On Lady Shame and Menstrual Cups

I promised you guys this post back in January, and have been thinking about how to word it ever since. Part of writing blog posts like this is to help me get more comfortable with admitting I’m a woman to the world. Yes, I know that sounds strange, but bear with me.

I was brought up to believe that “ladies” don’t talk about their “private parts” and “lady-time” – i.e. vaginas, blood, secretions, cramps, smells, feelings, feminine care products, the whole kit and kaboodle. But here’s the thing: the ability to conceive and hold offspring inside of our bodies (whether or not a pregnancy ever occurs, for whatever reason) is one of the biggest differences between men and women. And if we can’t talk about the signs and symptoms (physical and mental) that come along with that difference, we’re denying a major portion of our experience.

Throughout history, many cultures found ways to write women off as unclean and shameful. My mind always goes back to the Church fathers of the early middle ages, who expounded upon the Mary Magdalene story to create a character who was not only flawed, but filthy. Yes, she was ultimately redeemable, but in her rewritten state she was a symbol of femininity’s lowness. She was also conveniently a way for the Church to give men permission to have sex with prostitutes outside the bounds of matrimony – allowing wives to remain as spiritually clean as possible through limited sex, only for procreation, while prostitutes were equated to sewers, existing as vessels that helped men empty themselves of sin, by way of semen. (For more on medieval prostitution and the Church, here’s an essay by Vincent M. Dever on the writings of 13th century theologian Thomas of Aquinas.)

Anyway, I’ve gotten off topic. But just remember next time you feel ashamed to talk about your lady bits that there’s nothing to be ashamed about. It’s not a dirty secret – it’s a beautiful part of who you are. Unless you’re a guy, in which case, sorry dude. You missed out.

So on with the show!

I bought a SckoonCup, for reasons you can read about in my post about choosing a menstrual cup. I took it out of its cute package, boiled it in water, and marveled at its squishyness. A few days later, it was time to try it out, and that’s where the learning curve got pretty steep. It suddenly dawned on me that I had never voluntarily touched menstrual blood before, and now here I was, not only getting ready to maybe get blood on my hands, literally, but also I was going to have to root around in there. This was going to get messy. I’m ashamed to say it now, but I almost gave up before I began. It took giving myself a pep talk that sounded a lot like the first few paragraphs of this post before I willed myself to get on with it.

Just gonna say this right now: I’ve read quite a few stories about how long it takes to get the hang of using a menstrual cup. It seems like most women get it all figured out within a few days. However, it took me longer…almost three months to stop having spills and literally making a bloody mess out of things. What can I say – I’m not that coordinated.

At the time, my built-in shame machine kept telling me that it was my vagina’s fault. Maybe it wasn’t shaped like other people’s, or maybe it was too shallow, or too deep, or it didn’t have enough traction (huh?) to catch the cup, or maybe every time I shifted around or did something active I was making the cup move, etc. All of these half-assed excuses were just ridiculous ways to make me feel bad about myself, because that’s what I do (and am obviously working on not doing in the future). Yes, vaginas are all different, but not THAT different. If they were, we’d be seeing more square, triangular, or hell, even star-shaped menstrual cups (or – let’s face it – penises) to handle the issue. As it is, menstrual cups are all round because, surprise of surprises, basically so are our vaginas. Our inner workings are also intended to stretch and shift shape to a degree, so worst-case scenario, soft silicone menstrual cups bend a little bit and become ovals to make the most of the situation.

My problem, as I’ve discovered is the case with a decent subset of new menstrual cup users, was inserting the cup and not allowing it to open. After years of using a tampon, you get used to just shoving something up there and letting it do its thing. But when you’re putting a cup in place, you’ve got to think about it getting into position so that it can not absorb fluids, but rather catch them. If the cup doesn’t open properly inside of you, some of the blood will probably still get trapped in the cup, but more will make it past the cup and down the sides, and then – you guessed it – onto your fave new knickers.

If you’re like me, you haven’t felt that “uh oh, something’s going wrong up there” feeling since middle school and the days of pads (blech). Getting to the point where you feel basically in control of your period is a major stepping stone on the path to adulthood, so suddenly backtracking now, so much later, is a huge bummer. Needing to run to the bathroom to try to rectify the problem a couple of times each workday will make you want to seriously just give up, but don’t quit. Keep trying. You WILL get there. Some of you (you lucky, perfect bitches, you) will get there within the first cycle. Others, like me, will be much less coordinated. Here’s what you do:

1) Learn the different ways to fold the cup prior to insertion. You’d be surprised how many folds there are to accomplish this. I’m into origami, so this was a mildly interesting process. (Click here for photos of menstrual cup folds.)

2) Make sure that once the cup is in, it opens up. Many women say that the key is to rotate the cup once it’s inside of you, and this will help it to open. I don’t find that this helps at all. I’ve never given birth, and things are pretty snug up there, so turning the cup just rotates it without opening it. For me, the best thing has been inserting the cup a little way in, and letting it open almost as soon as it gets into the vaginal canal. At that point, I push it in all the way and it suctions pretty quickly. I can both hear and feel it suctioning, which is more than a little odd at first. It took me about three months, but once I got the hang of it, no more “accidents” and my period became about 99% stress free and not nearly as messy.

3) Remember to empty it. For the first couple of cycles, I wasn’t certain when this needed to occur. Though I’d been having my period monthly for almost 20 years, I hadn’t ever made note of typical blood flow each time. In fact, from what I can gather about myself in the old days, it seems like I did my best to completely ignore everything that was happening below the belt line for one week a month. One of the less-obvious things that I learned when I switched to a menstrual cup is what days of my period tend to be heavier, and just what “heavy” means for me.

4) Get comfortable with reaching up there. Most menstrual cups (all? I’m not sure) have a little stem at the bottom that you’re supposed to grab onto to pull the cup out when you need to empty it. Since the SckoonCup is made of silicone, the stem is very stretchy, and I snapped the bottom portion of the stem off of mine soon after I figured out how to use the cup correctly. Bottom line is that the cup works by suctioning in place, and sometimes that bond is going to need some help in unsuctioning. If you just tug the stem, you’ll either end up breaking it (been there) or hurting yourself (either by the suction pulling at your cervix, or by losing your grip on the stem and having it snap back at you in the vajayjay…so uncool). To avoid this, you’ll need to break the suction on the cup with your finger first. I’ve found that the easiest way to remove the cup, for me, is to reach in with finger and thumb, grab the bottom of the cup, and squeeze just enough to break the suction at the top, then pull the whole thing out from there. Some days that feels super easy, and others I feel like I’m undertaking a grand maneuver of some kind. Either way, it works, and weirdly, though I always expect a major spill, it’s mess-free.

Most of all, remember that there’s more to this process than just choosing a new whatsit to stick up your hooha. (Yes, I’m laughing that I just typed that, but it’s the truth). I’m gonna go all Earth Mama on you here, but stick with it – this is all about the journey. Take this time to relish the fact that you’re finding out more about yourself. For me, the biggest change that’s come out of deciding to switch to a menstrual cup isn’t that my carbon footprint is a bit smaller (true), or that I feel more comfortable during my moon (also true), but that I’ve grown into the kind of woman who can write a blog post like this, post it to Twitter, and look forward to comments.

Many of my friends with children have described having a baby as this incredible learning process, both about themselves and the child. The thing is, we shouldn’t have to wait until we’re pregnant to start learning about our bodies – and we shouldn’t stop paying attention after childbirth, either. We’re complicated and beautiful and messy, but that’s only a fabulous, empowering thing if you see it and accept it about yourself.

So here you are, ladies (and any brave, mature gents who’re awesome enough to be secure with reading something like this). Please share your comments. I want to know what you’ve learned about yourself – physical, mental, emotional – while switching to a menstrual cup. Feel free to share horror stories, if you’ve got them. I’d really love to see good stories about being able to worry less, or feeling comfier. Hope to hear from you!

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5 thoughts on “On Lady Shame and Menstrual Cups

  1. amy says:

    Very good!!! I would say, make sure you get the right size. I had a cup given to me as a gift. I tried it and, yes, liked it alot. Of course, I have had an accident or two, but really I mostly think it is because the size is wrong. I have felt and listened to the suction. I have also felt that I was going to pull something other than the cup out…at this I pleaded that I wouldn’t have to go to an Urgent Care. hahaa. I have had two kids and although I know my muscles are in phenomenal shape, I exercise them regularly 😉 I need the larger size. The gift I was given is called The Keeper size B…for use if you have not had vaginal birth. I am definitely a fan. I will be placing an order for another of a size more appropriate for my body. If you experience pain while using them, you may have a vaginal condition such as internal trigger points within the muscle, vaginesis, etc. Please go get checked by a holistic or medical professional.

  2. Jen says:

    Like you, after discovering the Diva Cup, I was in love. Not only did this product make my period way easier and cheaper, but it also instigated a whole life change. How so? I couldn’t stop seeing the blood as art and ended up turning it into an ARTivist project. I left my 9-to-5 job to pursue the art full-time and am experiencing great success as a feminist artist working to end menstrual taboos.

    Check it out, I think you might dig it. http://www.beautyinblood.com

    Thanks so much for spreading the good word about the menstrual cup!

    #MenstruationMatters

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