Monday, June 11, 2012

The Menstrual Cup

This is a re-post from something I'd put up on my Facebook last month (with a fair bit of editing).  Because my life is rather chaotic right now (and this topic is *coughcough* gonna be relevant tomorrow), I'm just gonna leave this here.

I wanted to talk to you today about something wonderful, something magical, something life-changing...

...something gross, something weird...

...something that a lot of people don't know about and will make judgments about unless they get the facts.

I'm talking about... THE MENSTRUAL CUP.

*dun dun duuuuun*

Seriously now.  Some of you know exactly what I'm talking about, some of you are already lost, some of you have heard me talk about it a little and dismissed it as "gross" or something like that, and some of you are men who never got over fear of a woman's period and had a minor heart attack at seeing the word "menstrual".  I know all kinds.

I wanted to talk about the menstrual cup because it's seriously an amazing thing, and in this time of economic hardship and environmental crises, in this time where women are still told to be ashamed of their bodies and their unique functions, in this time where sometimes tampons and pads just don't cut it, I feel this is information to be spread.

If you're a man and you're squeamish about discussion of women's bodies and periods, you might want to stop reading now.  If you're a woman and you're squeamish about discussion of women's bodies and periods, this is kinda meant for you and I'd appreciate it if you took a deep breath and kept reading.

So, without further ado: THE MENSTRUAL CUP

What Is It?

A menstrual cup is a small cup (duh) typically made from silicone or rubber, which is inserted into the vagina for the purpose of collecting blood during a woman's period.

I know, when I first heard about them, I was weirded out too.  "A... cup?  What?  It doesn't absorb anything?  You just... empty it?"

And then you explain what happens after you empty said cup: "YOU PUT IT BACK IN??? O(IH*&DT*&GU*&IR&^FYUGKIYU&*R%WE$RTF"

Okay, okay, calm down.  It's not what you think.  Trust me.  Stay with me, here.  Yes, what happens is, you put the cup inside the vagina, just below the cervix, and fluid drips into it over the course of the day (most cups can be worn up to 12 hours at a time).  At the end of the day, you take the cup out, dump the blood and such into the toilet, quickly clean the cup and put it back in for another 10-12 hours.  Literally rinse and repeat.

Why Would You Use It?

There are plenty of benefits to using a menstrual cup, some of which you may not even have realized were potential problems with pads or tampons.

  • Less Risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome:
  •  Right off the bat, this is a big one.  A menstrual cup, unlike a tampon, is not right up against the cervix, but below it, preventing bacteria from getting into the uterus.  There has been absolutely no shown link between menstrual cup use and TSS.

  • More Environmentally Friendly:
  •  With a menstrual cup, you're creating no more waste than you would any other time of the month.  No wrappers to throw away, no pads filling the trash can.  Because the majority of cups are meant to be re-used for up to 5-10 years, that makes a serious impact on your carbon footprint.

  • Less Expensive:
  •  Up front, this seems false.  For most cups, the price wavers around $30-40, and that's enough to make a girl balk.  Consider this, though: Jezebel looked into the cost of having a vagina over a lifetime and found that, going off prices, women probably spend over $60 a year on tampons and/or just under $60 a year on maxi pads.  If one switches to a menstrual cup, which (as stated above) may be used for 5-10 years, that cup pays for itself in less than a year.

  • More Vagina-Friendly:
  •  Here's the thing about tampons- they don't just absorb blood and uterine lining.  They basically dry out your vagina a bit, because they absorb the vagina's natural lubrication as well.  Not to mention the potential irritation from the fibers in a sensitive area, or all the bleach and such that goes into making tampons white and pretty.  A cup, on the other hand, doesn't do any of these things.  The silicone/rubber doesn't interfere with a vagina's functioning, and it's typically treated to make the cup surface inhospitable to bacteria, preventing infection.

  • More Convenient:
  •  This one was a big factor for me in choosing to switch to the cup.  Before, I had to time using the restroom with when I thought I'd have to change my tampon, because otherwise I'd have to deal with potentially tugging on the string and moving things around.  At my heaviest days, I'd have messed up underwear.  With being able to leave the cup in for longer, and having it completely out of the way, I've had more comfort and less worry.

    What's the Downside?

    Yes, there are some drawbacks to the cup.  For the most part, they're not that big a deal, but for some women they can be deal breakers.
    • Need to be Kept Clean:
    •  Every time you empty the cup, you should clean it in some way.  This can be anything from bottled water in a public restroom to sanitary wipes to the recommended warm water and soap .  On top of that, before and after each period the cup should be boiled for a few minutes.  For some, this can be a pain in the butt.
    • Steep Learning Curve in Use:
    •  Even if you're comfortable with tampons, learning how to insert and especially remove the cup can be challenging.  Any cup user probably has some horror story about a bloody mess in the bathroom when they were learning how to take it out.  I know I ran face-first into the learning curve when I discovered that trying to remove the cup when I had ten minutes before I needed to go to class meant that my muscles were tight and I couldn't move a darn thing.
    If you're willing to deal with those drawbacks, the cup can be very beneficial.  If you're starting to get interested (or you're just generally curious), read on.

    If You're Still Unsure but Curious

    When I decided I wanted to try the cup, I already was aware of the shortcomings of tampons and pads and was determined to use the cup no matter what.  But I know there are plenty of women out there who are still unsure, for a variety of reasons.  That's okay.  

    If you're leaning on the side of wanting to try it out, I wouldn't recommend buying a long-term cup right away, because of the cost.  If you don't like it, that's $40 you won't be getting back.  I advise starting out by buying a package of Instead Softcups, which is a disposable menstrual cup.  Aside from the disposable factor, and being wider than most cups, it's identical to other cups, so it will give you an idea of what it's like to use one.  Word of caution: because Instead is more like a female condom than a solid cup, it may be flimsier and more likely to leak.  Don't let that turn you off, though.  Just see if you can insert and remove it okay and if that seems like something you'd go for. Also, if you've never even used tampons but are considering getting the cup, I'd recommend maybe starting with an applicator-free tampon (such as OB) first, just to get used to inserting and removing anything.

    Which One to Choose?

    There are many different brands of menstrual cup, but there are differences between each one.  You can get the Keeper, which is made of latex, or the Mooncup, its silicone counterpart from the same company.  You may like the shape of the Femmecup over the Yuuki. If you prefer a disposable product, you can use Instead.  Many factors should be considered in buying a menstrual cup, including shape, size, your flow, and your specific challenges and needs.  For example, many of my peers swear by the Diva Cup, which is one of the larger cups on the whole; I haven't had anything in my vagina larger than a tampon, so I needed to go with something smaller and more flexible.  So, I went with the Lunette:

    See, it's... wait, come back!  Where are you going?
    What I like about Lunette is that it's relatively small, and the smaller size is made of softer silicone, so it's really moldable.  For some women, Lunette may be *too* small or squishy; in that case, they may either go for a larger size, or a different brand altogether.  While each brand may trumpet their cup as The Best Cup, it's ultimately up to you.  


    Before I get back to the practicalities of the cup, I feel it's important to stop and take inventory.  I'm sure some of you are looking at this thing and thinking "Why would I ever want that?  I'd have to mess around down there and it's probably gross and uuuuggh."

    Here's the thing: If you, the reader, are a cisgender woman, you have a vagina.  It's a fact.  You've had it your whole life.  I know our culture wants you to be ashamed of your anatomy and consider it gross, but you have to own it.  And yes, once a month, blood comes from that vagina.  You know what?  That's a good thing.  It means you're healthy.  Yes, there are those of us (myself included) who need some hormonal help to keep from bleeding to death, but the fact that we have periods at all means that we're functioning okay.

    So if you're uncomfortable with your anatomy, do me and yourself a favor- go to the bathroom right now, pull out a mirror, drop your pants and look at yourself.  See if you can name all the parts of your anatomy.  Learn where exactly everything is placed, and if you never have before, find out if there's anything unique about yourself (if your cervix is tilted, for example, or if your vagina is at an angle that you didn't expect).  Learn what you look like.  Get comfortable with yourself.  You're not gross, your vagina isn't gross.  You're a woman.  Take some pride in that.


    And now, back to the practical stuff.

    How to Insert a Menstrual Cup

    When I first saw a picture of a menstrual cup, I thought "Oh my God, how does that fit comfortably inside a person?!"  The trick is in relaxation and a good folding method.
    1. Sit on the toilet.  RELAX.  Drop your pants.  RELAX.  Spread your legs.  RELAX.  You're gonna be okay. (Note: Some women may be more comfortable squatting in the shower, or standing with one foot on the edge of the toilet.  Whatever is your preferred method for inserting a tampon should work just fine.)
    2. Fold your cup.  There are many ways to do so.  The most common fold is called the "C fold":

    You just flatten the cup and then fold in half.
         For some women (like me), this isn't a comfortable fold.  Popular alternatives are the "7 Fold":

    Flatten the cup, then fold one corner to the base of the cup.
         And the "punch-down fold":
    Push down part of the rim to the bottom of the cup.
      3.  RELAX.
      4.  Ease the cup into your vagina, open-end first.  Pro tip: Don't try and go vertically, towards your stomach.  The vagina tilts towards your back, and when you're sitting, that means it's more horizontal than vertical.  So, insert it that way.
      5.  Once the cup is all the way in (the stem should still be outside your vagina, and the base of the cup just barely inside), let it go.  Maybe give it a wiggle.  Just make sure that it's all the way open, which is pretty easy to tell.  If you can't put your finger inside your vagina without squishing the cup at all, it's fully open.  Note: The cup may suddenly pop open rather than gently unfolding.  Just be aware.  Nothing's wrong, though it'll feel kind of weird. And now go on with your day!

    How to Remove a Menstrual Cup

    I'll be honest, this was hard for the first couple of days.  The best things I can advise are to remember to breathe, do it at a time when you don't have somewhere to be within the hour, and if you get stressed by focusing on just one thing, bring in something to read while you're working on the cup.
    1. RELAX again and repeat step 1 in the part about insertion.
    2. If the cup has moved up inside of you, don't worry.  Just grab the stem and bear down to gently move the cup until it's in its original position when you put it in.
    3. Gently slide a finger along the side of the cup up to the rim, and push the cup in a bit to release suction.  This won't hurt at all, but you'll know when it's released.
    4. Gripping the base of the cup, begin working it out of the vagina.  Keep breathing to stay relaxed.
    5. When the cup is partially out, reach up to the rim of the cup again and begin to work the edge closest to your front out of the vagina.  This can be a bit tricky, so just keep breathing and take your time.  The idea is, if you get one edge out of the vagina, then the rest can ease out no problem.
    6. Once you've worked that one edge out, hold the bottom of the cup in your hand and use your thumb to pull on the cup and get the rest of it out.
    Congratulations!  You've removed a menstrual cup and you didn't die.  That wasn't so very bad, was it?

    Keeping the Darn Thing Clean

    Obviously, something that's coming in contact with hands and bodily fluids repeatedly should be kept in good, reasonably sanitary conditions.  My tips:
    • I don't know about other manufacturers, but Lunette recommends boiling the cup for 20 minutes before you wear it for the first time.  I neglected to do this and instead just washed it well in warm water and a mild soap, and I didn't get an infection.  Choose how paranoid you want to be.
    • Each time you empty your cup, first rinse the cup with cold water (this prevents discoloration and odor), then wash with warm water and soap. 
    • Before and after each period, boil the cup for about 5-10 minutes after washing it. 
    • When it comes to soap... it depends on your body.  I did okay with Dr. Bronners Peppermint, but for safety's sake I switched to the brand's mild, unscented version (DO NOT USE PERFUMED SOAP).  Some cup manufacturers such as DivaCup or Lunette sell special soaps to use, but they're not mandatory.  Whatever you do, don't use a soap with tea tree oil in it.  Just... no.
    • If you're in a public bathroom and don't want to run around with a bloody cup in your hand, you have a couple of options.  You can use some kind of sanitary wipe (Lunette sells their own brand), rinse the cup out quickly with a bottle of water, or just dump out the blood and stick the thing back in.  Everything on the cup is your bacteria and fluid, after all.
    Final Thoughts

    Ultimately, it's up to you whether you want to switch to the cup or not.  Your period may be too painful to want to mess around with even tampons, or you may simply not be ready to get that intimate with your body.  And you know what?  That's totally okay.  What matters to me is that you, the women who read this, know that you have options, and can make an informed decision about your menstrual care.

    If you have any more questions, you can ask me in the comments or look through some of the links below. Go be awesome, ladies!


    I mentioned a lot of things here, so I thought you may like some links to look more into stuff.

    • "This is How Much it Costs to Own a Vagina: An Itemized List" from Jezebel
    Cups I Mention
    • "My Bloody Initiation Into the Diva Cup Cult" from Jezebel
    • "Cup U" by Vanessa Meyer (a strange little documentary with goes more into the social implications of the cup than practicality)


    1. I've been thinking about a cup for about 4 years now, and haven't taken the plunge.

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