Welcome back to Lady Things, the column where we acknowledge that there are a very large number of people in the world without penises*, and we address those people and the issues that pertain specifically to them.
[*Some ladies do in fact have penises, but we are using this for rhetorical effect and because it's fun to type the word "penises."]
Last week, we began what will surely be an ongoing conversation about one of Eve's many curses: the shedding of one's uterine lining every 28 days or so, if one does not have a fertilized egg attempting to live in one's uterus. In that column, I brought you creepy Halloween tales of the horror of tampons.
This week, I want to offer a possible solution to the problem I presented: What do you do when you are a menstruating woman who can't stand pads, hates tampons and yet does not want to take hormones to stop her period?
Last year, I saw a Kickstarter campaign for a collapsible menstrual cup and ordered it, sort of experimentally. But after an unfortunate episode with a tampon humiliated me in front of one of my childhood heroes (see last week's column), I decided to really try the cup, even though it filled me with dread.
What is a menstrual cup, you ask, and why did I dread it? Well, it's a cup that goes inside a vagina and catches period blood and goo related to not-pregnancy, which the owner of the vagina must then remove and empty.
I dreaded it because, I mean, gross, right? It requires touching your parts and the possible spillage of blood. When I was a young person, I was definitely not into parts-touching. And anyway, the only people who used menstrual cups were hardcore, let's-look-at-our-vaginas-in-mirrors hippies who called periods "moon cycles." I'm just a lifelong Girl Scout from Oregon who once took a month off from work to go to yoga school—I'm hippie-lite.
But nowadays I am the person who buys my tampons. Add that to the Pacific Garbage Patch and the possibility of leaving tampons inside your body, and I thought, fuck it. Let's do this thing.
I have now been using my menstrual cup for almost a year. Fact: I love it, and it has totally and completely changed my life. I don't spend as much money, I know what's going on with my body in a clearer way, and I haven't ruined a single pair of underwear since I started using it. But I am wary of people who are too excited about products. Are they shills? Are they idiots? So for this piece, I wanted a wide range of opinions and ideas about using cups. What follows is a list of real advice and stories from users of menstrual cups, solicited from my readers and friends. Most of them have chosen to remain anonymous, so Googling them doesn't result in knowing about their menstrual habits. Obviously, I have no issue with that.
1. Do some research. A quick Googling introduced me to what I am calling the Best Teenager on the Internet, Bree Farmer, a British girl who reviews menstrual cups. Just watch:
Sometimes I imagine my mom feels so sad when she thinks about all the things I got to do that she did not, like wear pants to school, play actual sports and be what I wanted to be when I grew up. That's how I felt when I first watched Bree's videos. Like, fuck, I wish this girl was around when I was a kid.
Bree got me psyched to use a cup, helped me believe this might change my life, and let me know it was normal to have trouble getting it in and out the first few times. If you want to know about a specific cup, chances are she's thoroughly reviewed it.
2. Know where your cervix is. Listen to Bree. Figure out if you have a high cervix, a low cervix or somewhere in-between. Yes, this involves sticking a finger inside of your body, but hey, it's your body! Time to learn about it—it's the only one you've got. Jennifer, a friend of the column, told me:
The first few times I tried my cup, I didn’t really understand the concept of correct placement, and had some pretty big leaks. I always used backup pads, because I didn’t trust the cup. Finally one cycle, I had the ah-ha moment of placing the cup around my cervix and, of course, had hours of leak-free protection. If you are going to use a cup, you have to be comfortable feeling for your cervix with your fingers, and messing around “in there” a little for the right fit.
Best tip I received was to know what you’re aiming for–know where your cervix is. Turns out my cervix is down the block, around the corner on CDs 1-2, so I really needed to position the cup far back to get it positioned correctly.
Not everyone's cervix is the same, or even in the same neighborhood. Just ask Jessica:
Just because Diva said you need the size 2 after 30 or after a baby, it doesn’t mean it’s so… I could read the 15 ml line while sitting on the toilet with it in. It was ridiculous. I understand why people asked, “Are you sure it’s placed over your cervix?” Um, yeah. My cervix is just a fingertip inside. It’s kind of hard to miss…. “OooK there’s the issue. Get a smaller cup.” Problem solved.
3. They can be very difficult to get in their properly. Pretty much everyone struggles at the beginning. Sometime, the struggle is too much. Laura says:
I shot the thing across the room a few times, whilst trying to get it appropriately “suctioned” (as some friends advised, what in the actual fuck?) to my cervix. Every time I thought I had it, I stood up and blood went everywhere. I tried and failed so many times that the next day, I felt like my vagina had been mauled by an adolescent bear. I boiled the beast sterile and passed it on to a friend who is apparently into this sort of Machiavellian device. I was scrubbing everything from under my fingernails to my bathroom walls for days. #neverforget
3. Also, they can be hard to take out. This is a theme. Many of the people who wrote to me with stories of using cups have had trouble removing them. I have too—in fact I ended up having to get a replacement cup when I pulled too hard on the stem of my Lily Cup Compact and RIPPED THE WHOLE THING OFF, leaving a gaping, dripping hole in my now-useless cup. Luckily, they sent me a new one right away, and I've started doing less tugging and more pinching to break the seal.
Other people's tales of stuck cups cover a wide range. They go from the mild— "It's like sticking a mini toilet plunger up there. The suction is quite strong"; "I guess a few times I've had trouble getting the cup out (this new Diva one I have has a short stem), but if I relaxed and squatted it was fine"—to the epic:
This past spring I gave the Diva Cup a whirl after hearing several trusted friends’ recommendations. Sure, I’d heard about it and all its eco-friendly glory already. But did it really work? YES said Friend 1. She’d been using forevs and talked about how great it was. You can wear it for hours longer than a tampon. It’s easy to get in/out. It doesn’t leak. Blah, blah, blah. Since I really trust this friend, I was like OK, let’s do it and bought one on Amazon. After watching lots of YouTube vids, by the time my next period rolled around I felt ready to give it a go.
In it went, all seemed normal. Went to work—all day, no issues.
After work, I was curious to find out what was going on in there, so I went to remove it. Uh, nope. So I try again. Another nope. The thing was too far up and too slippery to get a good grip. This was supposed to be easy—everyone said so—so I took a few deep breaths and gave it another go. After many minutes of fumbling, cursing, sweating and hand-cramping, I went back to YouTube and the instruction sheet for emergency advice. They told me to “bear down.” I beared down so much I almost shit my spleen. It seemed to have a suction on my uterus that was stronger than any shower caddy. I started getting my speech ready for the people in the emergency room—this thing had been in for at least nine hours, and I knew I couldn’t sleep in it all night, too.
But finally, success—out it came. I laughed, I cried, I threw it across the room. My hand was sore for the next three days.
Not one to give up, I watched more YouTube and then tried it again the next day. I must have just put it in too far the first time. Next time, things will be different. Things will be shallower.
My first trip to the bathroom at work showed me that this was not a successful technique. BLOOD EVERYWHERE. I’m in the bathroom stall, trying to get it out, but it’s even slipperier than before. Despite the fact that I didn’t put it in as far, it was still not coming out. I’m muttering FUCK FUCK FUCK to myself as my hand is covered in blood, wrenching around trying to get this jellyfish out. After a while, it comes out, but I resign to tampons for the rest of the day. In the meantime, I have to use at least two rolls of toilet paper to mop up the nightmare in the stall, wrap the little beast up in some more toilet paper, stick it in my pocket and slouch shamefully away to hide it in my bag.
Later that night, I’m talking to my roller derby teammates about all this. Turns out that one is also a cup user, and goes on to toot its silicone horn. She gives me some tips—fold it this way. Sit that way. Put your leg over there. She loves it so much, that I think I must just not be “getting it.”
I want to give up, but I am committed to the environment, dammit. And I have spent $40 on this new, carefree way of life, dammit. So after a few days for recovery, I decided to go in again.
But this time, I brought a parachute: I threaded some thick string through the little “handle” as a rescue line. This sucker wasn’t getting away anymore. Now I could rip it out if worse came to worst. And, well, it always did.
I had a few other days of major leaking, but at least it came out way easier. Despite the research, tips and trials, I could not find a consistent way for it to fit right.
After three cycles of similar struggles, I gave up. I never really had any beef with tampons, and after the horrible ordeals with the cup, it was clear that I owed them a lot more appreciation. TAMPONS FOR LIFE.
One reader wrote to me with this story of menstrual cup trauma from the '70s:
I can’t even believe the “cup” is still around. I used one of the rubber Tassaway cups in the early ’70s (I read Wikipedia to remember the name of it). No trouble getting it in, but getting it out was another whole story. I think my finger was too short to get up there to break the seal. I have very small hands, plus it was a very tight seal. I worked and worked and could not get the thing out. I was in tears and wondered what in the world was I going to do. Would blood just keep backing up in there? Was I going to have to go to a doctor to have it removed? Finally, my husband to the rescue. I got in the tub, and he put his finger up there, broke the seal and pulled it out. Of course, you can imagine that scene. It was gross!
That was the one and only time that I used the cup!
4. Another thing that might happen: a bloodbath in your work restroom. Another reader who uses the Diva cup had this to say:
My flow is super-heavy for about two days. Usually the cup is fine for about 10 hours, but on those days, I learned the hard way that I can’t make it through the workday without emptying it. And by “the hard way,” I mean that I felt a bit of a leak, went to check and discovered I was overflowing. So I emptied it and put it back in…but now I’m in a stall in a bathroom with my tights around my knees and blood all over my hands going, “Well…how do I get out of here now?” Ended up just going out to the sink and praying nobody walked in on my crime scene.
5. Don't forget to clean up:
One warning I would give your readers is that that blood, when there is a lot of it, does tend to splash up, so you should look under the toilet seat to check. Well, my boy roommates in S.F. found blood a few times when they flipped the toilet seat up to pee that I neglected to wipe off, and then they told me and that was embarrassing—sort of but not really.
6. You can totally use a menstrual cup with an IUD. At least according to my former Girl Scout campmate, Dodger:
They say you shouldn’t use them if you have an IUD, but I’ve been using both together for years, and the suction of the diva cup has yet to pull the IUD out of my cervix because I doubt that’s even possible.
UPDATE: Not everyone agrees on this, though. One commenter says:
You can pull out your IUD. It can happen through suction or by pulling the strings when removing the cup. That point needs to be corrected, because it’s painful and expensive and many people are unaware.
7. Airplanes may cause you some trouble. Dodger also had this warning to the menstruating flier:
The suction does not work at high altitudes, aka on airplanes. Like when you get to the airport and your lotion is all suctioned in because of the pressure change? Its like that, except you land and you realized your jeans are soaked and you have to wait for your luggage to arrive before you can change your pants in the bathroom and then spend your vacation down one pair of pants.
8. There is something oddly satisfying about seeing your blood. It's like doing a science experiment on your body once a month. With tampons, you just see a reddish, brownish cotton wad, but with a menstrual cup you can see the consistency and amount of the stuff coming out of you. Multiple people mentioned this to me:
All the blood dripping out into the toilet to me can be so satisfying.
I do get a weird satisfaction from being able to see how much blood is in the cup every day, which I read about in people’s reviews but didn’t really believe I’d experience—sort of akin to the gross satisfaction of popping a pimple or picking off a scab.
9. Unlike used tampons, you can give your used cup away if you don't like it!
My first Diva cup was my best friend’s. She tried it once and hated it. So I took it and boiled it!
10. You can hold on to your menstrual cup for a very long time. Jennifer again:
My $25 purchase lasted seven years of every-22-day usage…the cup still worked perfectly after all that time, but the staining had finally gotten to the point where I decided enough was enough.
11. This seems obvious, but do not drink from your menstrual cup. Pictured above.
My friend took a peppermint patty shot out of one called the Instead Cup in college (unused), and it was covered in this lube-y substance and she got real sick.
So, yeah, it's hard, and you shouldn't drink from your cup, but if you can make it through the first few months and you take the time to find the cup that fits you best, you will save a ton of money, know more about your body, save yourself time on trips to the bathroom, and do something good for the environment. I've used my menstrual cup swimming and at yoga and it always works absolutely fine.
Which one should you get? Well, there's the Diva cup, which you can get at New Seasons for $41.99. Also mentioned as good cups by people who told me their stories: Lunette and MeLuna. I use a Lily Compact, but I kind of want to get a bigger one now that I am such a pro. Watch Bree's videos, measure your cervix, and decide for yourself!
And thank you so much to all the people who wrote to me and told me about menstrual cups! You guys are the best ladies out there.
One last thing from Bree, a period video for transgender women, because we here at Lady Things acknowledge not all ladies get their periods:
Hey, share your stories in the comments! And next week we are taking a week off from Lady Things. But when we come back in two weeks, get ready for something NOT PERIOD-RELATED. This one's for you, Mark Kelly!