Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ode to a Diva

I generally hate the word "diva" unless A) Beyonce's singing it or B) it's used in reference to my beloved Diva Cup.
This here is an ode to my true-blue friend who's always there for me when my uterine lining starts leaking, when I'm fed up with diaper-like pads and scratchy tampons, and when I'm scared about the health and environmental impact of disposable menstrual products. My Diva Cup has been good to me over these past three years. And you know what? I'd like nothing more than to convince each and every one of you reading this to at least consider using one yourself.

For folks who don't know already, a Diva Cup is just one of the many types of menstrual cups available in today's marketplace. Instead of absorbing your flow like a tampon or catching it after it (achingly) trickles out of you à la a pad, a Diva Cup is worn internally and collects your blood in a soft, rubbery cup that can be emptied every 12 hours.

One of the biggest factors motivating my initial switch from tampons to menstrual cups was the simple fact that the Diva Cup does not pose any health risks--unlike tampons.  While some menstrual cups are made of rubber or other materials, the Diva Cup is made of medical-grade silicone and is completely safe for regular use. It is free of pthalates, latex, plastic and other chemicals. A short soak in boiling water leaves the Diva Cup perfectly sterilized, unlike pads and tampons which are—contrary to popular belief—not sterilized before they are packaged and sent to shelves. Unlike a tampon, the Diva Cup does not absorb the good along with the bad (though I have trouble thinking of menstrual blood as "bad," but I'll get to that in a bit) and it does not introduce any unnecessary chemicals into the flora and fauna of the vagina. Although seldom discussed, tampons contain dangerous chemicals that can be absorbed by the sensitive tissue of the vaginal walls, including dioxins as well as residue from chlorine bleach, pesticides and other chemicals involved in the growing and treating of cotton used in manufacturing tampons.

According to the World Health Organization, we are exposed to dioxins throughout our lives through the food we eat (particularly meat, dairy, and fish), herbicides, pesticides, and emissions from waste incinerators. Women, however, are exposed to dioxin at even greater rates because of tampon usage. Repeated exposure to the chemical—say, during the 38 years the average woman menstruates during her lifetime—inflicts the greatest risk to women's health.

In The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation, Karen Houppert explains that in 1992,
several FDA scientists... discovered trace levels of dioxin, a potentially harmful by-product of the chlorine-bleaching process at paper and wood-pulp mills, in some commercially produced tampons. (Most tampons today contain rayon, a wood-pulp derivative.) Citing studies that indicated dioxin was unsafe at any level—not only potentially carcinogenic, but toxic to the immune system and a cause of birth defects—subcommittee chair Ted Weiss, a Democrat from New York, accused the FDA of purposely downplaying the dangers to women by ignoring one of its own scientist's warnings. 
Since that time, no significant changes have been made to reduce the amount of dioxin found in tampons. Tampon manufacturers continue to argue that dioxin levels in their products are negligible at best and therefore harmless, but Houppert begs to differ.

"Drawing on the results of scientific research around the world—from sources as diverse as a U.S. Air Force study that documented decreased testis size in men exposed to dioxin and a University of South Florida study that saw a connection between dioxin exposure and endometriosis in monkeys—it's clear that tests are showing something even more important than the potential carcinogenic link: dioxin, in levels once thought acceptably low, affects the reproductive and immune systems. There is evidence that dioxin may be linked to lower sperm counts in men, a higher probability of endometriosis in women, and a depressed immune system in both. ...  Among females, hormonal changes associated with dioxin have been linked to decreased fertility, an inability to maintain pregnancy, and ovarian dysfunction.

If all of that doesn't scare you, then get a load of this: According to Laurie Garett, author of The Coming Plague, "over the years manufacturers have mixed a variety of fibres with cotton to improve absorbency and maintain the tampon’s shape inside the body. These include polyester, collagen, acetyl cellulose, carboxymethyl cellulose, polyvinyl alcohol, polyurethaneand even asbestos." 

Another reason I love my Diva Cup: it's reusable! No more frantically asking friends if they have a spare tampon or desperately banging on those rusty old pad dispensers in public restrooms. No more running to the store in the middle of the night to buy new supplies. And best of all, no more contributing to the enormous amount of waste women create by disposing of menstrual products each and every cycle. Each year the average woman sends 250 to 350 tampons or pads to rot in landfills across the country. That's roughly 9,500 to 13,500 tampons or pads in a lifetime or, to put it another way, 250 to 300 pounds of waste from the time of menarche to menopause for a single woman. Considering how many women populate the United States alone, it's easy to see how the usage of disposable menstrual products can be framed as a significant environmental problem.

Only using one menstrual product to deal with your period for up to ten years (it's true!) is great for the environment, but it's also great for your wallet. I bought my Diva Cup for about $24 dollars three years ago, which means that I've saved roughly $178 so far. That's $178 I chose not to invest in major corporations like Tampax or Playtex who do not seem to have the consumer's interests in preserving their health and the environment in mind.

More than anything, though, I love my Diva Cup because it has helped highlight the cultural stigma surrounding menstruation while simultaneously bringing me closer to my own body.

Don't get me wrong, I love my period and have since it first appeared on my 12th birthday. As one of those few lucky women whose period usually arrives unaccompanied by cramps, migraines, and general discomfort, I've always had neutral to positive feelings about my period. But ever since I switched to using a Diva Cup, I feel a rush of genuine excitement every time I get my period. Using a Diva Cup allows me to observe just how much I bleed each day of my cycle, how the color and consistency changes, and much more. The simple act of inserting and removing the Diva Cup every twelve or so hours has literally forced me to get comfortable touching my own body and my own blood. I feel like I know my body better now and I think that is a beautiful thing.

So many women I've talked to about the Diva Cup (because yes, I am something akin to a walking Diva Cup advertisement in real life) have expressed discomfort or disgust at the prospect of having to—gasp!—touch themselves "down there" and potentially risk touching their own blood in order to use a menstrual cup. And I'm not just talking about young women—I've encountered this reaction in grown women who have been menstruating for over half of their lives! I really wish more women could see that our periods and our bodies don’t have to be something we’re grossed out by, or bothered by (in the absence of cramps, extra sensitivity and whatnot).

Despite the awesome power our female bodies possess, our culture has a way of devaluing women's bodies when considered outside of a sexual context. Our breasts are only for titillating, not for breastfeeding. Our vaginas are for providing pleasure, not for birthing. Sadly, if our bodies aren't being used for sex, they're all too often seen as dirty, shameful and gross. This goes double for our vaginas and triple for our periods. How else do you explain the way our periods are used in gross-out jokes in popular culture, like in 2007's Superbad? To quote our friend and fellow classmate Nasser, periods "should be something celebrated--not treated like Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter as something we don't speak of!" Even advertisements for pads and tampons have typically skirted around actually admitting that their products are used for catching the blood that comes out of our vaginas every month.

Recently, our Women in Pop Culture class, taught by Feminist Fatale's Melanie Klein, watched Diana Fabianova's documentary Red Moon: Menstruation, Culture, and the Politics of Gender. While the film had some weak spots, I still think it does a great job of highlighting the cultural taboo of menstruation. Check out the trailer here:

In short, from the time we are very young, we hear our periods referred to as a "curse" and a nightmare. In polite company we are instructed from the onset of puberty to never ever mention our monthly cycles, especially if there are men present. Young women absorb these messages about the taboo of menstruation and all too often hold onto these negative attitudes until late in life. The cultural silence surrounding one of the most natural bodily processes women deal with in their lives speaks volumes about the way women and women's bodies are valued in our society.

I'd like to change all of that, and one way I think we can achieve that goal is to encourage women to use a Diva Cup or other type of menstrual cup.

My period is a beautiful thing that reminds me each month that (hooray!) I am not yet pregnant and (double hooray!) my healthy body is capable of creating a living, breathing human being. Did you know that scientists today are closing in on the ability to use stem cells from menstrual blood to repair hearts and other organs? Menstrual stem cells have even been described as potentially "more potent than bone marrow" and as "one of the most promising, renewable, non-invasive sources of stem cells." So not only do our monthly periods remind us of our awe-inspiring ability to create life but also our ability to aid in the healing of our own bodies and the bodies of others. 

I'm not saying all women should start throwing menarche parties for the young women in their lives or painting with their period blood, although I'm personally down with both of those things. Women don't have to be crunchy hippie-types to embrace their periods or use reusable menstrual cups or cloth pads. I just hope we can all do our part to challenge the cultural taboo surrounding menstruation.

Want to read more on the subject? These are some excellent sources related to menstruation:

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Blogger Sheila said...

Nice post! Well written and informative, as usual. I think the diva cup (and other similar products) is definitely catching on in our generation, but I would love to see older generations embrace it as well. Like you said though, it's a matter of battling long-held stigmas about menstration.

I think I may make it my mission this summer to convince my mother of the virtues of the diva cup.

Also -- major bonus points for working in Beyonce. :)

May 26, 2010 at 10:15 AM  
Blogger The Ampoo said...

Thanks, Sheila! I always look forward to your comments :)

Please convince your mother to try one out! I got my own mother on board pretty easily but she's convinced menopause is on the horizon so I'm not sure if she'll ever actually get a chance to try it out. Very disappointing.

I knew you'd like the Beyonce reference! I put it in there just for you.

May 26, 2010 at 1:24 PM  
Blogger marleypoyo said...

Great article, Laylee! I love your enthusiasm regarding your period and diva cup and find it so refreshing from the constant barrage of negativity that surrounds the female body. Thanks for posting such informative links too-- every woman should know that there are traces of asbestos in tampons and should wonder why anyone would want to put that in the most sensitive area of their body. I am always baffled as to how little women really know in regards to their bodies and health risks and think this is extremely important.

May 26, 2010 at 2:38 PM  
Blogger Becca said...

Love it! I'm totally going to check out some of those books. Keep 'em coming!

May 26, 2010 at 7:21 PM  
Blogger niazb said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 27, 2010 at 5:35 PM  
Blogger niazb said...

you are the first person who told me you use a diva cup and i think it is really cool because pads and tampon just have so many chemicals in them. also the tampon comersial posted in this blog is something that i always think about actually. its funny that kotex goes around trying to act all pro women but they have harsh chemicals in their tampons and they too did have those cheesy comersials that beat around the bush at some point. they are cleary using feminism as a marketing tool. thanks again for sharing the diva cup and i will look into maybe trying it.

May 27, 2010 at 5:36 PM  
Blogger Jennie said...

So glad I saw this, I have a diva cup (that puppy bit a hole in...) and I am actually going to get a Lunette Cup next because its a little shorter and the Diva was a little long for my body. Thanks for being so open about this. I wish more women were, I would have known about cups sooner!

May 30, 2010 at 12:55 AM  

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