by Sarah Anderson
We’ve come a long way in terms of menstruation and the mystery that surrounded it for centuries. The history of menstruation, along with the contraptions and methods used to control it, date as far back as mammals do.
Ancient Romans believed women who were bleeding were dark witches capable of stopping storms, killing crops and driving dogs mad. Medieval Europeans adopted a much more empathic perspective and placed burnt toads near women’s vaginas to ease the flow. Some cultures thought menstruation blood cured leprosy, while others insisted that it caused leprosy if ingested. Many of our ancestors were convinced that their male genitalia would corrode if it came in contact with menstral blood. The French concluded that a child conceived during that special week of the month would be born monstrously deformed.
While some were worried about storms, toads, monsters and leprosy, most were more concerned with their suppers. Women who were on their periods were thought to spoil any food they touched. Some supporters of this theory even came up with a scientific explanation for it. Ancient Egyptians believed menstruation contained special powers and used it to cast spells and administer medical treatments. Their preferred method was drinking the blood. Greeks used menstruation blood as fertilization for their crops, mixing it with wine and sprinkling it over the soil each month.
The Coping Mechanisms
Aside from the art, writing and menstrual theories that speak to the creativity of those who came before us, methods and strategies used to handle flow have also evolved greatly.
Before Tampax, there was lint wrapped around bits of wood, a method created by Egyptians. In other cultures, many women would avoid using methods to constrain their periods altogether. When freely bleeding became unpopular, women began creating their own pads using various materials such as rags. In later years, a belt came out that featured small metal clamps attached to washable pads–not exactly couture, but it was a breakthrough. About a decade after the belt came out, the first disposable pads were created, followed by the first tampons another 50 years later.
Regardless of the status of our monthly cycle, women are the same powerful beings they were in past eras. As we’ve learned in high school health class, menstruating is the result of the thickened lining of our uterus exiting our bodies signaling that there is no fertilized egg to nest during that month. With the help of disposable pads and tampons, we can carry on with our everyday lives throughout that “time of the month.” For many Americans, that is the end of the story–they are satisfied with the colorful boxes of tampons and pads adorning the shelves at their local grocery store. For others, however, the story is just beginning as the discovery of the menstrual cup unfolds.
What is it?
The menstrual cup is nothing new. The original hard cup model created in the 1930s failed. In the 60s, the cup was unsuccessfully reintroduced. With the invention of the computer, the Internet and smartphones, women were able to learn and talk about their periods openly. These conversations led to the candid discussion of more, and maybe better, ways of managing menstrual blood.
Menstrual cups were originally made of latex; they have since upgraded to medical-grade silicon. They are designed to be inserted directly into the vagina, forming a suction cup to catch menstrual blood as it leaves the cervix. Many of them have small holes along the rim allowing them to create a suction effect, ensuring a leak-free experience when inserted properly.
These handy cups differ from other methods not only because they are reusable, but because they allow users to forgo the possibility of negative side-effects of tampons and pads.
What is it actually like?
Switching to a menstrual cup has changed the way of life for many women during their period. Wearing a menstrual cup allows women to participate in regular activities, and they can be at peace knowing they are not adding harmful chemicals to their body, nor are they contributing to landfills each month.
“Menstrual cups have significantly reduced my eco-footprint by curbing repeated waste,” Richelle Kimble, 25, said. “I also feel better about eliminating added toxins into my body from tampons.”
Menstrual cups should be emptied every 12 hours, though some women do so more frequently on heavier days. Audrey Johnson, 24, found that emptying every 6-8 hours in the first few days of her cycle was ideal. Kimble also recommends wearing extra protection on heavier days.
“Occasionally I will leak, but that just means it needs to be adjusted,” Kimble said. “If I know I’m on a heavier flowing day, I might use a panty liner.”
One incredible benefit of the cup is the lessened side effects of menstruation.
“Since switching three years ago, I have had much less severe cramping during my period and no menstrual headaches,” Johnson marveled.
The logistics of the cups deter many women from making the switch, but it’s important to remember practice makes perfect–or, in this case, leak-free.
The cup is inserted by folding it in half, placing it in the vagina and ensuring that it pops open and is properly suctioned.
There is a learning curve that comes along with using a menstrual cup. Women must learn to position the cup properly against the cervix, be able to tell when it hasn’t opened fully and have a general idea of the signs that the contents need to be dumped. Sometimes achieving the best result is all about learning what brand works best for you.
“I thought I was doing something wrong,” Johnson reported. “My sister and I bought the same brand (DivaCup) and she had no problems. I would randomly leak a lot and couldn’t figure out why. I still stuck with my cup, because the leaking was much better than the side effects of tampons, but then I tried another brand (Lunette) and had a completely different experience. I only leak now when I need to empty my cup and sometimes when I use the restroom. I still wear a chlorine-free liner just in case, but I am much happier now that I found a brand that works for me.”
Menstrual cups can be emptied over the toilet or in the shower. There is a stem on the bottom of the device that can be pulled to aid in removal. They won’t get stuck inside of the canal, but occasionally they may need a little push from the Kegels to come out.
If the stem is a little long, cut it to best fit your body.
“Be sure to trim the plastic part intended to aid removal to your vaginal canal length,” Kimble added. “Otherwise, it can be pretty uncomfortable poking out of you while you sit!”
Once the cup is removed, simply drop the contents in the toilet or shower and wash it with soap and hot water before reinsertion. Make sure all of the little holes at the top are clean. If it needs to be emptied in a public restroom, use toilet paper or paper towel to clean it privately.
Menstrual cups can be purchased locally at Keystone Pharmacy, health foods stores or online.