This article reveals the learnings of one sustainable menstruator as she navigates the space of gender, health and social stigma around women’s agency as they take their health in their own hands. Menstrual cups: pros, cons, and the author’s learnings about cups being both an act of feminism and patience.
Cup-bhi khushi, cup-bhi gam-3 years of sustainable menstruation.
Raashi Raghunath works as the Community Manager for Proactive for her. She has worked in the fields of development and gender in rural Madhya Pradesh and enjoys talking about cats, intersectional feminism, and the occasional Netflix special.
I started menstruating from the age of 11, and it was a very ordinary experience throughout school and most of college, till the age of 20. That’s 9 years of sanitary napkins. With an average of 11 cycles per period (my cycle was always irregular), that’s 99 cycles or 594 days of menstruation, and I probably used 8,316 sanitary napkins up until that point. That’s a lot of waste, and as I ended college, I learned about zero waste lifestyles, and avoiding sanitary waste. A few seniors in college advocated for the cup, and I was keen to switch. It was at the age of 20 that I switched to a menstrual cup, and I’ve never looked back.
Since then, in the past three years, I’ve saved 462 pads from being added to the total waste I have contributed.
Mind you, my experience of making the switch was not ordinary. I had started working with an organization that sold menstrual cups, and the first assignment they had for us was to give us a menstrual cup to use (for the first time) and get used to it before we could begin our journey as facilitators. If we wanted to talk the talk, we had to be able to walk the walk (with a cup inside).
I remember waiting for the day my period would arrive, waiting, and waiting. I had been diagnosed with PCOS that year, so it was always a surprise when, like a bored pet cat, it deigned to show up, unannounced. But it did, and I followed the instructions, boiled it, and took it to my hostel’s common bathroom stall. The cup went inside after a couple of minutes of squatting and squeezing. After it went in, and there was an unexpected moment of calm, I sort-of jiggled to see if it would fall out. It didn’t. Nothing felt different, yet everything had changed, forever. I remember walking out of the bathroom and being so aware of the fact that a cup of silicone was going to catch my menstrual blood for the first time that I practically shouted towards the first girl that passed by me, “I just wore a menstrual cup for the first time. It is inside me!” and she said “Good for you!”
Inserting the cup was only half the battle won, removing the cup was still left. It does not hurt; it is, however, a shock your vagina feels as the vacuum seal is broken, and the cup pops out of the labia. The cup is fascinating, I have never spilled blood from the cup while removing it. It’s okay if it happens because by now I am quite comfortable with the sight of the thick, deep red blood in the cup before it makes beautiful patterns when drained into the toilet. But the suddenness of removal does take some getting used to. I have always maintained that 90% of successfully inserting and removing a cup is getting used to it, and 10% is confidence. The cup can smell fear, so always stay confident.
It took a lot of effort to stick to using the cup in those first few cycles. I only stuck to it because I had committed to working with an organization that sold cups. The insertion and removal of the cup is something a lifetime of using pads doesn’t prepare us for. I like to compare it to the struggle someone faces when they decide to work out every morning after being unhealthy for a long time. Those first few months are the toughest and even if you know it’s good for you, it takes all the strength you possess not to give up. I do not blame women who give up in the middle. But what I did learn by sticking to the cup for the first six months is that feminism isn’t easy. Using a cup is an act of feminism because you are choosing waste pickers’ dignity over your convenience with every menstrual cycle. It is an act of feminism because you are facing your menstrual blood and learning that it is not impure or dirty. And it is an act of feminism if you are learning how to listen to your vagina, despite what society tells us about what good girls do and don’t.
When I first tried the cup and got used to it, I was shocked that I hadn’t come across it sooner, and I had spent so many years without it. I have developed a great relationship with my periods. I have changed the cup in public toilets, a train bathroom, I’ve even painted with menstrual blood!. Very little scares me now. I wanted to shout across rooftops about how amazing the cup is, and I wanted every woman I came in contact with to know how life-changing it could be. My experience with other cup-users has shown me that most of them feel this way too. Sustainable menstruators can sense each other out in a room and begin extolling the cup’s virtues anywhere.
When I began to facilitate workshops and urge women to switch to the cup, we were quite successful, we had an average conversion rate of over 60 women and many women still use the cup since we have sold it to them. Some women were already open to it, and some took the plunge and allowed us to help them through the process. Quite a few women agreed with the principles of sustainable menstruation-the environmental factor, the financial gains, and the humanitarian angle, of reducing waste pickers’ exposure to menstrual waste, despite being hesitant to make the switch. In the beginning, I was sure the reason for this was fear, ignorance, and years of conditioning against penetration. I was confident that the reasons were purely sociological, but over time, I learned that this was not true.
The reasons could be psychological, with women sharing with me stories of sexual assault or trauma that made it hard to access one’s vagina without fear and anxiety. Another reason that very few were openly talking about, and this was possibly due to the lack of awareness around it, was vaginismus. Vaginismus is a condition that affects people with female genitalia that causes the vagina to constrict, and remain closed. While normally the vagina can dilate during arousal, or stretch to accommodate a cup or tampon, people with vaginismus can find themselves unable to insert the cup no matter how hard they may want to, and it can result in pain if one keeps trying. Naturally, this can be very distressing, and vaginismus is often connected to heightened anxiety and stress due to a sense of failure. I have seen this happen to women who are unable to use the cup. I would urge women who might experience this to seek a medical opinion, as vaginismus is treatable.
Not everyone who fails to use the cup for the first time may necessarily have vaginismus. It is a very serious condition, which manifests in different ways, and unfortunately due to how Indian society conditions us, women are more inclined to shy away from their genitalia, have a hard time exploring it, and be wary of things their parents and doctors advise them against.
Another reason is just the ability to communicate with one’s body. There are women who have tried for months to get adjusted to the cup, but it doesn’t work for them until finally one day it does. Learn to listen to your body, and what direction to push and pull will start becoming clear in a few cycles. One thing that always helped me make sure I left the bathroom with the cup inside me, was telling myself that if thousands of women can do this, so can I.
While the cup is vaginally one-size-fits-all, as a piece of menstrual equipment, I cannot say that it is a one-size-fits-all solution to every woman out there. It’s a good thing that there are things like cloth pads that achieve much of the same results, for women who don’t want to, or can’t use cups. My conversations with women across the country has made me realize that cups are hard work and as they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nobody converts to the cup in a day either.
Having used the cup for three years now, I am proud of what this quiet revolution in India has done in the past few years. Even if very few women have switched, it is having a larger impact on how India views menstruation. What matters is that organizations working with cloth pads, menstrual cups or even biodegradable sanitary napkins are all contributing to a growing conversation around menstruation, impurity, the language around periods (ladies, stop saying you are down!), and relooking at women’s journey with their bodies, blood and contribution to plastic waste. The ripple effect of a small percentage of women using the cup is that a larger percentage of women learn about the destigmatization of menstruation, and as long as that is happening, that’s half the battle won, and we need all kinds of bleeding warriors we can get to win!
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