Do read this article if you’re a woman. Do read it if you’re a man — one with a daughter, or a wife, or a sister, or a mother, or girlfriends in general, who might not mind ‘unsolicited’ advice about their personal care choices. Read this if the future of our planet and your impact on it matters to you. Read it if you believe consumers can bring about significant change through their purchase behaviour.
The wasteful period
Did you know a single woman will use an average of 14 000 tampons or sanitary pads in her lifetime? Imagine that mound of unfortunate waste in a landfill; if it even makes it there. Waste that only exists because ‘she’ didn’t know of a better way to part with it. The ironic reality is a woman’s monthly cycle is not the wasteful part, merely the peculiar method with which we have become accustomed to ‘capturing’ and disposing of it.
Fortunately, the exposure of another solution entirely is heavily on the rise.
Heard of the menstrual cup?
As the name suggests, this solution of managing menstrual flow is done not by means of disposable sanitary products but through a multi-use silicone grade, flexible cup. You might know it by another name; MeLuna, Moon Cup, Diva Cup, Goddess Cup, Fleur Cup. I was surprised to find how many varieties were already on the market, and even more so when I realised how long they’d been available.
The US manufactured cup, The Keeper, was in fact introduced to market in 1987 already! I can only assume the plethora of disposable sanitary products available on supermarket shelves have held the monopoly for marketing all these many years. If you think about it, it’s a marketer’s dream product. It targets half the population on a monthly basis (not by choice), requiring a solution is unavoidable, and since the marketed solution was a ‘consumed product’, said target group is hooked by dependency, month after month, year after year.
Thankfully since the uptake of the first silicone grade, UK manufactured cup in 2002, The MoonCup, and the increasing awareness on living sustainably in all areas of life, there is little reason to remain uninformed.
How the cup works
There’s sufficient information on the web on this already, even some very helpful demo videos and product comparisons, for me to not need to go into detail here. Essentially it’s a flexible silicone cup, that, by means of dexterous fingering (yes, I just said that) is inserted into the vaginal canal, where it sits snuggly, collecting your cycle’s released fluids until you need to remove it, empty it out, rinse or wipe clean and re-insert.
Why you should consider it
There is a detailed list of considerations for switching to the menstrual cup on Wikipedia. In short:
Will it save you money? For sure. If you’re spending an average of R100 monthly, one menstrual cup which can be used for 10 years, will save you about R12 000. That’s a more than a flight to Europe.
Will you reduce your wasteful impact on the environment? Absolutely. The average sanitary product takes 25 years to begin breaking down, and you would be contributing thousands upon thousands in your life. One cup can last a decade if looked after.
In my experience, some self-lived honesty is a more effective way of transition a concept from ‘vague notion’ to something ‘genuinely worth considering’. Over the last 3 years of using the cup, I’ve amassed enough of this to share a more relatable version of life with the cup. I hope, at the very least, it will make the concept seem less intimidating the next time your cycle rolls around and you’re shelling out another hundred bucks on sanitary products (money better spent on chocolates).
But enough about the theory. As Olivia Newton John says, “Let’s get physical.”
The beginnings of shy versus curious
I grew up in a household not particularly perturbed by physical intimacy or awkwardness, nor making a big deal from everyday things. When womanhood knocked on my door, my mom handed me a box of tampons and told me to get comfortable with my body.
“Welcome to the curse,” she said with just a tiny smattering of empathy and closed the bathroom door.
Little-girl-me stared horrified and wide-eyed for a moment, wondering why I was getting a stash of tiny torpedo shaped devices when all my friends had the friendly looking, un-invasive, winged-contraptions.
She interjected something about an instruction manual with pictures and that she would be right there if I didn’t come right. Not awkward at all.
After the initial horror and months of adjusting — I was secretly grateful to my mom. As invasive as tampons were to a young girl, they offered me far more freedom and flexibility than my friends had when it came to playing sport and wardrobe options.
When knowledge of the MoonCup filtered into my life almost fifteen years later, the first barrier to.. erm..entry — getting over the physicality of it all — no longer bothered me. Thanks again, mom. I was more curious and intrigued. But in having shared my experience with friends, the ‘eeek-factor’ is clearly one of the main hesitations to using a menstrual cup. And I can only think this must stem from how your menstrual journey started.
What a strange thing to say in this context, right? It’s more often touted in reference to spiritual growth or conviction in vocational direction. Consider this. Your physical body journeys through life with you daily. It reflects your likes and dislikes, your lifestyle choices and even a barometer on your health.
If you don’t know what your body feels like when in a healthy, normal state, how will you detect abnormalities in time? If you don’t know how to tickle your own pleasure buttons, how can you ever share that level of vulnerability with your partner? There are myriad benefits towards getting over the eek-factor. But if your womanhood story began with the winged contraptions I was never initially privy to, I can understand your resistance. It’s not what you know. But ask yourself this. Are you really going to let your self-shyness be the reason more and more preventable waste ends up in landfills? And is it a logical mental block to have if you’ve already been intimate with a partner or plan to or have already given birth to a human being. Surely, no.
Some logistical truths you should know about using the cup
There are two basic ways to fold the cup for easy insertion. One version looks like a C-shape, the other one feels like a ninja origami move and, in my opinion, works better. Watch a handful of YouTube demo videos and thank the brave women who came before you for sharing this. Then get stuck in, literally.
- It is a bit uncomfortable in the beginning. You can feel something odd-shaped wedged up inside you. Fiddle with how far you insert it and how you fold it. One will feel better for you. Stick with it — the initial oddity of it goes away.
- It takes a few cycles to get used to it. I experienced some sensitivity, in the beginning, not being able to keep it inserted for the full 4-8 hours. Use a mixture of the cup and whatever else you’re familiar with in the beginning. Be kind to your body and it will be kind to you. I believe resisting it emotionally will manifest in more physical tension and discomfort.
- It’s more convenient in bathrooms where the sink is within reach. Because you’re essentially tipping out the contents and giving it a rinse, the nearness of a sink is logical. But, once you get it right, and providing you don’t have an extremely heavy flow, you’ll probably only need to insert it in the morning and again in the evening, or perhaps once during the day. Home and most work bathrooms luckily offer that privacy. It’s not essential to rinse, you can just wipe it out with loo paper, but that’s my preference. You can also keep a little spray bottle with you to clean it out.
What not to do when using a menstrual cup
- Do NOT forget to wash your hands before. I had been using the cup for only 3 months when a particularly awkward dinner prep incident arose that involved the chopping of chillies, an ensuing string of mini disasters, followed by a desperate break for the loo. There may or may not have been extreme squealing and yoghurt involved. The dinner friend and I never quite recovered from it.
- Don’t forget to pack it away. Because it becomes a little bit like a regular guest in your bathroom routines, not unlike your toothbrush and razor, it also sometimes ends up hanging out in the shower where you last cleaned it. It’s fine when spontaneous house guests get to see your preference for rosemary shampoo. This, perhaps not so much.
- Don’t panic when it’s removal time. This bit also takes a fair amount of getting used to. Because of the way the cup stays in, with the use of minor suction, you cannot get it out by simply tugging on the extension or tail as it’s called. It won’t budge. It’s also physically impossible for it to disappear somewhere into your body. Remain calm, read the instructions, release the seal by denting base with one finger and then gently fold it and manoeuvre it out sideways, semi seated over the loo, where you can just tip the contents out. Good work out for your thighs.
- Don’t get grossed out. So, the contents aren’t contained in a solid substance, easily and quickly disposable of so you don’t have to acknowledge its existence. This is better — it’s flushable. It’s no different to your spit, urine, sweat, tears, vomit, pus or any otherwise peculiar fluids our human forms require to exist and heal. Accept it for what it is and put on your big girl panties.
Now for the wonderful news
Using a reusable menstrual cup has changed my life, and countless other women’s lives, if you spend some time reading product page reviews. Here’s an overview.
- I spend exactly zero on my monthly cycle. Not on sanitary products, not on pain numbing Nurofens, not on insane amounts of pastry to satisfy my cravings.
- I experience no more pain. I can’t give you a scientific or medical explanation for this but my extreme lower back pain and internal cramps all but went away. Whether previously it was a toxic shock response to non-organic tampons, I can’t say for certain. Some believe the very gentle under-pressure (like a very mild suction) caused by the cup in the lining eases the work the uterus needs to do of expelling your menstrual fluid. But it’s a wonderful side benefit indeed. (caveat: I do take magnesium and zinc regularly too)
- I have complete lifestyle freedom. I can go on full day hikes, do all manner of very regular yoga classes and yoga teaching, hours of meditation, surf, long-haul flights you name it. The infrequency of needing to change it and the pain alleviation are massively liberating. It really makes you forget you have your period while you’re having it.
- I have a crystal clear conscience. I shudder to think how many years I ignorantly added to the growing and unnecessary pile of badly disposed of natural human body waste. But when you know better you do better, and this lifestyle change has made me feel holistically lighter.
So, what makes you more uncomfortable? The thought of having to acknowledge your own bodily fluids and intimate regions? Or ignoring a potentially super easy waste free living solution because it requires a little ‘grit and commit’? (another small caveat: this isn’t a solution for all woman, depending on the shape of your body, whether you have a condition known as pelvic organ prolapse, or are using an IUD)
If you think that the more or less finite number of accumulated sanitary waste stops with you and that you’d rather lighten your footprint in other ways, I’d like to point out to you that the buck doesn’t stop with you.
If you choose not become an advocate for a more sustainable feminine hygiene change, then you likely won’t teach your daughter to be one and she won’t teach her daughter and so you become a passive contributor to a ripple effect, where, in truth, an enormous power for change does lie with you.
Be brave. Be a goddess. Be one with Mother Nature. No being on this planet was created with the intention of it causing harm to the cycles of life. Your beautiful, natural, feminine cycle really doesn’t need to either.