Few women would say they’re ever excited to see their period return for another cycle, and Kim Thompson used to be one of them.
The woman from Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s had never been happy using tampons, and the accompanying dry-and-scratchy sensation she felt. But as she started shedding plastic from her lifestyle, her attention turned to those tampons, and the plastic applicators that accompanied each one.
Even if you aren’t menstruating, you’ve probably seen an applicator around, washed up on a shoreline or in a heap of sidewalk garbage. If a woman averages 20 tampons per period, that can pile up to 240 applicators a year.
Menstrual pads are also partly comprised of plastics and polymers, destined to last long after menopause.
With the environment on her mind, Thompson investigated her options. After some online shopping, she joined the ranks of menstrual cup converts last year.
They’re not as scary as you think they are.– Kim Thompson
“For me, it was a little bit about my own personal comfort, and keeping myself healthy, but it was also about zero waste, not having to buy stuff to throw stuff out,” she said.
Canadians are increasingly turning their backs on plastic bags and takeout cutlery, with the federal government getting on board this week and announcing some single-use plastics will be banned by 2021 at the earliest.
Thompson is one of the many women taking that anti-plastic momentum even further by making their menstrual cycles plastic-free, and urging more people to talk openly about their periods, their products, and their waste.
Put a cup in it
Menstrual cups are hardly a new product. They’ve been on the market in one form or another for decades, with DivaCup, a Canadian-made brand, one of the industry leaders.
Usually made of medical-grade silicone, the cup is inserted in a woman’s vagina like a tampon. Menstrual fluid collects in the cup, which is then dumped when the cup is taken out, before being washed and re-inserted again.
If all that insertion sounds too intimidating, “they’re not as scary as you think they are,” said Thompson. It took about three cycles to fully adjust to her chosen cup, she said.
“They’re not hard to use whatsoever. Just make that leap and do it.”
Thompson also uses period underwear — panties with a reinforced absorbent padding — that she throws in the wash along with her son’s cloth diapers. She bought hers from another plastic-free period Newfoundlander, Mindy Russell, who makes and sells the undies across Canada.
“They’re pretty popular,” said Russell, who runs Copper Mountain Apparel out of her house in Baie Verte.
Russell has worn the underwear in the name of product testing, but prefers a menstrual cup for her period needs, and happily recommends it to others.
“It does take a little bit of effort to find the right size, but if you find the right size, shape, whatever need for you, then there shouldn’t be much of an adjustment period at all.”
Breaking the ‘period taboo’
Both Russell and Thompson are open and willing to discuss their discharge disposal, but they’re in a minority of menstruators.
Enter the menstrual taboo: a global phenomenon that relegates periods to private conversations, if at all.
“The menstrual taboo really prohibits and prevents sensible transmission of information,” said Courtney Howard, an emergency room physician in Yellowknife and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Most people get their information just from very, very close people. Family members, mothers, sisters, extremely close friends.”
If period taboo doesn’t seem like a thing to you, consider that in 2015, period underwear company Thinx ran into trouble trying to get ads onto the New York City subway system, with its campaign, featuring grapefruits, broken eggs and women in turtlenecks deemed possibly too “suggestive.”
That same year Instagram star Rupi Kaur posted a picture on the social media site of a fully clothed woman with a period stain on her pants, which Kaur said in a repost was originally removed for going against Instagram’s guidelines.
The taboo also manifests in the medical world, where Howard ran into it early on in her career.
As a resident at a family practice, a patient came to Howard’s office one day asking about menstrual cups, to which Howard went to do some digging through the existing literature for an answer.
She came up with nothing.
“I was astonished. I thought I had done the lit review wrong, because menstrual cups have been around in various incarnations since the 1960s, but really they had been very poorly studied,” Howard said, adding this falls in line with women’s health issues generally being less studied then men’s.
“No one had ever done a trial comparing menstrual cups to tampons.”
With a few other physicians, Howard took that trial on, in what ended up in 2011 becoming the first controlled trial of menstrual cups versus tampons in Canada.
The study involved 110 tampon users in British Columbia between the ages of 19 and 40, with half of them switching to menstrual cups for three months. All the participants were then interviewed at the end of the trial.
The results? Ninety-one per cent of the women who switched to the menstrual cup said they’d continue to use it and would recommend it to others.
There’s been a culture of shame around menstruation in general that’s prohibited good conversation.– Dr. Courtney Howard
“Most people I have known in my personal life were very satisfied with them, so I wasn’t surprised when that was what our study also found,” said Howard, who uses a cup herself.
The study wasn’t perfect; while it showed no significant difference in problems such as urinary tract infections between the two user groups, Howard said the sample size was too small to conclusively say much about potential health risks, or lack thereof, of menstrual cups.
Since Howard’s study, there have been few others done to address that gap, and provide any answers to qualms people might have about reusable menstrual products. Howard would like that to change.
“There’s no ethical reason why we can’t do it. It’s a matter of talking about it, building the desire, getting funding for it and recruiting people,” she said.
“There’s been a culture of shame around menstruation in general that’s prohibited good conversation. There’s been just general profit-making motives aimed at getting as much money as possible out of women, and essentially exploiting people’s hesitancy to talk about it, that has really prevented us from doing the best problem-solving that we could do around menstrual cups.”
The end of word-of-mouth?
Howard, Russell and Thompson all found out about the cups through word-of-mouth.
When Thompson began broadcasting her newfound love for her plastic-free period, “I was so amazed that I started talking about it to my friends, and then I learned that at least half the women I know are using the cups, are using the cloth pads, already.”
In retrospect, she said “it was weird” to realize reusable menstrual products rarely come up in conversation.
That might be changing, slowly, with an emphasis on the cup’s economic savings,
An anti-poverty group in Windsor handed out Diva Cups to the homeless in 2016, another group fundraised in Halifax a year later, and earlier this year another event in Regina raised money for reusable products in northern Saskatchewan.
A short film about homemade menstrual pads in rural India even won an Oscar this February, as it tackled the taboo issue in the developing world, where menstruation can be a major barrier even to simply attending school.
In Canada, the cup conversation may best be addressed through the health-care system, said Howard, who audited her family practice and realized doctors weren’t discussing menarche with young women at all, let alone exploring the various options.
“We’re letting them make this transition in the absence of any kind of real information,” she said.
“I think there’s real opportunity for this type of conversation, to set our young women up for confidence and success, and just a general healthy view of themselves and their bodies,” she said.
Howard noted that in her 2011 study, having a health professional walk women through how to use a menstrual cup was key for getting buy-in.
One-on-one, and in between stitching pairs of period undies, Mindy Russell is happy to talk about menstrual cups in any effort to further the conversation, and the environment.
“I would like to see everybody go plastic-free for their period products,” she said.
“It’s so much stuff that we’re tossing away, or flushing away every month. It’s sad. It’s sad to think about it all.”