The first time I heard the words ‘menstrual cup’ it sounded like an award given to the woman who had braved the mother of all heavy flows. “In recognition of your valiant effort to survive your own body” the inscription might have read. Turns out I was only half wrong. A menstrual cup is a bell-shaped, medical grade silicon cup that’s flexible enough to fold and put into your vagina. Instead of absorbing the blood like other sanitary products, it creates a seal and collects it. It can stay inside you anywhere from 8 - 12 hours depending on your flow, and to remove it you have to induce a Master Oogway like state of inner peace, get your fingers inside your vagina and pinch the sides of the cup to break the air seal (which is what prevents leakages). Side note - if you aren’t already familiar with all that you’ve got going on down there, this will do it for you - you touch things you never knew existed. Oh, and squat - it works like a charm.
Now, you’re probably thinking this whole cup business seems like way more stress than one needs during their period - as if it isn’t enough to deal with already. And you’re right; it’s a lot more than just sticking on a pad or putting in a tampon - especially for women with conditions less spoken about but highly prevalent such as endometriosis and dysmenorrhea. With these conditions, having your period is especially painful, not to mention the clots of blood that you have to deal with. At the moment, there is no research as to whether or not you should use the cup if you have any of these conditions, and it’s best you consult your gynaecologist before you use one. Additionally, you have to sterilise the before each cycle, make sure it’s cleaned every time you insert it, and you start off needing a lot of patience and calm - so why the hell are people choosing to do all this?
The state of our environment seems to be one of the major deciding factors. Since the cup is reusable and lasts for 5-8 years, there is no synthetic waste being generated, and the blood is cleaned out in the sink. For women who are exposed to this knowledge and have the opportunity to make sure a change, it’s undoubtedly one of the most eco-friendly options around. Secondly, there are no health risks posed by the silicon cup while tampons have been known to induce toxic shock syndrome, for instance. Disposable sanitary napkins contain “toxic chemicals which on prolonged usage of DSNs can be absorbed by the vaginal and labial walls, especially as the skin in these parts are highly vascular with a tendency for greater absorbency,” says Bindu Mohanty, co-founder of Earth and Us in this report.
But are Indians ready for the cup? In at attempt to gauge what others thought about the cup, we profiled 5 women and their personal experience with it. The opinions range from true love to never again, validating the pros and cons to using the cup, and thereby, questioning its position as the next best alternative for Indian women at large.
I. Sheena Best | Founder of LOVER
“A couple of my friends had been singing its praises and I’d always wished for a better alternative to nasty sanitary pads and tampons, I thought it was time to give it a shot. I hated the general discomfort from having synthetic materials in and around my privates, both pads and tampons get expensive quickly, and above all, both are an environmental disaster right from production to disposal. Additionally, I travel a lot, and it’s not always possible to find adequate sanitary care products. With the menstrual cup, I’m never out. It’s always in my bag and the same one can be used for upto eight years.”
Sheena has been using the cup for two and a half years now, before which she used to use Tampons. Her first with the cup was “fiddly” as she describes it. “I wasn’t sure if I had to fold it, or that some form of lubrication helps with putting it in or out, or that you have to break the seal that it creates by pinching on it slightly to be able to take it out. This is the information you need. But I figured it out,” she tells us.
However, she doesn’t believe that this is the solution for everybody. “It is a luxury - you require access to privacy, running water and also preferably, boiling water. In a country where even bathrooms are an issue, it’s not the be-all and end-all solution. It’s also more invasive than sanitary pads so it can be tricky for some people to insert and find comfortable, particularly for those who have not tried tampons or who have not been sexually active.”
II. Shreiya Maheshwari
Having chanced upon an article on menstrual cups, Shreiya was intrigued and spent a whole day researching for the best option for her. She finally settled on the Silky Cup which she ordered off Amazon for INR 600, and has now used it for a year and a half. It took her a while to get it in the first time, and she felt pain and soreness, but once it was in “I immediately noticed that my cramps had dramatically decreased. Once the cup unfurls inside you, you don’t even notice it’s there. As I went about my day, I managed to forget that the cup was even there because it was so unobtrusive. I changed it after 8 hours and it was half full. It becomes so much easier with practice and now it takes me less than 5 minutes to do the whole process” Shreiya tells us. She also found that it actually made her period a lot more manageable than its previous form as a soul-sucking monster.
She was also cutting down on a lot of money spent on sanitary pads each month, along with the amount of personal waste she generated. On a last note, she says “It does hurt to put it in the first couple of times and it will take a while to get a hang of it. The cup forces you to be extremely comfortable with your vagina and sometimes you may find yourself squatting with one leg up and two soaked fingers deep into yourself. Do not panic. It’s okay. It’ll come out. It won’t be stuck inside forever.”
III. Mangala Deoskar* | Reporter
Mangala’s response to our question was unique because she used the cup only for the duration of one entire cycle. She tells us that she was “talked into it by a close friend who had switched, and she gifted me one for my birthday. I think it’s been almost two years since I tried it, now.” She tells us that for the longest time, when she was much younger, she was flushing her sanitary napkins down the toilet - nobody had really discussed what the proper way to dispose of them was, with her - only to discover many years later what a horrible impact that was having on the environment. She also admits that getting used to the sensation of the cup was more than a little uncomfortable. “I had only used sanitary napkins prior to it. I had used tampons a few times, only when they were absolutely necessary, so it’s not surprising that I found the cup as uncomfortable as I did. I was still determined to make the switch to the cup because all the research I had done pointed towards it being such a great decision. Of course, I was lucky enough to be able to make such ‘better’ choices, too.”
Her experience didn’t go as planned though. Despite a light to medium flow (which meant she only had to change the cup once a day) she just couldn’t get used to it. “I could constantly feel it - and it was getting in the way of my daily, active life. It’s not like I was sitting around at home as I gave this a test run. Running around for assignments, being at work and having to endure public transportation to get to all of these things, it was really unpleasant to feel like needing to adjust it in public! Menstruation is kind of inconvenient as it is, and this wasn’t making it any better,” she admits. She got through one cycle of usage but as a result of the discomfort, she hasn’t used one again since.
She’s not completely demotivated by it though. “I would consider using it again now that some time has passed,” she says. “I feel like I should figure out why it wasn’t working for me, rather than discount the idea altogether. Maybe looking for a better size option or brand might make the experience different. Just to note, I would consider using a reusable sanitary napkin too. It will be a bit of trial and error, I imagine, before I find that one option that is comfortable and affordable, while also being least harmful to the environment. Ultimately, I would not compromise on my personal comfort though.”
IV. Mansi Reddy
Although Mansi had learnt about the cup 6 years ago while at university, she only began to use the Diva Cup about a year ago, choosing to do so for environmental and hygienic reasons. She says “It seems like a cleaner alternative to pads and tampons,” although she still uses pads tampons as well as the cup. Mansi says, “The first time was a nightmare! I gave up, couldn’t insert it. then I read a thread on a feminist group on FB about the cup and how people have had trouble getting used to it and how eventually they did get used to and prefer it, which is why I tried again. “I don’t think I have gotten the hang of it yet - mostly because I have a very heavy flow the first couple days and would need to empty it at least once in the day. and its not easy to clean out and re-insert when you’re working all day and have a shared bathroom - I guess I’m not really comfortable cleaning out my diva cup in a shared sink? I mostly use it at home and use tampons and pads on the first 2 days, switch to the cup on day 3-5 when my flow is lighter.”
According to Mansi, the impediment is finding a clean and private bathroom in which she feels comfortable to remove, clean and reinsert the cup. The other issue is that she feels it is not comfortable when she is out and about on heavy flow days - she would have to change it every 5-6 hours and that is not too easy to do on those days in particular.
V. Shivani Gupta
Whilst in Ladakh, Shivani would often have to scamper around to find the right place to dispose of her tampon, while a friend of hers would use the cup without a care in the world - especially when it came to disposing the waste. A year later when she was travelling, she bought a moon cup and decided to give it a go, and has been an avid user ever since.
“I live between Bombay and Goa, and now more in Goa where there is no garbage pickup systems in place, which is why we see so much trash on the side of the roads. I have to be responsible for my garbage. We compost and recycle and drop our separated garbage bags of at the few pick up points. The moon cup is a huge relief it creates no trash. Living here really made me sensitive to the amount of waste we create. you use about a pack of tampons every period that lands up in the dustbin. You exchange that with the cup and you have no residue! Its also amazing if you trek or camp a lot” Shivani tells us.
Shivani had a leak the first time she used it, and this is completely normal - it takes a little while you to get the position right and know that it’s where it should be. With practice, she has gotten very comfortable with it. She tells us that, “Since using the mooncup I understand my cycle more and that makes me feel more liberated. I like the action of pouring the blood that’s collected as I can see whats going on inside. It’s helped me get over the ‘ick’ feeling I used to have.”
Here’s the reality of the situation. Sustainability and environmental consciousness is essentially a guilt of people with enough privilege to even consider these factors while making lifestyle choices. There are only a handful of people who can extend themselves to reach that point of considering alternatives for reasons larger than themselves. A mere 12 per cent of India’s total female population has access to sanitary napkins - which means that the remaining 88 per cent women are still surviving on things like cloth pads, dried leaves, sand and newspapers, according to this report. A bathroom for girls in schools in most of the country is not a given, which means the girls using pads have no place to change. What’s worse, 1 in 5 school girls in India drop out because their period keeps them at home for so many days in a month.
The silver chuddi lining in all this is that finally, our country has opened up to the discourse of women’s health. Campaigns such as Lahu ka Lagaan, Happy to Bleed and Give Her 5 have put menstruation on the agenda, and is helping to remove the taboo that has long stained this topic of conversation, even for women themselves. They have compelled people to realise how far the government has to go in giving women the basic right and access to sanitation. For the cup to be a viable option one day, women’s bathrooms and access to clean water is a priority - something governing bodies can no longer ignore. Regardless, it’s time for women to know that they have options for sanitary care that they can choose from, now more than ever where policy can actually be coerced to include facilities for women’s health care.
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Illustrations by Manasi Vaidya and Pratyush Thaker