Ch 1. The Great Blind Eye In The Sky.
Cup & I is a series where I document my journey with the menstrual cup. It is a peek into my brain & lifestyle as a female through her mid 20’s in Bangalore city and what I hope becomes a dialogue on how we see waste, the environment, evolving menstrual practices and our own bodies. So recalling all my hesitation, emotions, moral judgements and messes, here’s my story:
It was the August of 2013 when I started research for a storybook on food biodiversity in Indian cities. Thanks to this project my conscience was constantly under attack with environmental existentialism. It can get pretty dark in there pretty fast — what does being a fast food / fast fashion consumer mean? Whytf are my cookies individually wrapped and what is refined sugar doing to the earth and my body? Am I fully aware of this privilege that affords me food wastage? Where do I fall in the web at the heart of which is farmer suicide? Do I have to completely give up McDonalds fries, forever?
Don’t get me wrong, my eco-conscience isn’t in check, it doesn’t ever translate to better practice. I take unnecessarily long baths, air-conditioned solo cab rides, shop at sales, definitely eat my McDonalds fries. But somewhere, when the plastic bags clog the drains right outside your home and you’re ankle deep in sewage or you cross a landfill just outside the city and the invisible truth of manual scavengers stares you straight in the face, and you’re counting everyone you can blame, you have to turn the finger inwards. The dark, wet, murky side of everything I consume grabs me by my heels (not even a metaphor). In this city of 1.23 Crores there is no denying my role as a consumer and a producer of waste. With every cookie wrapper. And every sanitary pad.
I guess you can see how this leads up to the story of Cup & I, in my early 20’s as someone at strife with her lifestyle, angry at her ignorance, tempted by convenience, in denial of choice, before the realization hits that the alternatives are quite literally waiting at the threshold. But it didn’t fall in place just like that — from wanting an alternative to buying a menstrual cup. Nope. It took 4 long years.
Coming back to my research, it led me to some very interesting places, people and blogs. My first farmers market for instance — ironically located in a very high-end cafe in Indiranagar where I bought nut-butters and fresh rosemary. MEH. To an organic food store where I bought Guntur chillies leading to a conversation with an IIM student from rural Andhra Pradesh who wanted to start organic farming in his village. I think traversing this complexity not only brought me a step closer to products but also a better understanding of the stakeholders and commerce of sustainability. I couldn’t just disassociate my personal life from this. As we learn to run our own households - adulting, choice, need, affordability, everything suddenly starts to count. In the middle of this, as I browsed one link after another, I came across this page: http://www.thealternative.in/lifestyle/every-woman-guide-to-eco-friendly-menstrual-products/. This was my introduction to the menstrual cup.
Great information, thank you. Never putting it to use. I was extremely comfortable with my disposable pads and liners. The monthly ritual of buying, using, disposing is something I’ve followed since I was 12 and there’s NOTHING that comes before this convenience. I used to associate the crinkly whiteness of the pad with the relief of no stains, no overflow, no fuss during the most uncomfortable time of the month. No swimming? No problem. Small sacrifices are part of the period. The fact that I could strip the pad off, roll it up, wrap it in its plastic and then layers of newspaper and toss it in the dustbin gave me a sweet, sterile satisfaction. The more I distanced myself from the blood, the better. Like every other man and woman on this planet, I could pretend that PERIODS as a phenomenon, MY period especially, Does Not Exist. PERIOD.
Except when it does. At the bottom of that dustbin. And then manually collected, maybe segregated, maybe not, tossed in a landfill. Maybe incinerated, maybe not. Eventually becoming toxic gas / plastic waste / biowaste / open-air breeding ground for bacteria / posioning a lake. I wouldn’t know, I washed the responsibility off my hands. I am Lady Macbeth the Second. I am done in 3 more days.
It was so easy to ignore the fact that I had already read about an alternative when I was so blissful in the convenience of what society, commercials and my experience told me was the best option - pads and denial. It was easy to look the other way even though a whole different direction had already opened up to me. Menstrual cup, shmenstrual cup. Hippie, impractical, alternative crap out to give me TSS and make my life hell. I went back to the far reaches of my cupboard. Cuddled my pristine white pads. “I’ll never let you go,” I cooed into the green plastic bag with its sweet chemical odour and let it drift me into the deep slumber of feigned ignorance that night.
This was the beginning of a long period of cognitive dissonance. Even though I read more and more reviews about menstrual cups, I kept pushing the thought of using one to the back of my mind like a pair of under-used running shoes and a dress that one buys but doesn’t feel one deserves. Oh wait. I have those too. It kind of summarizes what the next 2 years was about. Welcome to my mid-20s. It has been hormonal hell. I’m feeling the effect of my lifestyle on my body — acne is back, my hair is thinner than ever, I’m growing a belly, hello chin hair and backache is not a myth! Being a non-smoker / drinker doesn’t matter. I’m stressing out in my job, sleeping as little as 4 hours, running from one engagement to another, making very, very poor food choices, walking around in pollution. I discover borderline hypothyroidism and PCOD. Add to this falling under the charm of flawlessness on social media, the internet, store shelves. The negative effects of buying the wrong products and cover up. It adds to my insecurity, shakiness and affects my self-esteem, projects this negativity and envy on others, hurts my most valued relationships and you know what…
a menstrual cup won’t solve any of this.
Then why is it relevant in this already excessive post? I suppose what I’m trying to do here is asking you to relate. These are the pressures we have. The blues are real. Our daily lives are time bound. And our bodies are already under many traps. It takes a lot of perspective to make even the smallest shift that gives you a healthy result and reassures you of having made a good choice. Having done something right and a 100% for yourself. So if you haven’t yet, don’t beat yourself up. If you’re still reading, you already want to. I was very impressionable, but mostly to the voice of helplessness. I was choosing my battles and the environment took a back seat.
During this period, I came across the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the pad-man who is famous for taking low-cost sanitary napkins to rural India, through his Ted Talk and was immediately impressed. I rented the documentary Menstrual Man on Vimeo for 72 hours and shared my credentials with all my friends on WhatsApp and asked them to give it a watch. I was a sucker for secondary research.
What more could we need as a society?! Here was a man, who was breaking the silence around menstruation in villages and setting up independent low-cost sanitary pad plants in remote villages. It helped women shun traditional menstrual solutions like ash, bark, cloth and prevent fatal disease!
It took me still longer to realize the life-cycle of a pad to see what we really need. It stared back at me, through layers and layers from the bottom of my dustbin. It’s reported in the Clean India Journal, that an estimated potential of 9000 tonnes of sanitary waste (432 million pads) is being generated annually in India. Read more here. I would assume that most of this waste comes from cities. So what we’re doing by creating low cost sanitary pad projects is not only taking the culture of sanitary pads from cities to villages and tribal populations but also the culture of non biodegradable sanitary waste. It is an irresponsible and incomplete decision that we are making for them and introducing a waste that even we in the city are not equipped to handle.
The main problem as I see it in traditional societies, no wait — any society, with menstruation is more a problem of silence and lack of agency than anything. No wonder that a phenomenon as old as humankind itself has seen so little research and development. Popular methods that exist for menstrual hygiene and handling menstrual waste are still something that harm, imprison, shame and silence women. We have grossly miscalculated menstrual waste and how long it will take to biologically degrade because of the taboo and indifference around it.
In the very close future, if our menstrual hygiene practices of using sanitary pads and tampons don’t change, the waste will pile higher than monuments. Yet, as individuals, as consumers, as industries, as cities, as a society we seek the convenience of ignoring it. If an all seeing power in the sky — God, the International Space Station, an Alien probe, our collective consciousness as humankind, what have you, were to observe this waste, it would still turn a great blind eye towards it. So great is our discomfort of looking menstrual waste in the eye, and female bodies. On the contrary, sometimes the harshest gaze is the female’s own.