I’ve had a love/hate relationship with feminine hygiene products pretty much since I was a teenager and had heavy periods from hell. These days, after having two children, my cycle has become super short and light (hooray!), but my disdain for pads and tampons remain. Pads start to feel uncomfortable and irritating to my delicate lady business after approximately five minutes, and let’s just say I have read far too many horror stories about Toxic Shock Syndrome to use tampons on the regular. (Seriously, Google it. I'll wait.) But one thing I've been hearing again and again is how much people really love their reusable, silicone menstrual cups.
To be honest, the idea of using a menstrual cup has never seemed very appealing, but I was definitely intrigued by how much people raved about them. Menstrual cups are amazing! said Women on the Internet. They are economical and eco-friendly and chemical free and I don’t get cramps anymore! It basically sounded like menstrual cups are the coconut oil of feminine products. Even though I couldn't quite understand the deep love so many women seemed to have for their menstrual cups, it did seem like it could be a good alternative to pads and tampons — which I've really been in need of. So I went ahead and tried a menstrual cup out of curiosity, and it was definitely ... an experience.
Even though I couldn’t possibly understand how using a menstrual cup would change my life like so many women have claimed, I hated pads and tampons enough to give it a try. Purchasing a menstrual cup in itself was a bit of a challenge: the one available at my neighborhood drugstore was the Diva Cup, which comes in two sizes — a larger one for women who have had babies, and a smaller one for those who haven't. Already this made me nervous, because I have a history of provoked vestibulodynia and vaginismus (which basically just means that my vagina hurt really badly for a long while for pretty much no reason whatsoever). While I was struggling with these conditions, using tampons became either extremely painful or entirely impossible, so the thought of sticking a large-sized menstrual cup up there? Not exactly something I was feeling super optimistic about.
But I tried to remind myself that, hey, one of my babies came out of my vagina, and a baby is way bigger than a menstrual cup, so you’ve totally got this, Alana. These days my periods last about three or four days, so I decided I would use the menstrual cup for the entirety of one cycle, and see what it was like.
First Day Fail
Step one of my experiment was learning how to insert the menstrual cup. I’d read the instructions that came with it, and also watched the YouTube instructional video (which I highly recommend!) about 5,000 times, and it sounded pretty straightforward: fold the cup, insert it in your vagina, and then double-check that it's created a seal to prevent any leaks.
I folded it up according to the instructions and tried to insert it ... and then I lost my grip on the cup and it flung open. Hm. I tried folding it a different way, thinking that might be easier but, nope, I still couldn’t keep it folded long enough to get it in. Then I thought maybe I should try a different position other than sitting on the toilet, so I tried to insert it standing up, then I tried to semi-squat, and I could not get it in. And then — of course — my 3-year-old son came knocking on the door.
“Just a minute! Mama’s just going to the bathroom!”
“I want Mama!” he cried, trying to wriggle the door handle.
“Just a minute!" I yelled, trying desperately once more to insert the cup before he came barging in asking 10 billion questions. "Mama just needs a minute!!!!!”
Once again that stupid cup kept popping open, and hearing my son pounding on the door only made the already-stressful experience even more ridiculous, so I gave up, put on a pad, and decided to try again during nap time.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
After the kids went down for their nap, I went into the bathroom, determined to figure out how to use the menstrual cup if it killed me. I re-read the instructions and re-watched the video, and this time, by some stroke of menstrual magic, I got it in. According to the instructions, you are supposed to insert the cup horizontally towards the cervix. I really had no idea if I had done that, but how many directions can it possibly go?
The next step is to ensure that the cup has fully opened and formed a seal. The way you do this is by grabbing the stem and turning the cup 360 degrees around. Of course, mine would not budge. It would not turn left, it would not turn right. I tried pushing it up, then pulling it down. No. Luck.
The YouTube instructional video assured me that, if it doesn’t turn, chances are it isn’t fully open — and in that case, sliding your finger around the outside of the cup should loosen it up. Which, um, easier said than done, YouTube instructional video. I tried my best to follow the instruction, but I couldn’t seem to get it to turn. And then, somehow, I accidentally pushed it up a little too far, and all of a sudden, I could no longer grab the stem.
As I had panicked images of having to get this stupid thing removed by a doctor in the ER, I read the instructions again. If it gets pushed up too high, the instructions read, just leave it, and it’ll come down in time. If you say so, Diva Cup!
Since I mostly looked forward to using the menstrual cup overnight (you can wear it for up to 12 hours, without the risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome associated with tampon use), I really wanted to figure out how to use it properly before I went to bed. But that meant that I had to figure out how to take it out first.
One thing I quickly realized you have to be prepared for when using a menstrual cup, is that you have to get really up close and personal with your own vagina. Not so much necessarily with insertion, but taking it out? You basically have to go searching for it so that you can pull it out.
This is where I'm pretty sure women who have had kids have an advantage: removing a menstrual cup is kind of like painlessly giving birth to an extremely tiny baby. In order to get a grip on the cup, you have to bear down on it a bit so that it loosens, and then once you've gripped it, you can take it out pretty easily. I was able to remove it without much trouble, and I'll admit I was feeling pretty proud of myself, so bolstered by that feeling, I opted to wash it out and try to insert it again so that I could wear it to bed.
Since I'd already managed to insert it once, I had a bit more confidence that I could do it again, and sure enough, this time it went in pretty easily (still not sure whether it was horizontal to my cervix though!).
Next came the real test: the 360-degree turn. Surprisingly, this also went off without a hitch, and I was easily able to turn it into place.
So, uh, why did I find this so difficult earlier?
Since I didn't want to push it too far like I had initially, I made sure to keep the stem level to the vaginal opening, like the instructions tell you. But when I got up, it felt pretty uncomfortable to have it that low — that couldn't be right, could it? There was no way I was going to keep it in for any length of time if it stayed that low, so I opted instead to break the rules and push it up higher, figuring that it'd come back down on its own by the time I had to take it out tomorrow (fingers crossed).
And honestly, after this positive experience, I was starting to think that I could totally end up drinking the Diva Cup Kool Aid.
Maybe A Bit Much For This Hour
I wore the menstrual cup all night, and experienced exactly zero leaks. And, because I didn't have to wear a pad, I had no irritation. Could this be the magical answer to my menstrual prayers after all?
The twins were having breakfast and my husband was getting ready for work, so I wanted to empty the cup while I actually had a few minutes of privacy. But one thing I hadn't anticipated? Digging around your vagina for a menstrual cup before you've even had your morning coffee is not very enjoyable. Do other women really do this every month?! I'm already grumpy enough in the mornings as it is, but having to give birth to my menstrual cup when I just wanted to go back to bed made me even grumpier, and honestly? There was no way I was going to bother trying to re-insert it after that! Back to the trusty pad I went.
Falling Off The Diva Cup Wagon
By the final day of my period, I was pretty much half and half between menstrual cup and pad usage. The Diva Cup was great to use once I actually got it in, but getting it in was a pain (sometimes literally — after enough attempts, I was starting to feel some pain from lingering provoked vestubulodynia). Taking it out was also no picnic. I couldn't really understand how the instructions said that you could use the Diva Cup even in public bathrooms — even in the comfort of my own bathroom this thing was taking me forever.
The other issue for me was the price: I paid around $30 for the Diva Cup. And even though surely that would be incredibly cost-effective over time, I just wasn't entirely sure I'd be so down to use it enough when I had such mixed feelings about it.
Cup Or No Cup?
After this experiment, I can pretty much say I am not a menstrual cup convert — yet, at least. I really like that I'm not throwing pads and tampons into a landfill each month, and I also like that I don't have to use irritating pads that don't breathe, or tampons that have been chemically processed.
The other reason I'm still willing to give my menstrual cup a go? As much as it wasn't that enjoyable to insert it and take it out, I do think there's value in learning to be more comfortable with your own vagina. When we're young we grow up with so many mixed or negative messages about our bodies, and that includes our lady parts (vaginal rejuvenation surgery, anyone?!). Couple that with my own experience with chronic vulvar pain, and I spent years having a not-so-nice relationship with my vagina. Having kids changed that for me — having an actual human being come out of there — and I want to keep that positivity going. Plus, as a feminist mom, I really want both my son and daughter to accept their bodies, and I definitely don't want my daughter to be ashamed of her own menstrual cycle (since so many of us were given the message that periods are gross or embarrassing), and being able to feel comfortable with myself is an important first step to ensuring that happens.
So, all in all, would I recommend trying a menstrual cup? Yeah, I actually would. My hope is that, with practice, inserting and removing it will get easier and more comfortable, and I can say with certainty that actually dealing with emptying the cup and cleaning it each time was a total non-issue. It might not be the most convenient option available, but if it can help change the relationships we have with our periods (and I think it probably can), then it sounds totally worth it to me.