by Neesha Noronha
Neesha Noronha on eco-friendly ways of dealing with one’s periods
I started menstruating early. I’ll never forget the day because it was the day before I started 7th grade. In a new school in a new country. My mother brought the sanitary napkin to me in the bathroom and started to explain how to use it. I brushed her off; she was too late. My peer group and reading had beat her to it. Still, she offered me a few options. The ones you had to attach to a belt, the ones that stuck to your panties, and even a panty with a plastic lining to prevent stains. I rejected the last option instantly, it made too much noise. As it is, I was determined not to draw attention to myself. The first was too much trouble. The second it was.
And like many other girls my age, that’s generally what my preoccupation with menstruation was. Don’t show. Don’t stain. Carry on “as usual.” In my convent school uniform this was fairly easy. ‘Double protection’ was a pair of shorts worn on non PE days. Changing and disposal was relatively easy with prominent pockets to surreptitously carry those unmentionables wrapped in newspaper to and fro and out into the dustbin.
Over the years my only concern was to cope with my periods as conveniently as possible. With more independence and movement, college brought a change in brands and models. More absorbency and wings for days out and about town, doubled when the flow was heavy, or wings unavailable. Broader at back for nights. When I became more aware of the irritation brought on by the synthetic “plasticky” bits, I became even more picky. Natural feel models suited me better.
My favourite mode of disposal consisted of wrapping the pads in newspaper, even though my conscience twinged every time I remembered a girl friend’s comment. Brought up in a Jain household, she’d always use old envelopes because newspapers were a symbol of knowledge, and therefore disrespectful to use. Convenience trumped conscience most times. However, I did avoid plastic bags – I felt guilty enough as it is. I wasn’t yet environmentally committed enough to remove the plastic sheet and then dispose of the pad. Then, an internship in Udaipur happened. I was mortified. What was hidden away by Mumbai’s disposal system was in my face. Dogs, and subsequently cows, would tear into the garbage bags and into the sanitary pads, leaving them exposed. I felt exposed because only people of my class used pads. Somehow I knew these small town women were not spending so much money on disposable sanitary wear, nor revealing their cycles outside their homes. Worse, I was subjecting others to dealing with my waste. Forgotten conversations about the Pune wastepickers’ struggle with the hazards, and the indignity they face came rushing back to haunt me.
I don’t remember how else I escaped this assault on my conscience except by leaving. I was off again to more urban settings – the US, where once again I could forget my role in environmental pollution and social injustice. Luckily for me, soon enough, I found a local organic co-op which helped me start to address my complicity. At very least I could use organic cotton, more biodegradable-recyclable products including moving to tampons. They were convenient too – easier to carry and hide, and less likely to leak or show.
I soon began to do a core worker shift at the co-op (to avail of a substantial discount). Eventually, I found my place among the somewhat hippie crowd and stumbled one day onto a conversation by a veteran. She’d gone the gamut of reusable, washable pads and the statement they made in her college days, to disposable tampons. And now she was faithful to the “keeper.” A menstrual cup made of rubber that holds the menstrual blood inside till you decide to empty it. Since it doesn’t absorb anything nor expose it to the air outside your body, it is considered a less likely candidate for toxic shock. Assuming you use it correctly, of course.
I returned to Mumbai and brought back a menstrual cup with me. However, I found that inserting its stiff rubber was not something I was able to get past. A braver friend actually brought me (from Canada) a softer silicone version of the cup, but I still couldn’t get past the insertion. So for the longest time I switched between what I considered the lesser evil – tampons, and the more inconvenient reusable pads (bought from Auroville). Hiding the fact that I was menstruating was no longer of concern to me. On the contrary, I’d learned to respect my cycle. I no longer tried to live “as usual” during those days. I slowed down and rested more.
Still, it was my love of travel, and the fear of reliving that small town revelation, that tipped the scales in favour of the cup. I was in Agartala, Tripura, after travelling in Nagaland. I could have my hosts/friends escort me into town to buy something and have that something thrown into the garbage heap just behind their small home. Or I could use the reusable pads, and hang them out to dry in the school compound they lived in. Or I could use the cup. So finally, after years I did. And am I glad I did.
The cup is just about the most convenient sanitary product I’ve ever used. It is an investment rather than expense. Not only do you not throw it away, you don’t throw your money away. There’s very little ecological footprint. And no one else has to handle your waste for you. It’s perfect for India where all bathroom activity in the city and villages assume you need water. You just wash with soap water and reuse. There are just two sizes, for women under 30 and who’ve never had a vaginal birth, and for others. And the only inconvenience is getting over the insertion and removal bit, which, once you’ve mastered, takes little time and effort. It almost never leaks or shifts. If you’re an active person like me you can swim with it, bike with it, do cartwheels with it. You can sleep with it. In fact, if like me you have ever fantasised about posing as a nude model, I’ve heard from another veteran that the cup is the thing to use when you have your periods! For those of you who are ready to try the cup, it’s now available in India. Even though the brand here is “Shecup,” I still think of it as “a keeper.”
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