When I first got my periods, I was devastated. The monthly pain, fatigue and discomfort overwhelmed me, not to mention the overnight assumption that I had suddenly ‘become a woman.’ My child’s body was now a sexual body. It meant covering up, not drawing attention to my curves, and of course, maintaining distance from boys. I didn’t like any of these new restrictions.
But what I hated most was sanitary pads. Those wretched, bulky layers of plastic that ended up in my underwear every month. I had enough reasons to hate them. They were artificially deodorized, and mingled with my periods to produce a strange bloody, perfumed odor. They gave me rashes, they leaked, they were indiscreet and always felt wet, sticky and heavy.
It seemed like Indians didn’t use any other menstrual product, but no one ever talked about it either. Pads were the you-know-what you purchased from the medical store, and passed secretly underneath the school desk for a friend as if it were a packet of drugs. I hated having no choice but to buy pads, and still keep them hidden in cleverly sewn pockets in my bag, lest anyone stumble upon it. But perhaps what I hated most was how distant I felt from my menses. Stick the pad, bleed on it, rip it off, and then dispose of it.
The whole process felt like an unpleasant chore, instead of a way of understanding my body’s natural processes. I never knew what my periods smelt like, since it always acquired a stale, perfumed plastic-y smell. I couldn’t gauge how much I really bled- it just felt like a lot. I barely looked twice at the clots of blood, drying on those floral perforated patterns that pad companies are so fond of.
Embarrassingly enough, for a while as a teen, I didn’t even realise that urine and period blood came from different parts of my body.
No one told me. It felt like the same general area, and out of ambient disgust towards my genitals and periods, I never bothered to check. A few years later, I heard about something called a menstrual cup and I was curious to try. I travelled and exercised frequently, and the sheer convenience of the menstrual cup stood out to me. My parents, especially my mother was aghast at the idea of me (gasp!) inserting something into my vagina. She made multiple appeals to some notion of virginity, which was so fragile that it could be upset by a silicon cup. But I was adamant. So finally, after mourning my hymen and informing me of how men would be disinclined to women ‘with a broken hymen,’ my mother caved.
I remember the excitement with which I opened the Amazon parcel that my menstrual cup came in. It felt like a new way to menstruate. And it truly was! As I started using the cup, I got so much more than the convenience and eco-friendliness that I initially anticipated. I got used to seeing my menstrual fluid. I would empty the cup into the toilet, and watch the red swirls unfurl into the water like clouds of paint. Sometimes it would spill onto my fingers. While pads always made it look sticky, pink and clammy, the blood that spilled onto my fingers was rich, red and even beautiful. I instantly shed all disgust.
I noticed how fresh period blood actually didn’t smell bad, just slightly metallic, unlike the stench that arose from pads. Using a cup taught me about my body and my vagina. I got accustomed to inserting my fingers into my vagina, and it didn’t feel gross. It just felt… normal. I understood what the inside of my body felt like, and even where my cervix was located. I noticed how my cervix hung low during and just before my periods, and till now my cervical location is the most reliable sign that my period is coming. I learnt about the contours of my body, about the texture, smell, quantity and colour of my periods. It was fascinating to discover how little I actually bled, and how the consistency changed every day. For the first time, my period felt like a part of life, and not like a special scenario that had to be ‘dealt’ with.
But most valuable for me was the community of cup users. Growing up among women and girls who were tight-lipped about periods, for the first time I discovered a group of people who enthusiastically spoke about their bodies, periods and advocated cup usage. They didn’t shy away from anything. From talking about how to properly clean and sterilize cups, to having sex while wearing a cup, no topic was too taboo or shameful to talk about. I was thrilled to hear about the journeys that different individuals had with the cup.
I eventually lost all period-inhibitions. I would talk about the benefits of the cup in large groups, even in front of men. I noticed how my ease made the topic more comfortable for everyone. I spoke to my friends about the menstrual cup, and was happy to give them tips and suggestions, and I slowly watched all of them become #cupverts. I started getting calls and texts from old friends and acquaintances who wanted to learn more about the cup. I could feel the warm outward sparks of a loose community that was forming around periods, sustainability and positivity.
Like sex, periods too are taboo and shameful because of the inherent association with the vagina and the body. To take control of my period, was to take control of my body, and of a narrative that stated that I should just bleed quietly and apologetically. The future of menstruation has to break away from shame, it has to be intersectional and radical. Menstruation can be normalized, hygienic, sex-positive, body-positive and eco-friendly. And for me, menstrual cups brought me closer not just to my own body, but to the potential of a more positive period experience for people everywhere.