What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Picture a pink silicone tulip, an upside-down bell, suctioned to the inside of your vagina. If tampons are plugs, menstrual cups are, well, cups. After a dozen years using tampons (the cheap cardboard ones, in an attempt to be a smidge more green), I decided to give them a try.
If I don't like it, I'd thought, it's $25 down the drain. If I do, I'll save money in the long run, and my menstrual habits will be more in line with my resolution to ditch paper products and reject plastic bags (which I can honestly say I've been religious about...since January).
The timing couldn't have been better either, since I'd just started writing for my own portfolio of clients from home full-time. Should an error occur, it would be easy to run to the bathroom without the worry of coworkers stumbling upon me sitting in a pool of menstrual blood or rushing to the bathroom to stop a sudden flow.
But unless you're the type to constantly carry around your Sigg, I doubt most women would remember to do this, but who knows; maybe "the cup" can actually hold a full day's worth of flow, allowing for one or two adjustments a day when you're home. These are a few of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I set out on the journey that would turn me into a greener, more cost-effective me.
If pads were training wheels and tampons were what got us through most of our 20s, endless pool parties, and bodycon dresses, the cup seemed to be one of the signals of my 30s — an overall "smarter" option, health-wise, budget-wise, and earth friendliness-wise.
While working at a cafe, I typed "menstrual cup" into Amazon's search bar. As I scrolled through a page of products with names that made me think of the movie The Secret Garden, I wondered why manufacturers seem to make every period product pink and purple, like they're the only colors we enjoy. What about camo, gold, or green? It made me think of a friend in high school who had a leopard-print birth control container. (Girl, where did you get that...?)
Just as I'd suspected, cool packaging won my affection. Of those I found, The Diva Cup and LENA Menstrual Cup caught my eye the most; they just looked the most legit at first glance, and I didn't want to spend too much time shopping for an item no one would see.
They ranged from $3.99 to $39.95 in price. I ended up going with LENA, priced at $24.97 on Amazon, because I liked its logo design the best and it wasn't the cheapest nor the most expensive.
My first period with a menstrual cup went smoothly. I pulled the silicone tulip from its box along with the small floral storage bag it came with. It was cute — not just the bag, but the menstrual cup itself was cute, flower-shaped like the ad had shown and boingy enough that pinching its rim required just a bit of elbow grease.
With its accordioned instructions splayed out on my sink, I scanned the steps quickly then gave it a whirl before reading the rest of the directions (just like we all do with IKEA furniture). My fingers clenched red as I folded the cup's rim into itself, forming a rose shape, beginning to understand how the device would pop open and hang on inside me.
I shoved it in, reaching my fingers as far as I could, but before I could position it just so, the cup slipped from my hand and I felt its suction-y grip latch onto the inner walls of my vagina. It made a "shwoop" sound I could actually hear. I tugged on the tulip's stem to be sure it stuck.
"That's it?" I'd thought. Just like the instructions directed; pinch, insert, and release. I washed my hands, took a short trot around the house, and, feeling satisfied, sat down at my desk for a day of work. When sitting, though, I could feel it just a tad.
This must have been what my friend Ana was talking about when she said she'd tried it but could always "feel" the stem, which you can cut if you need to (for short vaginas) or leave intact (for longer vaginas). I have no idea what the length of my vagina is but I assume it's average because I've never had any complaints about it.
That evening, I had my first experience removing the cup: Insert fingers. Pinch tulip's base until suction releases. Gently wiggle out filled cup. Since it was the first time I'd removed it, I just had to check out what I'd caught inside.
There it was, free of paper-product debris. It occurred to me that I'd never really seen my period in its pure form, its unpolluted, infantile state. It's actually much less gross than pulling out a cotton tampon. It was interesting, like when you pick a scab and see the fresh skin waiting beneath for the first time.
Period two with my menstrual cup was not so simple. Because we all know when you get too cocky in life (or with periods), the universe lets you know not to. I will spare you the playback of exactly what happened and instead give you an underground list of tips for using a menstrual cup. Here's what I wish someone had told me:
Don't cut the stem until after you've used it for a few months.
There are two LENA Menstrual Cup sizes: small and large. If they'd had a medium, I would have chosen it, but the small works fine for me (I don't have a particularly heavy period). However, I'm so glad I didn't cut the cup's stem the first few times I used it because you need all the grip you can get when it's time to pull it out.
The more stem the better because the thing can be slippery and tough to grab onto. You're not supposed to tug the whole thing out by the stem, though; it's just there to help you position and get your grip ready. Who knows, maybe women who use the large cup have a different experience with stem length completely.
Do not pinch and pull your menstrual cup out quickly.
This very well could result in you dropping your menstrual cup into a messy toilet (far worse than fishing a dropped tampon applicator or cell phone out of a merely peed-in bowl…). Take it one step at a time like the instructions suggest. Pinch the device's base until the suction lets loose, then slowly pull it out and dump what it contains into the toilet bowl, careful to not let it slip from your hands. It actually sounds far more gross than it is, but there is a shock factor the first few times you do it.
Check your faucet's water pressure before cleaning it out.
When you rinse your cup in the sink, first run the faucet and check its pressure. Rinse your menstrual cup with the cup facing down so forceful water pressure doesn't splash your blood into places it doesn't belong. Basically, you don't want hard water pressure to splash your mess all over your best friend's white marble countertop, let alone pristine white hand towels.
Wear panty liners until you get the hang of it.
This is an especially helpful reminder for when you sleep with it in for the first time or on heavy days. This is just me being cautious, but better to save a pair of cute underpants than to be caught by surprise, right? FYI, if you haven't used panty liners in years (as was the case with me), the ones they make today are super thin and some come in cute packages (like these by Kotex which I actually sort of enjoy throwing into my purse because of their pattern).
If you can, give it a whirl at home first.
Try it on the weekend if you're taking it easy or before a short outing so you can "check in" and see how it's going down there. I successfully avoided rinsing out mine in public restrooms for three whole months, but like I said, I was working from home and hadn't traveled much during that time. And when I went camping for Fourth of July weekend, I bought a box of tampons to use to supplement my routine because I couldn't even fathom dealing with the cup in a Porta-Potty. I definitely would have thrown up.
That said, if you're dreaming of never having to buy tampons again, it's probably not going to happen by way of using a menstrual cup. I keep panty liners, a few tampons, and my LENA at home at all times because I need to use a combo of all of them to have a successful month.
But using a menstrual cup has definitely saved me money, it feels great to rely on fewer paper products, and my period experiences feel generally more clean. I'd liken the whole thing to drinking coffee out of paper cups at work every day versus filling up in a reusable coffee mug you wash at night and sort of love. If you can get over the hands-on factor, give it a whirl.