Trigger Warning: This essay’s content centers on menstruation, and, therefore, features extended and detailed descriptions and discussion of blood, period-related products, and other relevant items associated with menstruation. Additionally, I describe body dysphoria, cissexism, misogyny, body image, gender identity, and food at length.
When I first heard about menstrual cups, I was skeptical. It was toward the end of high school, and mentioned more or less in passing. At this point in my life, I had not spent much time thinking about, let alone grappling with my gender or sexuality, so the entire notion of using anything but a tampon or pad was mystifying.
Still, I was intrigued by the potential benefits. Day to day, menstrual cups can be changed less frequently (generally 12 hours versus the maximum 8 with tampons) and leakage is far more infrequent. Long term, menstrual cup use saves individuals money after the initial investment, cuts down on environmental waste, and doesn’t affect the pH levels of the user’s body. Amazing, no?
The greatest barrier to hopping right on to the bandwagon was being wary of the finer technical points: Gravity? Touching myself? Blood?
Like many other period-having folks, I put the potential exciting new commitment out of mind. After all, the monthly waves of period joy, with all their relevant monikers and euphemisms, were more of a hassle than anything else, let alone something I actually wanted to anticipate and plan for.
Time went on, life got busy – I graduated high school, moved across the country, all that jazz. Nary a menstrual cup entered into my consciousness.
Something changed when I started college. I left behind a repressed, stuffy high school in New England for Southern California college life. It was as if once I started to slow down, everything I’d rushed away from caught up with me. The dissonance I felt with both femininity and masculinity became increasingly apparent, which was terrifying and bizarre. Thankfully, I was and have been surrounded by amazing queer mentors and community that in effect said: calm down, take this glitter, and go get ‘em tiger.
For the most part, coming into my identity as trans and genderqueer has been liberating. Finally, words put to confusing and frustrating experiences, a sense of clarity, and other beautiful folks who intimately understood where I was coming from. But at other times, things have not been as great. As with many other trans kids navigating through it all, my body has been one point of personal contention.
I expected the dysphoria with my body to come with the territory, and the more I concerned myself with the prospect of that body dissonance, the more it seemed to come true. Suddenly, parts of myself I appreciated were thrown into the spotlight. If I let my chest remain unbound and visible, would I be considered less queer? Did I actually like my hair? Did my stature and size betray my gender identity? I was literally worrying myself into dysphoria.
And then, in the midst of obtaining my midday caffeine fix at a local feminist coffeehouse, there they were. A collection of menstrual cups, in between bottles of kombucha and packaged kale chips. I finally needed to face the fact that my period practices up to this point were less than ideal.
I faced somewhat of a dilemma. I wanted to make the switch to using a cup – clearly the environmental, health, financial, and lifestyle benefits were overwhelming. The only thing that kept me from throwing caution and super plus tampons to the wind was now the fear of my own body, fear of my next period, fear of the self-loathing that I expected would be pervasive. I found it hard to address the literal life force coming out of me when it had been completely ingrained in me that periods had everything to do with gender – and nothing to do with mine.
It was complicated.
You see, tampons make periods, in my mind, pretty simple. If you’re using tampons with applicators you barely even need to come in direct contact with your own blood. Insert the tampon holding onto some cardboard or plastic, which is immediately thrown out after the tampon is in its proper place. After a few hours, pull on the string hanging out of the vagina, swinging the precarious, blood-soaked cotton pendulum away and promptly into the trash. Interestingly, the most contact with blood in this entire process is usually a small smear, and accidentally.
Let’s pause for a moment and step back – how weird is that?!
Some equivalent context, for those of you who may be struggling to understand why I find this strange: imagine that you are chef, and, obviously, end up preparing meals for others a lot. This is a routine part of your life and, to varying levels of extent depending on the person, has become part of your identity by its omnipresence alone. In fact, you’ve been formally cooking for other people since you were around 14 years old and you’re now well into your 20s, 30s, 40s.
But here’s the catch – you rarely, if ever, personally touch the food in your kitchen. Either you use tools to touch everything, or you get the assistance of someone else in your kitchen because it’s just…gross. When you have no other choice but to touch the food, you do so with your nose wrinkled and your face screwed up and the food held at an arm’s length. No matter how well you prepare it, how creative you are with maintaining your kitchen, or how often you are around it, you find the process all fundamentally a bit disgusting. Not to mention that everyone reminds you of how disgusting food preparation is – the smell, the texture, its appearance alone. And, subtly, even though they know it applies to you, everyone reminds you how fundamentally and inherently unfortunate it is to be a chef. Moreover, people will remind you that you constantly smell like food, you’re always preoccupied with your job, and that you’re an unpleasant, cranky person to be around as a result of your job, and that you probably shouldn’t be trusted with much because you’re always around food, which, again, is disgusting and affects your ability to be rational.
Oh, and you also have no choice but to be a chef for at least 30 years of your life.
A menstrual cup? That’s like asking the chef to hand knead dough. That’s asking the chef to actually arrange a platter of food on a plate instead of throwing it on a dish with a pair of tongs and a grimace on their face. At least, that’s what I thought.
It’s no wonder I anticipated to feel dysphoria when asked to be directly confronted with something that a) signified “womanhood,” which I couldn’t even emotionally and personally address and b) was widely believed to be, by most people, either dirty, disgusting, or both. It’s no wonder so many folks, whether trans or genderqueer or a cisgender, have issues with periods.
Nobody had given me any reason to love my period-bearing body, or what it’s capable of, or what it does.
Until the menstrual cup.
Honestly I wasn’t expecting much, except to have the luxury of addressing my period less frequently, dealing with fewer leaks, and to do something good for the environment. It was all a very abstract conviction. But when I removed my cup for the first time to empty it, I was amazed. My body had produced and expelled nearly half an ounce of blood in 12 hours. On average, 2 ounces of blood are collected per period cycle. 2 whole ounces!
Depending on body size, humans have anywhere from 80 to 130 ounces of blood in their entire body. People who have periods get rid of around 2 ounces every month and the majority are (obviously depending on the extent to which you deal with disruptive physical and emotional changes during your cycle) more or less fine.
I was in awe of my body. I examined this half-ounce with reverence. It was beautiful – deep red and thick and strong. My body was strong. My body had potential. Surprisingly, it was the best thing I could’ve discovered as a trans kid who is also small and doesn’t have much muscle definition. I could flip the bird to heteronormative expectations and love my female body. I could be exactly the kind of person I wanted to be, no matter what gender identity I took on. And that’s a bloody beautiful thing.