When my periods first started at the age of 13, there were only two readily available sanitary products: towels and tampons. Both were, and still are, not only expensive to buy – costing the average woman an estimated £18,450 over the course of her lifetime (Huffington Post) – but extremely damaging to the environment, generating around 200,000 tonnes of waste per year (WEN). As an already very self-conscious teenager suffering from a horrible amount of self-loathing around my body, it was devastating to learn that my menstrual cycle – a healthy and natural bodily function that I had zero control over – would have such a negative impact, not only on my finances, but on the planet as well.
As if this realisation wasn’t disheartening enough, it wasn’t long before I discovered another issue (associated with tampons specifically) that I would continue to worry about for years to come. Toxic shock syndrome is a dangerous infection caused by common bacteria from the skin, nose, and mouth entering deeper into the body and releasing nasty toxins. If left untreated, it can quickly develop and lead to severe health issues, including organ failure and eventually death.
Being aware of the fact that forgetting to change a tampon within the recommended eight hour period could cause me to become very ill and maybe even die wasn’t quite enough to put me off, considering that TSS is very rare, and tampons are the most convenient and comfortable option. But it did make me feel nervous using them, especially if I was going out drinking, which I did a lot when I was a teenager.
Bearing all of this in mind, it was with sheer joy that I discovered the menstrual cup a few years ago after seeing a Mooncup ad in the toilets of my local pub. At the time it seemed to offer a perfect solution to all of my sanitary woes. Firstly, it was reusable, meaning that it would save both the environment and my wallet. And secondly, it could be left in the body for hours on end without causing any health problems at all. It almost sounded too good to be true.
And then I realised that it was.
As much as I can appreciate its invention, and as much as I’ve fully committed to using it myself, the cup isn’t a one fits all solution by any means, and I can understand why so many women are yet to be converted. And that isn’t to say that it isn’t the most ethically sound option, or that it doesn’t work – it is, and it does. But when it comes to our periods, the most attractive option for many women will always be the one that’s most comfortable, clean and easy to use.
Aside from being easy to clean (providing you have access to a sink), my Mooncup really isn’t any of these things. Not only is the bulky silicone cup difficult to insert, requiring some pretty good origami skills, but the removal process can be difficult and uncomfortable, not to mention pretty damn messy. There has been more than one occasion now where, after reaching alongside the cup to release the seal and pull it out, the contents have spilled out all over my hand, leaving a gory mess between my feet on the floor (I didn’t name this article ‘Reaching for the Moon(cup)’ for no good reason!) To avoid ending up with a mini murder scene in my bathroom every time I needed to empty my cup, I decided to try taking it out it whilst sitting on the loo. After dropping it into the toilet water a few times though, I’ve gone back to my old position of squatting on the bathroom floor (sighs loudly). Needless to say, this is not something I’m comfortable doing in a public toilet, or anywhere other than the privacy of my own home for that matter.
With our periods being so difficult to manage in a way that is both safe and ethical, it seems they too have come to represent womankind’s inherent shamefulness just as much as everything else.
As inconvenient as my Mooncup is for me sometimes, the problem I have isn’t actually with the product itself. There are lots of women like me who have committed to using it regardless of the aforementioned difficulties, and who I’m sure would swear by its brilliance. The issue I have goes much deeper, and is really more to do with choice. Or, in this case, the profound lack of choice that we seem to have when it comes to available sanitary wear. Those of us who choose to grin and bear the discomfort and inconvenience of our menstrual cups can rest assured that our bodies are safe and that we’re doing our bit for the environment. But what about those who choose not to?
I can’t help wondering how it is that, in a world where we’ve managed to invent tiny drones to replace our dying bee population, we can’t seem to produce more than one sanitary product that can be used without 1. Costing a fortune, 2. Making us feel like overgrown babies, 3. Threatening serious harm to our health, or 4. Causing significant damage to the environment. Whilst we’re bombarded with choice when it comes to technology and clothing, there are still very few options when it comes to products that every menstruating woman needs, and will continue to need for the duration of her reproductive life.
Thinking about this more deeply, it makes sense that our periods would be characterised by inconvenience, discomfort and shame. For centuries women across the globe have been taught to feel ashamed of their own bodies, and specifically, their genitalia. Whether it be the porn industry telling us that our pubic hair should be removed or tightly constrained, TV ads trying to sell us toiletries to make our vaginas smell nice, or our communities endorsing the practice of female genital mutilation for the sake of our purity — the message is loud and clear: That our private parts are naturally disgusting and not fit to be seen or touched outside of our knickers unless they are properly plucked, pruned and perfumed. With our periods being so difficult to manage in a way that is both safe and ethical, it seems they too have come to represent womankind’s inherent shamefulness just as much as everything else.
I very much hope that some clever inventor is reading this and will spend the rest of his or her days lost amid sanitary product designs in a sweaty, low-lit workshop somewhere. In the meantime, I will applaud the government on its recent and long-awaited proposal to scrap the current VAT charge on sanitary wear, endorse the use of organic cotton tampons, and continue to reach for the Moon(cup) every month until something more fitting comes my way.