I got my first period in a swimming pool, upside down, doing the splits in front of a panel of judges. Horrifying, right? I was 12 years old, trying out for the provincial synchronised swimming team, which meant a full day in the pool – mostly upside down – being given scores out of ten by the aforementioned judges. I was horrified, but nobody else noticed. My mom rushed off to buy some tampons, threw them to me in the tiny, dark swimming pool bathroom and said: “you’d better make it work if want to be on this team”. I made it work, I made the team and I’ve never considered using any other period product.
Then something wild happened when I was 31 years old. Someone on Instagram mentioned that we shouldn’t be flushing tampons down the toilet. Maybe you knew this, but to me, it was a revelation. I had been flushing tampons for *insert elevator music while I do the maths* NINETEEN years.
So, I started thinking about where all the tampons I’ve used over the years actually go. If not into the ocean then to a landfill. Then I realised half of the population have periods for about 40 years of our lives. If we all use tampons and pads, that waste really adds up. And add up it does. The average person with a uterus will use around 11 000 menstrual hygiene products in their life, and these create around 130kg of waste per person. A lot of this is plastic: packaging, applicators, strings, most parts of pads. This waste will live on for at least 500 years after mere hours of use.
And not just the post-consumer waste. The manufacturing process and packaging also contribute. Cotton-based products are also a problem, since cotton is the most heavily pesticide sprayed crop in the world, accounting for 16 percent of all pesticide use, and cotton is one of the nicer materials you’ll find in traditional period products.
This information had me shooketh. I needed to make a change. I started looking at sustainable options – and whoah, there are way more than I thought there would be. Like sea sponges, which sound cute until I realised they used to be…alive. I decided to try a cup. It sounded practical and straightforward, so I headed down to Wellness Warehouse where I got the Myown medium cup – yip there are different sizes.
I did a lot of reading and watching illustrated videos on how to use the cup. The next time I had a period, I braced myself and gave it a try. I will say this: the first three times or so was nothing short of traumatic. I’m not used to being so up close and personal with the blood that comes out of my body, and I’ve never needed to – literally and metaphorically – get my hands dirty.
But after a few minutes (okay, 15 minutes) I figured how to insert the cup. Looking at it, it seems impossible. It’s big. It’s a weird shape. There’s no applicator. You have to fold the top of the cup in on itself until it makes a “c” or “s” shape, and then keep this shape while inserting it. It’s kind of like when you overfill a wrap or a taco and then try to eat it with one hand without spilling. Not easy, at first. It took a few tries but eventually, I got it. Then – and this part is critical – you need to seal it by doing a few Kegels until there’s kind of a vacuum and the cup sits up against your cervix.
My first day felt good. I couldn’t feel it at all and I felt secure. The same as a tampon really, except that you only need to take the cup out after 10 hours, so no trips to the work toilet with a tampon up my sleeve.
The real hiccup came when it was time to remove it. I wasn’t expecting this part to be so tricky. The cup has a very short stem on it, but it’s small and made of slippery silicone. The main challenge, actually, was breaking that all-important seal that I had Kegel-ed in 10 hours earlier. The next challenge is not dropping it all over your white bathmat, which only happened once.
Then, of course, you’ve gotta keep it clean and sterilise it every now and then – at least at the beginning and end of each cycle. On this note – it’s worth mentioning that using a menstrual cup requires significant privilege. You need to have access to soap and clean running water, a way to boil or sterilize it some other way, and the privacy to use and clean in in your own home. So, while this isn’t a solution for everyone, it’s a really good idea for those of us who can switch over.
For the first few months, I needed 15 extra minutes in the morning or evening but now, three years later, it’s much quicker and I wouldn’t say it takes any extra time at all. Aside from one Carrie-at-the-prom style nightmare incident in my work bathroom (I hadn’t sealed it and it was a heavy day), I’ve had zero problems, even on long days, even teaching the 7 pm yoga class after a full day of work. Would I go back to tampons? Not a chance.
While I have a few small concerns about how healthy (or not) tampon use is for my body, I worry a lot more about how all of our individual, seemingly negligible actions and habits impact the planet.
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Mimi has lived in Cape Town long enough to pick up every cliche possible. She works in advertising by day and has three side hustles: teaching yoga (to help people be less kak towards themselves), volunteering for a women’s organisation (less kak towards each other), and Aurora (less kak to the environment).