Not So Secret Women's Business
By Rosie Sheba from Sustainable Menstruation Australia
There’s a topic we don’t often talk about in magazines. It’s something us adventurous women often think about, and discuss with our friends from time to time, but it’s rare we see the impact it can have on our lives spelled out in public.
As an outdoor enthusiast, who has been camping, diving, hiking, cycling, kayaking, dancing and researching in the field for years, there have been many occasions where my period has been an inconvenience, and sometimes an embarrassment. The majesty of hiking through the wilderness can be dampened by a little plastic bag full of used tampons sitting in my pack. Coming out of
a day’s SCUBA diving work studying fish on the Great Barrier Reef is great, but not being able to take my wetsuit off in front of people because my tampon is full of sea water and will leak if I laugh, not so much.
Two years ago, I finally plucked up the courage to buy a little device some of my active friends had told me about for a while. The first month I tried my menstrual cup I wasn’t too sure, though I could see how it might be a good thing. After gradually trimming the stem during my second cycle until it sat just right, things felt better. My third cycle was a dream, and the ramifications of how much this simple device could change my life clicked.
I no longer had to think about being “caught out” without a tampon. My little cup was always there with me. When I travelled, I didn’t worry about packing enough supplies, or risk using products I wasn’t a fan of with crazy looking applicators and fluffy cotton that gets left behind. Using a cup made me more familiar with my body, and I realised that my menstrual fluid doesn’t have an odour – that only happens when it comes into contact with absorbent surfaces and air. I felt cleaner, healthier, and strangely, I found my periods became shorter, lighter, and less painful. The dry feeling at the end of the cycle when it’s lighter became a thing of the past. Albeit, access to water definitely helps with emptying the cup; I found only having to empty it twice a day meant this wasn’t much of a drama, and baby wipes or a drink bottle would suffice if I was really in the middle of nowhere. Before long, the cons of using tampons and pads weren’t even on the same chart as the pros of my menstrual cup.
I decided to do some research, and realised how much damage I’d been doing to the planet by using tampons. Conventional pads and tampons can take over 500 years to break down in landfill, we use around 12 000 of them in a lifetime, and tampon applicators make up .5% of all marine debris. Scary stuff. Not only that, but the effects on my own body weren’t great either. There’s the risk of toxic shock syndrome, and exposure to chemicals like bleach and dioxins used in their production.
As an active, sport-loving person, pads were simply not an option for me.
For those of you who aren’t really sure what I’m talking about, a menstrual cup is a small device made from hypoallergenic medical grade silicone. It is folded to make it smaller, and then inserted just like a tampon. Instead of soaking up the flow, it collects it, and then can be emptied, rinsed or wiped, and reinserted. The cup makes a seal, so it doesn’t leak when you’re active, and holds three times the capacity of a super tampon. They can be left in place for 12 hours. You can sterilise the device between cycles by boiling for three minutes in water - they can withstand over 300°C - and they only need replacing every ten or so years. In Australia there are three brands available for sale with Therapeutic Goods Administration approval: Lunette, Juju and Diva.
So as you can see, I was sold. But it wasn’t until my travels through Israel last year that a used tampon hanging in the shower (and the subsequent conversation with a woman) became the catalyst for spreading the word about ways we can improve our menstrual cycles here in Australia. Sustainable Menstruation Australia was born. Initially a place people could learn about and buy menstrual cups online, this project led me to get involved in not-for-profit work around the world. There are some incredible initiatives helping to keep girls in schools in poor areas where hygiene is an issue.
Most recently, I rode my bike from Austin, Texas to Boston, Massachusetts with Sustainable Cycles: a pedal powered journey across America to give workshops about reusable menstrual products. We presented at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference, where we met amazing people doing incredible work in 27 countries.
There are some big changes afoot in our society, in the way we think and talk about “that time of the month”. As women are achieving more, feeling more liberated, and seeing more places, any equaliser we can find to make our lives easier is going to be a great help.
As an athlete and outdoor lover, convenience is the biggest factor for me. Knowing I’m improving my health, helping the environment, and saving money, is also a big win. Since using my cup, I’ve also felt more connected with my body, and (believe it or not) find myself looking forward to my period sometimes. Learning to track my cycle, and have discussions with my friends, has helped reduce the embarrassment and shame I’ve felt for so long about my period. Ultimately, switching to a menstrual cup isn’t going to work for absolutely everyone, but I strongly encourage you to give it a try- and if you like it, tell your friends!