The night of Saturday, Feb. 24 was a time of candid conversation for the approximately 40 attendees of the “Menstruation Celebration.”
In an effort to create a forum for open discussion about menstrual wellness and perceptions of periods, the Feminist Collective (FemCo), the Berkshire Doula Project and Peer Health organized a panel to debunk myths about menstrual cups.
A menstrual cup, often referred to by the familiar name brand “DivaCup,” is a menstrual hygiene product that collects menstrual fluid. Made out of medical-grade silicone, menstrual cups can be inserted into the vagina and then reused, saving users from the need to carry countless tampons or pads with them.
The panel included Su-Young Kim ’14, who created her own menstrual cup company, Halo Cups, in 2016. The panelists explained that menstrual cups are cheaper, more convenient and more environmentally friendly compared to other menstrual products. Yet, Kim said, menstrual cups are often misunderstood as “dirty and gross,” with some people seeing their users as “hippies.”
“I thought to myself, ‘Why is this product not so widespread?’” Kim said. “And why is there such a stigma against those who want to try it?”
Aware that students at the College might have similar misconceptions or might want to learn more about this unique product, the panelists highlighted key facts about menstrual cups.
Menstrual products are expensive. The Huffington Post reported that over the course of a person’s life, they spend around $1773 alone on tampons. But because tampons – the menstrual product of choice for 70 percent of those who have periods – and pads are vital, menstrual product companies can take advantage of this necessity.
Corporations have designed pads and tampons so that they are not as absorbent as they could be, which, Kim said, makes the business “that much more profitable for these large companies,” forcing those who menstruate to buy more of their products.
Menstrual cups are environmentally and economically friendlier than tampons or pads. Since tampons and pads are nonreusable – another choice made by companies to increase their profits – menstruation can have a big impact on the environment as well. According to Kim, 50 pounds of pesticide and fertilizer go into producing a lifetime’s worth of tampons and pads.
Bertie Miller ’18 made the switch to using menstrual cups four years ago as a way to reduce the waste output created by tampons. “Part of my getting a menstrual cup was a way to be sustainable in a small way, but on a large scale, the waste of more common menstrual hygiene products really adds up,” she said.
Johanna Wassermann ’18 agreed. “Think of the many parts that go into a single tampon: the packaging, individual wrapper, plastic applicator and then the tampon itself,” she said. “That’s a lot of waste.”
There are also health factors that need to be considered, Kim said. Companies are not required to list all of the materials used in such nonreusable period products, which makes it unclear if menstrual hygiene companies even test the quality of the materials in their products. Thus, Kim said, it is not clear what chemical impacts tampons and pads can have on one’s health.
“We put these products in or in close contact with our bodies, but we have no idea what is in them,” Kim said.
On the other hand, menstrual cups use medical-grade silicone, a flexible, rubber-like product that is tested by the Center for Devices and Radiological Health for biocompatibility. With prices ranging from $26 to $40, menstrual cups can last up to a decade with careful washing with hot water and mild soap.
Olivia Goodheart ’18.5, co-chair of FemCo and one of the event’s panelists, said that she saved $450 in one year by using a menstrual cup instead of tampons. “It makes me angry to think that people have to pay so much to have tampons,” she said.
The panelists agreed that menstrual cups have also made periods more convenient and manageable.
Sophie Torres ’21, a member of the Berkshire Doula Project, said that using a menstrual cup has been the “most positive experience” for her. Menstrual cups only need to be emptied out every eight to 12 hours on average. Not only are they small and compact, Torres said, but menstrual cups require less hassle than carrying tampons and pads and constantly worrying about potential leakage.
Goodheart agreed with Torres’ sentiments. “I put the cup in, I take it out, and it is great. And it is not painful,” she said.
That being said, some of the panelists said not to be alarmed if using a menstrual cup is initially uncomfortable, as all bodies react to the cup in different ways.
Furthermore, menstrual cups are not just for “hippies,” and talking about menstruation should not be stigmatized.
Panelists hope that discussions regarding menstrual cups and menstruation in general will become more open and less stigmatized, both at the College and elsewhere.
“There are still many places in the United States (and the world) where menstruating people are taught to feel shame or embarrassment about their periods,” Wassermann said. “Menstruation is an experience shared by about half of the global population. It is preposterous that menstruating people still feel the need to talk about their periods in coded terms.”
Wassermann also mentioned that the College could play a larger role in promoting menstrual health on campus. “Most dialogues about menstrual health [at the College] have been entirely student-organized,” she said. The Center for Environmental Studies, the Zilkha Center, the Office of Student Life and the Davis Center were all generous in helping to coordinate the Menstruation Celebration, Wassermann said, but she felt that the Health Center was not helpful to the same degree.
“I repeatedly tried reaching out to the Health Center and never got a response back,” she said. “I know that they’re going through a lot of transitions right now, but I was disappointed that they didn’t even seem willing to have a conversation about it.”
Nevertheless, Wassermann is excited for new projects and initiatives that some College organizations are starting to support. Director of the Davis Center Shawna Patterson-Stephens, for example, has expressed interest in making menstrual cups available for students at the College. “As long as we keep fighting, menstrual cups could become a more permanent addition to campus life,”said Toni Wilson ’19, who helped coordinate Peer Health’s Menstrual Wellness Campaign.