Like a lot of young girls, I started my journey into womanhood on the wings of a maxi pad. It was thick between my legs, I felt like I was sitting in a river of my own body fluids, and each month, for the longest time, I imagined everyone around me knew I was bleeding.
How could they not? *I* was beyond acutely aware of this fact.
I don’t remember making the switch to tampons, but here I am, decades later, unable to leave the house without a pouch full of a variety of tampon sizes, just in case. These days, I hardly think of the money that comes pouring out of my bank account and into the pockets of Big Tampon (that is, unless I’m raging about the tampon tax).
According to this Huffington Post article from 2015, in her lifetime, the average woman spends $1,773 on tampons, $443 on pantyliners, and $2,280 on new underwear.
Seriously, I have to imagine these numbers are somewhere around tripled for women with endometriosis, fibroids, and all those other fun conditions. I mean I pretty much spent a full year bleeding when I was at my sickest.
And money aside, none of it is particularly comfortable. After what is sometimes seven fun-filled days of wearing tampons, let’s just say, my vagina gets as irritable as I am the week before my period starts. Having been confirmed once or twice in the past by a well-timed annual gyno exam that falls right after my period, I am pretty sure the persistent tampon use leaves me with a low-key yeast infection to chase shark week.
First, I will acknowledge that I am lucky and grateful to have access to things like tampons and pads. But now I am going to also acknowledge that I am pretty over tampons. Over two decades of using them monthly (sometimes more than monthly) has been quite enough for my taste.
So earlier this year when the topic of menstrual cups came up during a Baltimore Flow meeting, I started asking questions. And then I heard more menstrual cup talk on one of my favorite podcasts. The host was talking about the environmental benefits of using them (they are reusable unlike tampons) but also how it felt so much more comfortable to her than tampons.
Environmentally friendly? Check. Cost savings? Check. Happier vagina? I am SOLD.
As someone who writes frequently on the internet and Instagram about my period, I did not have to look far or do much research to decide who I wanted to buy my period cup from, and I also treated myself to my first pair of period panties in that same order. I opted for Sustain Natural (#notanad) because:
Their products (which also include tampons, condoms, lube, and wipes) are all natural and organic.
I haven’t heard any crazy stories about their CEO sexually harassing employees like another period panty brand you may have heard of.
They are woman-owned.
They donate 10 percent of their profits to women in need of health services.
They create phenomenal pro-choice, feminist, sex-positive, body-positive content that I adore.
So that’s my little note/soapbox on how I chose Sustain. But if you’re like me, and you are new to the period cup game, you’re here to find out about how the cup and panties worked out.
I’ll start with the underwear since that’s a little less…complex. Sustain carries one cut (your standard bikini cut). The site says they can absorb up to one tampon’s worth of blood (of course, it doesn’t say if that is a super plus tampon or a regular, and my endo sisters know there is QUITE a difference). They fit and feel like regular underwear (as long as your regular underwear isn’t super skimpy). The crotch is thicker than regular underwear, but it doesn’t feel bulky like a pad or a diaper. Because they are not seamless, if you’re wearing pants or a skirt that shows panty lines, these would probably show (or at least on me they would; I have considerable junk in the trunk).
But if panty lines are not important to you (and they aren’t particularly important to me, especially when I have my period), then these are fantastic. My first few times using the cup, I wore these as backup since I wasn’t confident in my cup insertion technique. They would also be a good backup if you’re having one of those periods when you’re bleeding through a tampon faster than anyone should have to put up with. My other favorite way to use them is at night so I don’t have to deal with sleeping with a tampon in or a pad on. Love my period underwear.
The cup? Ah…that’s more of a mixed bag. Luckily I was warned by my Flow friends who use the cup that there is a learning curve when putting it in. I am glad they told me this because I STRUGGLED. To insert a period cup, you bend or fold it into a U-shape and insert it into your vagina. I wasn’t sure (and am still not sure) how far up it is supposed to go, I’ll be honest. This is most likely because I am weirdly spatially challenged and have an extremely hard time visualizing where the hell my cervix is despite a career in editing medical textbooks. Anatomical line drawings are one thing. Your own cervix is another. Like HOW FAR IS MY CERVIX FROM MY VAGINAL ENTRANCE? I DON’T KNOW.
Anyway, once you stick the cup up there, it unfolds on its own and suctions onto your cervix where it promptly starts to catch your period blood. Another piece of real talk? Despite my best efforts and my willingness to write about this shit, I am NOT as body-positive as Sustain. Endometriosis is chronically traumatic and I hate my period. I don’t care if it is “natural” and a “healthy part of life.” Aside from causing me literal years of pain, my period is fucking gross, dudes. It has gotten significantly better since my second surgery, but heavy flow, clots, ugh, you name it. I have pulled out some really appalling-looking tampons, so TBH, I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to see what my period looked like poured into a tiny cup.
So I was surprised that it wasn’t nearly as gross as a used tampon, which can sometimes look like you accidentally pulled out a small organ instead of a tampon. That said, I did not use and have not used my period cup on my heaviest days. It’s not that I don’t think it can get the job done (actually, Sustain offers two sizes if I wanted a larger one for heavier days). It’s actually that, several months later, I am still struggling with inserting it, and because I’m having trouble, doing so requires a level of ::ahem:: intimacy with my own body that I frankly cannot deal with on Days 2, 3, and sometimes 4.
If I was more comfortable with my period, maybe it wouldn’t bother me as much, but I also find it physically difficult. Sometimes my period makes me feel like I have been punched in the vulva. Really that is the only way I can describe it (although thanks to pelvic PT, I have this sensation less frequently). And when I feel that way, the last thing I want to do is shove a little cup up there. And yes, tampons are different because I use ones with applicators for this very reason.
Guys, I WANT to make the cup work. But in the interest of transparency, I’ll admit I haven’t used it during my last two periods. The last time I tried, I somehow ended up inserting it sideways and getting it out was a BITCH. And even when you insert it properly and it suctions to your cervix the way it is supposed to, getting it to UNsuction freaks me out a tiny bit. The pulling sensation doesn’t hurt exactly, but it is…not something I’m used to. It kind of feels like it could take my whole uterus with it (not sure that would be the worst thing though).
Since I haven’t gotten comfortable with it, I only want to use it on my lighter days and when I know I am going to be at home for the day. The last thing I want to do is find myself rooting around in my vagina trying to break the seal of something stuck to my cervix in the stall of the shared bathrooms in my office. Sustain does offer a full refund if the cup is not your cup of tea (see what I did there?), but I REALLY WANT TO MAKE THIS WORK.
Who are my period cup aficionados out there? Teach me your ways! Have your tried the period cup or period panties? What has your experience been like? Are you tired of tampons too? Should we all just free-bleed at work? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or over on Instagram — I can’t wait to hear from you!