(this painting is from my #30DaysLeafArtChallenge in 2014)
It’s the Earth Day week. Earth Day was celebrated on April 22 – around the world, and it’s heartening to see so many indivuduals, organizations, groups, families and communities pledging to restore the earth and diving into action. The causes to take action for are innumerable. From – waste management to clean air and water to chemical-free farming to cleaning the rivers and shore lines.
But, being a woman, a mother and a child of this mother earth, the one thing that I personally feel for is women’s health, our natural (menstrual) cycle and it’s connection with and impact on mother earth. The fact that this natural process that’s at the core of a woman’s being can be so life-threatening to the health of our planet is really disturbing. That, this bodily cycle so intrinsic to female reproductive ability, her health and well being can lead to health risk for women herself, is an urgent matter to look into.
In this article, I’m sharing my own story about my experience, trials and errors and learnings in my search for sustainable menstrual wearing. Also, read on to know what cost we women and our earth need to pay for those seemingly hyigenic and ‘convenient’ disposable menstrual pads; and what viable and natural options do we have available today.
I wasn’t introduced to the sanitary pads in the first decade of my menstrual years. Okay, I sort of knew that there are disposable pads out there but my mom never thought of it as a viable, affordable and healthy option. She’d never used any in her life and she didn’t even think those would work. She probably thought they were a gimmick. Really, that’s what her line of thought was. So, I started off using Khadi towels folded like pads. Right from the word go, my flow was heavy. So, I had to use thick layers of cloth. Goes without saying, that was uncomfortable – to wear – and an ordeal to wash. The whole cleaning affair was time-consuming. And, I was only a kid, damnit! But, it didn’t look like there was any other option around – except for the disposable pad. I figured that my friends and cousins were using it, but I couldn’t fathom wearing a plastic-ky thing so close to my body. So, I endured all that lengthy washing sessions. For a decade at least.
Then came the time to move on from home – to another city – to live in a hostel where nearly 50 girls were sharing 8-10 bathrooms. I couldn’t possibly keep a bathroom engaged for an hour or more cleaning the menstrual cloth. But, I did. By waking up early in the first three days. Like, real early to beat the queue. But then, what about in winters with the freezing cold tap water. Oh well. I endured that too.
But, then, that was the limit. I had to resort to the disposable sanitary pads. My periods were still heavy. And, I had to use more than five pads in a day in the first three days. In the initial days, wearing the pad made me feel sick. How to dispose it off was a big question.
Also, a bigger question hovered at the back of my mind – “who” would collect all this garbage and where will it end up.
Filling Up The Earth with Menstrual Waste?
Well, where else is it going to end up but fill up lands – all that non-biodegradeable waste with toxic chemicals leaching into ground water and poisoning the air. Reports such as these made me think deep and think hard: “On average, a woman is said to have 3500 days of menstruation. The blog Eco Localizer estimates that if a woman menstruates for 33 years (between the ages of 12 and 45) and uses about 20-25 pads per cycle, she ends up throwing away 8,000-10,000 pads in her lifetime. Some have it that a single woman generates about 125 – 150 kg of sanitary waste during her menstruation years. “
And, going back to my other concern – what about the persons/s who has to do this dirty job of sorting through all this waste. Other than posing serious health hazard – having to sort through mountains of waste – unclassified as it is, in India – wet, dry, plastic, paper, diapers, sanitary pads – all dumped together; isn’t it undignified and demeaning for that human being to go through the soiled sanitary napkins – that are most often not even disposed off in an appropriate manner.
A Threat to My Body; to my Feminine Instincts
When I moved from years of using cloth towels to wearing those disposables, my body revolted. The natural instinct was, “no, it can’t be right for my skin and for my body part.” Of-course, my instinct was right. It’s somehow often been – about my bodily needs, about my children’s’ needs (unschooling, breastfeeding).
Something that’s made primarily with plastic and chemicals can’t be healthy for a woman’s body. But, there’s much more that goes into that “clean, white, hygenic” sanitary pads (and tampon) that’s not disclosed, let alone discussed. It’s never mentioned on the packaging; the companies that manufacture it don’t reveal it. But, we can figure that out by comparing. An organic cotton pad, when it’s burned, will burn slow and clean – without leaving any residual soot. But, when you burn a sanitary napkin, it will exude black smoke and thick residue. (watch this movie – “pads on fire”).
Our skin is the largest organ in the body. It’s also the thinnest and ultra permeable. The skin around the vaginal area more so. So, whatever you expose your skin to, will flow directly into the blood stream – without giving a chance to the digestive enzymes to flush out the toxins (like it happens when you eat something inappropriate.) Once in the blood stream, those toxic substances will be circulated to every part of the body including brain and delicate organs.
So, you see – it doesn’t take much to understand what sort of chemicals might be getting into our blood stream (through exposure to skin) by wearing a sanitary napkin that’s more than 80% plastic – non-bio degradeable, made with toxic chemicals that leaches BPA and BPS. The same chemicals that have been related to female infertility by disrupting embryonic development; are also linked with heart diseases and cancer. Chlorine, that is used as a bleach for that pristine white napkin can create toxic dioxin and other disinfection-by-products (DBPs) such as trihalomethane. *Studies show that dioxin is a serious public health threat that has no “safe” level of exposure! Published reports show that even low or trace levels of dioxins may be linked to:
- Abnormal tissue growth in the abdomen and reproductive organs
- Abnormal cell growth throughout the body
- Immune system suppression
- Hormonal and endocrine system disruption
There are alternatives.
Healthy, Sustainable Alternatives to Disposable Sanitary Napkins
I wish, oh, how I wish now that we had readily-available cloth pads then. Cloth pads like these: made with quality cotton, in beautiful designs and nicely contoured to sit comfortably in the panties. Or, if not this, someone would have at least taught me to stitch my own pads. For, cloth pads are any-day healthier – for the woman’s body and for the environment. The beauty of cloth pads is we can stitch our own either with new cotton fabric or old ones – can upcycle bedsheets, khadi towels etc. All we need to do is wash thoroughly and dry them in glaring sunlight (no dark, hideous corners – due to the social stigma attached to menstruation). Here’s a thought-provoking movie (titled – Masika. Must watch) on this topic.
My friend Aravinda is right when she says that it’s the mind-set that need to change around menstruation. The general attitude (in India at least) is one of scorn; as though it’s a curse to be endured. Women don’t think menstruation can be comfortable and easy and worth spending on. The result is unhygienic (and uncomfortable) ways and means that disrespect a woman’s body, that demeans this natural and sacred natural cycle that’s the essence of the feminine.
And, then I found the Menstrual Cup (Shecup, in India)
The disposable sanitary napkin didn’t augur well for me long enough. So, I reverted to my khadi towels. And then, to cloth pads, for some time. I also tinkered with these chemical-free, bio-degradeable (disposable) pads. But, degradable or non-degradable, the question of disposing those off in an appropriate manner still remained. Plus, it would still add to the growing mountain of sanitary waste.
After years of trial and error, I’ve found something that is just right for me. Yes, it’s the menstrual cup I’m talking about. It’s now available in India by the brand name Shecup. I’ve used it enough to say that it’s by far the best solution – for my health, mobility, freedom, for the health of my earth. And, for the spiritual connection I feel during my menstruating days.
Shecup – a Life-changing Experience
With a 1.5 year old, who’s really active, who wants to be playing in water all the time, and who wants me around in her play – wearing the Shecup feels as though I’m not wearing anything between my legs. Yes, seriously! While the cloth pad or a disposable pad comes in the way of mobility, it keeps you conscious all the time, the Shecup lets me do every activity that I would do in my non-menstruating days. I can swim (in the pool, in the sea), I can do yoga, I can be myself without worrying like I used to – when wearing pads – that it might move from its place and stain my clothes.
Shecup defines freedom in every way. Freedom to be. Freedom from waste management. Freedom from disposing. When I get into the bathroom, all I need to do is reach into my body to remove the cup and empty the warm, deep red blood into the toilet. (It’s something else to reach out and collect your menstruating blood and be able to see it!) I run the cup under the tap water, wear it back, wash my hands and voila – am out of the toilet. Nothing to dispose off. No soiling. No waste.
It’s healthy. No plastic. No chemicals.
It works for women with light flow, medium flow or heavy flow (like me).
It’s easy to carry, easy to clean, easy to store.
It’s affordable and sustainable. One-time buy. May last a life-time!
Now, for the answers to all your questions about the Menstrual Cup.
This blog was really useful in answering to all my big and small queries when I started off with my Shecup. It also has a demo video in there that explains how to wear and remove your menstrual cup. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, I’ll just share this blog link (by way of linking, I intend to honour the efforts of this lady who’s put genuine effort to help those who want to try out the menstrual cup).
For those of you outside India, there are many options – Diva Cup, Moon Cup and many more. The blog I shared above reviews various options. Check it out. And, this article – it explores various alternative/natural menstrual options.
Let’s Restore the Sacred Feminine – Our Own Bodies and Our Mother Earth.
So, let’s bestow the sacredness, the meaning and the dignity back to menstruation. Let’s remove the mind-set of curse around it. Our menstrual cycle guides us about our health – our mood, hormonal balance and imbalance, about our thyroid condition, our metabolic health, our sex lives, our reproductive ability. Not just an indicator of health, it also speaks to our creative, emotional and spiritual selves.
Yes, my menstruating days are more than just bodily cleansing. How I feel during those days is beyond words at times. I won’t associate it with depression – as our society tends to think. I’ve felt very close to my introspective self. I’ve felt vulnerable. I’ve felt like I need more and more love. I’ve felt I need to hug more, kiss more, spend quiet time with myself. I’ve felt closer to the elements of nature. I’ve felt very creative and intuitive.
By committing to any of these sustainable ways (cloth pads, menstrual cups) for our menstrual cycles, we’ll be restoring our own bodies and helping in reducing the hazardous waste resulting from toxic sanitary napkins and tampons.
What’s your experience with menstrual wearing? Have you used cloth pads, menstrual cups or any other natural alternative? Please share your story. And, please share this article in your circle to spread awareness about natural and sustainable ways to manage menstrual hygiene.
Let’s take action for this #PeriodofChange
About the Campaign
#PeriodofChange is a 5-week campaign starting April 22nd – Earth Day – till May 28th, Menstrual Hygiene Day organized by The Kachra Project along with Earth&us in partnership with Chintan, SheCup, EcoFemme and The Alternative.
#PeriodofChange calls for concerted action on integrated menstrual hygiene management so that women can choose safe, hygienic and sustainable products. It discusses and documents best practices in collection and disposal of menstrual hygiene waste.
#PeriodofChange brings together women and men, all experts in different fields, to bring about systemic changes in the sector of menstrual hygiene management.