When I was 16, in early 1996, I attended a student forum in Ottawa. One of my roommates at the forum had a reusable latex rubber menstrual cup called The Keeper. Our dorm of twelve had quite an evening getting her to explain how it worked. None of us had ever seen a menstrual cup. This one was designed to fit much like a tampon, but to collect blood instead of absorb it. The Keeper is still available, as well as the DivaCup and the Mooncup which are made of silicone instead of rubber.
I immediately thought my roommate's menstrual cup was really cool, and got her to give me a pamphlet about her cup (it only now strikes me as remarkable that she had a pamphlet on hand). The most important benefit of the menstrual cup seemed to be that it was reusable, and so did not pollute. For me though, the most enticing aspect was that once you were wearing it, there was no need to carry any other product with you. You could never be caught out. In addition, as all reusable menstrual products would do in future, it impressed me with its price. It worked out to about $5 a year for its 10 year lifetime, and this price has since gone down.
Due to laziness, shyness, and the slightly inhibitive initial investment required for a cup, I kept using tampons until University. In my second year, when I was 19, a friend of mine wrote a research paper about the technology of tampons for an anthropology class and asked me to edit it for her. This was my first introduction to critiques of tampon-related health concerns, shame-based marketing tactics used by tampon companies, and the lack of third-party monitoring of tampon safety.
All of this made me really distrust and dislike tampon companies. I was still all right with my old standby, O.B., because at least they weren't marketing products that discouraged touching vaginas with fingers. Still, this was after the proposal of the Tampon Safety and Research Act in the U.S., and before tampon companies switched to dioxin-free bleaching processes, and thinking about the various tampon-related health concerns motivated me to look up The Keeper on the internet. I suppose I could have checked into unbleached cotton tampons, but I had a lingering interest in the self-sufficiency of the reusable cup, and had heard from various sources that unbleached tampons tended to be crumbly and not super absorbant (this turns out to not be true).
On the wagon
I first tried out Instead cups because they were available at my local drug store for a few dollars. The Instead cup fits sort of like a diaphragm, with a semi-firm ring and a clear polyethylene pouch. It is not meant to be reused, but many women use them 6 or more times anyway. A big marketing deal is made of the fact that Instead can be worn during sex, for "clean sex," which bothers me a bit. I don't think period sex is dirty. Not having to remove it for sex seems convenient, though.
It took me several tries to insert even one Instead cup properly. It sort of worked once I got one in, but I could always feel pressure where it fit, and never was able to trust it not to pop out of its tenuous hold behind my pubic bone if I were to bear down, absent-mindedly do a Kegel squeeze, or otherwise live my vaginal life.
Eventually I gave up and ordered a Keeper off the internet for $40. I later discovered that they were available at a health market in town for $30, and that a friend of mine was using one too. We both liked it a lot, for the environmental and convenience reasons, and the reasonable price over time. I also liked being able to see how much menstrual flow was actually being collected, which was surprisingly little compared to what I expected.
I did not have trouble inserting or removing my Keeper. The important tip to squeeze the bottom to break the vacuum seal before trying to tug it out was all I needed to know.
Complaints about bloodying fingers in public bathrooms have never made sense to me. For one thing, you can wear a menstrual cup for so long that surely you can arrange to be in a private bathroom when it finally needs to be changed. For another, I frequently got my fingers bloody just using tampons, because I like to tuck the strings inside to stop them from chafing and getting peed on. I've never found it difficult to just wipe my fingers with toilet paper before exiting the stall, or, in a pinch, to get dressed using one hand or my knuckles and to hide my bloody bits in a fist until I get to the sink to wash.
See also: more detailed concerns about conventional rayon tampons.
And for an even more detailed critique of the tampon industry, I found Karen Houppert’s book The Curse informative.
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