The first time I tried a menstrual cup, I couldn’t breathe normally. All of the instructions I’d read had said that relaxing and taking deep breaths made inserting the cup easier, but I couldn’t help how nervous I was. It’s one thing to decide to try a menstrual cup; it’s another to look at a size one DivaCup and realize you have to figure out how to fit the entire bell-shaped device into your vagina. The instruction booklet that came with my cup showed different ways to fold it for insertion, and I tried the C-fold, which looked the easiest to make. When I tried inserting it though, I quickly realized I had no understanding of what my anatomy was actually like. Tampons were quick and impersonal, tapered to slide easily into a vagina with little to no contact between my hands and my body. A menstrual cup, though, requires not just contact, but also intimate knowledge of how the body works.
While I had learned and labeled anatomical diagrams in biology classes, it was another matter entirely to put that knowledge into practice. Stubbornly, I refused to ask anyone for help, even though I had a close friend who used menstrual cups. It was odd, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was making an important — and private — life change. I didn’t want anyone to know. So instead, I watched YouTube videos that gave advice on how to properly insert the cup until I successfully got it to work. I waited through another day or so of use, and my first full overnight with the cup, before I told a few friends about my switch, still with that nagging bit of shame.
I had never been shy about my period before (I was one of the few in my high school who would walk to the bathroom with a tampon in plain sight) but, for some reason, I was hesitant to bring up the menstrual cup. There was an odd sort of intimacy to using it that, logically, didn’t make sense to me: a menstrual cup is just another hygiene product. While it does require a closer relationship with my body, its function is purely hygienic.
In fact, my newfound discomfort has historical roots. When mainstream tampons were introduced to American society in the 1930s, one of the biggest concerns people had was that they would lead to “immorality.” Specifically, the fear was that tampons would break the hymen, resulting in the apparent loss of virginity, or that people might experience sexual pleasure from using them. This led to the development of plastic casing used today for most tampon brands, which prevents almost all contact with the user’s body.
While these beliefs surrounding tampons and having contact with one’s own body are not nearly so far-reaching today, some part of me seemed to have internalized them, and caused me to feel guilty and ashamed about using a menstrual cup — even while I told myself it was irrational.
The solution to my internalized shame was, as it so often is, knowledge. Menstrual cups have a learning curve, and it takes a fair amount of work to learn not only how to best use them, but also which practices work best for one’s own unique anatomy. As a result, I spent hours upon hours watching videos from menstrual cup companies and vloggers alike, and what began as a necessary step in learning how to use the product became a pastime. The friends I had been so hesitant to talk to about the cup with suddenly found themselves barraged with menstrual cup content as I learned more and more, about cup shapes and materials, using the cup, and of course, female anatomy.
As I learned more and became more comfortable using my cup, I found I that wanted to talk about my period more than ever. I started convincing my friends to give cups a try by telling them about how much more comfortable they were than tampons, and how nice it was to sleep through the night without worrying about leaking onto my sheets. I shocked my mother, a woman who had four vaginal births, with the revelation that, throughout the menstrual cycle, your cervix moves higher and lower. At one point, I even had a conversation with a total stranger about the environmental benefits of reusable menstrual products, when she overheard me giving someone advice on how to shop for a cup. In a matter of months, I had experienced a complete turnaround from being terrified to even mention using a menstrual cup, to talking to anyone I could about both the product and my personal experience.
As I understood my menstrual cycle more, it became easier to talk about, which, in turn, gave people the opportunity to talk about their own menstrual and reproductive health. I quickly became known as a menstrual cup authority among friends and acquaintances — so much so that some decided to try menstrual cups themselves, on the condition I’d answer their questions, no matter how personal. It opened doors to discuss reproductive health with a wide circle of people and gave me the confidence to begin academic conversations about the rhetoric that surrounds menstruation and makes it so taboo.
There is no changing the history that makes periods a shameful topic, but educating people who menstruate and giving them an opportunity to speak about their periods allows us to continue moving away from that history. I wish I had realized sooner how many people will engage in conversations about menstrual and reproductive health, because that might have made my transition into using a menstrual cup easier. More than that, though, my experience shows that menstrual health doesn’t need to be a taboo topic. These are conversations a lot of us are willing to have — we just have to be willing to start them.
Olivia Snavely is a senior at Carnegie Mellon University, where she studies Creative Writing and Politics and Public Policy; she was the NWHN’s communications intern in the spring of 2020.