“I tried the DivaCup for several cycles, but every insertion and removal was difficult as my vaginal canal is curved, so it required me to slide it in at an angle. The seal was tough to create,” recounts Niharika*. The 27-year-old writer from Mumbai heard about the product through YouTubers and decided to try them out as she was determined to reduce her plastic use.
Designed to create a more comfortable period experience, the menstrual cup has been around for a long time but has gained popularity in India mostly in the past few years. A silicone cup that is inserted in the vaginal canal to hold period blood might not seem like the ideal sanitary product but the comfort and convenience it provides have been lauded by menstruators across the world. One of the main advantages that a lot of menstrual cup brands often advertise is that they are far more environmentally friendly than disposable pads and tampons.
However, what’s worrying is that some who are not willing to switch to cups are often subject to a new form of period shaming. “I think it's counterproductive, mean-spirited, and unhelpful. There are a number of reasons why a menstrual cup may not be the right option,” says Niharika. She adds that despite trimming the bottom stem of the cup, it would still poke her and make her uncomfortable. After several attempts, she gave up and hasn’t used the cup since.
One size doesn’t fit all
As the editor of a woman’s lifestyle website, 37-year-old Mansi Shah had already heard about the hype around menstrual cups early on. She found the sizing options for menstrual cups to be convoluted. “There is an assumption that if you are a 35-year-old woman, you would have had a child and that one particular size would be right for you,” she says. “So already I was a little thrown off before I could try them. I don’t have children but I am 37, so what cup size was right for me?” she adds.
After finally inserting her cup after multiple tries, she said that she felt discomfort while walking around. “My entire nether regions started to hurt along with my thighs which were threatening to give up at any point and buckle under the strain,” she explains.
“When you’re cranky and sweaty, you really don’t want to dedicate more time to get this menstrual cup into you,” she remarks about her choice to give up the cup.
Perhaps, the cultural aspect as to why cups have not found strong acceptance in India is the value attached to ‘virginity or purity’ in the country. The sentiment is so strong that some gynecologists also refuse to conduct vaginal examinations like transvaginal ultrasounds if the woman is ‘not married’, which is a code word for being sexually inactive.
In such a culture, sanitary products like tampons and cups that need to be inserted into the vaginal cavity can be looked down upon due to the myths that they could break the hymen or make the vagina looser.
As with all other menstrual products, the menstrual cup does come with its own set of risks, which is often left out of the larger messaging around it. Although they may be slightly lesser than that associated with pads and tampons, irritation can occur during insertion.
According to Healthline, there is also a risk of infection, which can occur especially if the cup or hands are not adequately sanitized. For users with long nails, there is also an increased risk of causing small injuries during insertion and removal. Inserting any object into the vagina can irritate the urethra and introduce bacteria to the urinary tract, which could also lead to urinary infections in some users.
Physical barriers to using the cup
For many menstruators who do want to switch to a more sustainable period product, physical and mental challenges can prevent them from doing so.
A respondent from Bengaluru who did not wish to be named shared how she had to stop using the cup as a recent outbreak of herpes near her vaginal opening prevented her from doing so. A Mumbai-based asexual woman also added that because of her experience with sexual trauma, inserting anything inside her vagina was a deeply discomforting experience and she abandoned the cup after a few tries and switched to reusable cloth pads.
33-year-old Ankita* shared that as she lives with vaginismus, “sticking the cup inside was a bit jarring.” The painful condition results in involuntary contraction of vaginal muscles when any sort of penetration is attempted.
The challenge of living with vaginismus is it’s unpredictable how the vagina behaves and is intrinsically linked to mental health. “Stressful times aggravate it in my experience and it improves when things are calmer,” says Ankita. For her, the thought of having to go through this experience every month did not feel like a good way to make her period more sustainable.
“Greenshaming is such a problem among communities who care about the environment. It's a sense of moral superiority they bring with them because of their ability to make more sustainable choices,” she explains.
She switched to eco-friendly pads and admits that she is a lot happier. “It is hard to explain the complications to other women when they impose the cup as the best option,” she remarks, adding that we need to uphold choice and acknowledge limitations in how comfortable people are in adopting these sustainable options.
This is also a point that many who work in the development sector have brought up when organizations relentlessly promote menstrual cups in rural locations where menstrual hygiene products like pads are not easily accessible.
All the menstruators MAKERS India spoke to acknowledged that they understood the impact that their period had on the environment. However, they expressed the need for a more holistic way of viewing it especially in a country where period products are still highly taxed. All advocated for not feeling guilty over something they do not have control over. Menstrual cups work for some, and yes, it is more sustainable. However, they are not meant for everyone. Moreover, they should be a matter of choice and not an imposition.
*Names changed to protect privacy
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee and Amrita Ghosh)