range of motion but I still cannot sleep on my right side. This means that for 5-7 nights a month I can only sleep in one position (on my left side) unless I employ le tampon. Without “shovies” (thanks, MST3K) I am also unable to do pretty much half of the yoga poses in my favorite routines. (Half an hour of nothing but mountain pose and the various warrior stances is kinda boring, to be honest. Yoga without downward dog just doesn’t feel like yoga.)
So I did it. We had a few extra bucks and Amazon was having a sale on Diva cups ($27.99 + free shipping, and they were $49.99 on the shelf at the local Hippy Connection*) so I placed an order super duper quick before I could change my mind.
(I was a little disconcerted when a ring of blinding light radiated rapidly out from my heart chakra and a disembodied voice boomed “LEVEL UP!!!” I haven’t been keeping track,but I think this makes me a level 4 or 5 hippy. I’m not a vegetarian or vegan (although I’d say I’m a flexitarian these days) but I drive a car that can run on alternative fuel; I have a fully paid membership in a natural foods cooperative; I garden organically; I don’t use commercial shampoo, conditioner, or deodorant; I bake my own bread; I have made my own soap; I have made my own yogurt; there are two active carboys of homebrew bubbling away in the house right this minute; and I have raised and butchered my own meat . . . and now there’s this thing. I don’t think I can level up again until I finally purchase a brick of tofu. CHEAT CODE: Installing a PV array or wind turbine will take a level 1 hippy directly to level 10.)
There are more than a dozen brands of menstrual cups out there. I chose Diva for the simple reason that I am not very good at making decisions. Diva is the #1 seller on Amazon (and worldwide, I think) and it was also on sale at the time that I made my purchase. I could have made one of my very extensive charts but then I would have lost my nerve again. I can’t tell you which brand is right for you or how to make that decision.
So, for those of you not in the loop, what the hell is a menstrual cup? It’s a silicone cup worn inside the vagina to catch menses. (Cue Flora Poste.**) You put it in before the show starts, empty it 2-4 times in each 24-hour period until the river runs dry, store it, and reuse it again the next month. Modern cups are made of medical grade silicone and can last up to 10 years. Somehow I had gotten the idea that these babies were invented in the 70s but in researching for this post I found out that the first menstrual cup was patented in 1932! They were on the market back in 1937 and new models were introduced sporadically from there on out, but the first the mainstream heard of them was in the 1980s with The Keeper. Cups were generally made of rubber until the last decade or two when manufacturers started making them out of silicone, which has the dual advantages of being hypoallergenic and much more durable than latex.
My cup arrived on a Monday and Aunt Flo was due on Thursday morning, so I had some time to experiment before show time, as all the blogs and FAQs suggested. I was nervous but determined: I am not afraid of my own body (anymore) but every single source I had consulted on this topic warned of a steep learning curve. I knew I was going to fail a lot before I succeeded. So why did I persist? Because I have yet to find a single woman who does not, once she has found the right brand and mastered the technique, emphatically, evangelically rave about the cup. Those who use them are very very insistent: It’s sooooooo worth it. You will be soooooo glad you switched. You will die before you go back to pads and tampons.
My very first experience with the thing was unpleasant to say the least. I followed the directions on the package insert but both insertion and wear were super uncomfortable. The next day I consulted the oracle of YouTube and got some magnificent tips that made my next attempt a breeze. From there on out, as long as I remembered to “bear down” when inserting and then allowed my body to put the cup where it wanted it was 100% leak free and so comfortable I couldn’t even tell the thing was up in there. (If I insist on positioning it where I think it should go it both leaks and feels absolutely bizarre. I want to put it in like a tampon but the vagina, when you are sitting, is almost horizontal — not vertical — so that’s 90 degrees of wrong. Let your lady parts do the work and you’ll all be happy.)
The videos that helped me were from a short series on YouTube channel Dirty Diaper Laundry. She has a magnificent visual aid: a menstrual cup full of fruit punch in a champagne glass so you can really see what’s going on in there and finally feel confident (when she flips the glass upside down and shakes it vigorously) that it’s really really really not going to leak.
Every woman who uses one has her favorite thing about the menstrual cup. For some, the best part is the money they save, for some it’s the lessened environmental impact. Some women claim that their cramps have disappeared since they started using the cup. Some like that they only have to fiddle with it once or twice a day and many enjoy the peace of mind that they’ll never be caught unprepared again (Aunt Flo at the door, an empty sanitary pad box, and five miles of snowy roads between you and a store that sells feminine hygiene products). Having now survived one period with a cup I have to say my favorite thing is feeling clean. I shudder when I think of all those hours sitting on a soggy, warm mess. Even with a tampon I wasn’t free of that feeling since they leaked without fail. (And then there’s that tickly, dangly string soaking up pee and getting all up your undercarriage.) Ughhhhhh. Blech. Twenty years of my life I have spent a week a month shuffling around like a newly-infected zombie about to turn, expecting someone at any moment to point at me and recoil and shriek “Unclean!” None of that anymore!
 “Menstruation and Menstrual Suppression Survey”, Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, (https://www.arhp.org/Publications-and-Resources/Studies-and-Surveys/Menstruation-and-Menstrual-Suppression-Survey/Executive-Summary). Accessed 01/07/15. Excerpted from Thomas, Sarah L. and Charlotte Ellbertson, “Nuisance or Natural and Healthy: Should Monthly Menstruation Be Optional for Women?,” The Lancet, 355, March 11, 2000, 922-24.
*The natural foods co-op.
** Miriam (derisively): What would I look like in a little rubber bowler hat?
Flora (gently, but patronizingly): You wear it inside, Miriam.
Miriam (recoiling in horror): Nah, ma’am — ’tis flyin’ in the face of nature, that is!
(Please, for the love of all that’s good, go rent Cold Comfort Farm already.)