I first heard about menstrual cups from my niece. Someone had shown her one at a weekend trance party. I was at the other end of the extended-family dinner table and we were all talking at once. I didn’t hear details but gathered they were something gross to do with periods.
Two weeks later my cousin-in-law raved about them over tea. It was an unexpected testimonial from a magazine editor who owns at least two pairs of Prada slingbacks.
So when a friend of a friend began distributing the cups, I ordered one.
I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe something home-made and tie-dyed. But I received an attractive white cardboard box, containing a cotton pouch with a satin bow and a manual in 12 languages.
Inside the pouch was a silicon thing, a cross between a shot glass and a baby bottle teat. “Like an eggcup with a stem,” said Pauline Susman, who sold it to me.
It turns out menstrual cups aren’t a new thing. They were invented in the 1930s around the same time as tampons. But the first cups were made of latex, to which many are allergic.
While tampons took off, menstrual cups had only a small following until a silicon version was developed in the late 1990s. I thought about taboos and power surrounding menstruation a lot after reading Nuruddin Farah’s novel Secrets, where the narrator drinks thimblefuls of his first love’s menses.
And Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience, which described the customs of one of many societies where menstruating women and the things they touch are declared unclean.
In an ideal world it might be bliss to spend a week each month alone.
But real-life commitments take no heed of 28-day cycles. So for centuries women have concealed their periods. According to research quoted by American Harry Finley (on his eclectic and bizarre Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health website) early Egyptian women might have used sponges. Sudanese pastoralists chose cowhide. Victorian travellers incinerated soiled rags in portable burners.
My mother bought a pack of looped disposable pads and an ugly elastic belt in readiness for my first period. Luckily adhesive pads, developed in 1970, were on the shelves by the time I needed them at 12. A few years later I tried non-applicator tampons and used them and pads for more than three decades, with only a passing thought for what I was doing to the environment or my body.
The United States’s National Women’s Health Network has estimated that in its country alone more than 12-billion pads and seven million tampons end up in sewerage works and rubbish dumps every year.
One menstrual cup, on the other hand, should last you 10 years. An initial outlay of about R300 over monthly bills of about R30 for disposable products.
The environmental and economic reasons for trying a menstrual cup are compelling. But it is the sheer comfort of wearing something non-absorbent that is the main reason for the gushing comments posted on many websites.
Toxic shock — a potentially fatal condition linked with prolonged use of tampons — is not an issue with menstrual cups.
Former tampon wearers report that vaginal infections, period pain and vaginal dryness vanished or diminished when they switched to the cups.
There is no stale smell (which has spawned a satellite industry of intimate sprays, wipes and scented pads) commonly associated with menstruation, unforgettably described by Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook.
“I like the smell of sex, of sweat, of skin or hair,” she wrote. “But the faintly dubious, essentially stale smell of menstrual blood, I hate. And resent.”
The fresh, almost odourless discharge of the womb’s unfertilised lining is collected in the cup and emptied into a toilet bowl.
The cup does take a bit of getting used to. You fold it twice and insert it much lower down in the vagina than a tampon. There can be a few alarming sound effects and Lady Macbeth moments in the basin.
But it really comes into its own towards the end of your period when you can leave it in all day.
Many women, my sisters included, find the gross factor too high to even consider trying a menstrual cup. But those who have taken the plunge order them for their daughters and recommend them.
A doctor, a recent convert herself, wishes they were cheap enough for all women to afford.
Although nicknames for “the curse” are often derogatory, for women who aren’t trying to conceive there is something reassuring about a period, even with pre-menstrual tension. And menstrual cups somehow underline the dignity of your cycle.
Susman put it well: “Tampons and pads which you throw away make the whole experience of menstruation yuck. With the Mooncup you feel much more connected to your own rhythm.”
My niece has no recollection about telling me about menstrual cups in the first place. I’ve used mine for more than a year now and would never go back to tampons. I can think of no better present to get her for her 21st. But I’m not sure she’d agree.