I'm one of those girls who's constantly looking for a better way to do everyday, mundane tasks. I'm not sure why. It may be something that engineering school drilled into me. And like most engineers, I'm too lazy to immediately jump to designing my own solution, preferring to poke around first to see if other people have already figured one out. Nine times out of ten, they have, so I don't feel the need to go waste my time and energy reinventing the wheel.
My period was one of those things. There just seemed to be no easy way to deal with it. I don't even have the world's worst periods; in fact, I think mine are relatively tame compared to what some women experience. My only symptom is cramping, which I have learned to address by taking ibuprofen with every meal starting a day in advance. By the middle of day 3, I can usually taper off. Some girls deal with nausea, vomiting, mood swings, soaking super tampons within one hour, constipation, diarrhea, and weird cravings, so I have always considered myself blessed.
And yet, I disliked my period because it was just so...gross. I don't like blood. I don't like pads, and I don't like tampons. Pads were so horrible that I stopped using them the red-hot second I had a job and could buy my own supplies. Sitting in your own blood is absolutely putrefying to me. Pads spread the blood everywhere, and they chafe against your thighs when you walk. The only time I felt at all clean or normal when I was using pads on my period was when I was in the shower. You have to wear granny panties with them, and even if people can't see the pad, they can definitely see those panty lines. Pads are bulky and impossible to forget about.
Tampons worked better for me, but they are still pretty gross. I hated that little dangling string that always gets pee on it. The impending and omnipresent risk of toxic shock syndrome did nothing for my anxiety. Both pads and tampons are soaked in chemicals, and I was never comfortable with that, nor did I want to pay exorbitant prices for organic cotton products. And with both pads and tampons, menstrual blood is exposed to air for hours at a time, and let's just address the elephant in the room: that makes it stink. I am an extremely hygienic person who never skips a shower and never leaves the house without perfume. In fact, I always keep deodorant and perfume in my purse. So needless to say, I was always terrified someone would smell that I was on my period. Even though I knew it doesn't work that way, my anxiety does not care about facts.
Facebook read my mind, as it always does, and showed me a DivaCup advertisement: free menstrual cups, just pay for shipping. I bought them, even though shipping was $20 as it always is during those "sales". That was two years ago.
When they arrived, a large one and a small one, I was terrified at the size of them. I have been vocal on the Odyssey that I have and will continue to wait for marriage, so the inside of my vagina had never seen anything thicker in diameter than a regular-size tampon. They sat in my bathroom drawer for two years, until a couple of months ago when I decided enough was enough with tampons and there was no time like the present to try something new. When my period came, I ended up using it for my entire period and for every period since.
I'm sure the first question on the reader's mind was whether it hurts, and I won't try to hide the fact that it certainly does, but it isn't absolutely unbearable. If you've ever waxed your legs or armpits, it's about that level of pain, and it's over just as quickly. Once you have it positioned correctly, you can't even feel it, just like with a tampon. It only hurts going in and coming out, although sometimes, in the beginning, you have to take it out and try again, and too many repetitions of that can cause soreness.
I also discovered after I'd worked past the learning curve that I was using the most painful fold, the C-fold, where you just fold the cup into quarters (there are lots of different ways to fold the cup for insertion, and all of them create a narrower penetration point than the C-fold) but by the time I realized that I was already accustomed to the C-fold, and it doesn't hurt enough for me to change my ways. You can also use a water-based lubricant, although I honestly wouldn't bother with that because I don't think the pain would be prohibitive for most girls. Cramps are worse.
Menstrual cups work by popping open once they're inside your vagina. Your vagina gets much wider past the initial opening, narrow enough that the sides of the open cup will adhere to the inside, wide enough that you won't feel it. It creates an airtight vacuum seal so not one drop of blood will be able to sneak past. If properly installed, there will be no leaks. If you have leaks, that means the cup didn't pop open. When you are ready to take it out, you pinch the bottom to break the seal and then pull it out.
If you're anything like me, you might learn new things about your anatomy! It took me a while to get the cup to work (I wore it with a panty liner for the first couple of days) because I read that the stem should stick out. When I finally got it to work, the cup was so high up that the stem was well inside me, so I think I must have a high cervix! Menstrual cups probably won't be for everybody, and everyone is different, so you will have to be patient and figure out what works for you.
Menstrual cups are absolutely a thousand times more hygienic and easy to deal with than pads or tampons. Many women say that it helps with cramping due to the lack of chemicals. Menstrual cups are made with medical grade silicone, so you aren't exposing your body to any chemical except silicone. They also carry no risk of toxic shock syndrome unless you leave them in longer than 12 hours (the only two reported TSS cases with a menstrual cup happened when the women left them in for over a week.)
The peace of mind was probably my favorite perk, but a close second had to be the cleanliness of it all. Because the cup creates a vacuum seal inside your vagina, the blood isn't exposed to air until you're already dumping it out, so there is no odor whatsoever. There is no possible way to get any pee in or on it, ever, because your urethra is a separate opening, and there is no string hanging out. Were it not for cramps, I would have forgotten I was on my period. Some people describe the removal process as "gory" but to me, a little silicone cup of blood is way less gory than a nasty blood-soaked tampon.
Menstrual cups require emptying much less often than tampons require changing. Since I never used any tampon more absorbent than a regular because I was so afraid of getting TSS, I would have to change my tampon every two to four hours. I emptied my menstrual cup every eight hours or so and it was never even all the way full. (My menstrual flow is neither particularly heavy nor light.)
I'm also looking forward to saving money and cabinet space. Menstrual cups cost about the same as two boxes of tampons, and they last for years. I even still have the big one for after I have babies. Moreover, cleaning the is was extremely easy. I rinsed it out with water (no soap) every time I emptied it, and at the end of my period, I rinse it, soak it in isopropyl alcohol for 24 hours, boil it for 15 minutes, and then let it dry. All of that is probably overkill since medical silicone doesn't let bacteria grow on it or retain any odor, but as I said, I'm a clean freak and I like to be extra careful.
Just because most people do things one way doesn't always mean it's the best way. In fact, it's more often the result of clever marketing, and as consumers, we really need to be asking "why" a lot more often than we do. Products made for women are quite likely to be poorly suited to our needs because for decades, the decisions regarding the manufacturing and design of products for us have been made by men, who obviously lack experience in the areas of having periods (and wearing bras, but that'll be another article for another day.)
Without exception, these corporations are less interested in making products that work well for us than they are in making money and have every incentive to try to shoehorn us through marketing and advertising into solutions that don't fit. As women, it's time to take it upon ourselves to research our options and find products that work for us, because they're certainly out there. If enough of us do that, it will force these companies to ask for our suggestions, and then get their hands out of our pockets long enough to go back to the drawing board, where they'll either make us something better or go out of business. That's what I call girl power.