In 2015, I underwent a laparoscopic surgery for an enlarged ovarian cyst. While I recovered from the surgery, I frequently contracted rashes and urinary tract infections (UTIs). Initially, my doctor chalked it up to my low levels of immunity as an after-effect of surgery. Over time, I recovered from the surgery but had to frequently deal with infections and rashes. Medically female bodies are more susceptible to contracting UTIs and I have known female friends who contracted infections from time to time. Mine, however, were more recurrent and frequent than the normal. I tried everything – Repeated dosages of antibiotics, ointments, syrups, hydration, homoeopathy, allopathy, copious amounts of cranberry juices. I even reduced the usage of public toilets including at my workplace. However, nothing could stop the recurrent infection. At this point rashes and infections became a part of my reality. Something that refused to go away and hence I had to learn to live with it. Since I was dealing with a health problem located in my genital area, talking about it openly with peers was also difficult- because again, shame!
My ordeal continued for three years. In the meanwhile, I started reading about the need to make a switch to more sustainable consumption and lives, and finally in 2018, I made the switch to a menstrual cup. The switch to menstrual cup meant easy, hassle-free periods and something else – my stubborn rashes, itchiness and UTI’s were suddenly a thing of the past. I am happy to report that I haven’t seen them since.
So, this was my story. There are millions like me who get these rashes, infections or irritations but are unaware of the reasons causing them just like I was for the past so many years. I have a very close friend who suffered infections and rashes followed by wrong treatment that aggravated her problems exponentially. She missed a year at college because of the physical and mental health issues she was facing as a result of this aggravated form of infections.
Why did these happen? Disposable sanitary napkins! Yes! the excess amount of carcinogenic, acetonic chemicals was the reason why my vagina and urethra were always angry. Like me, so many vaginas and urethras are suffering the ordeal even as we speak. This was the turning point for me. I decided that no one else should suffer like I did. This is how I initiated my journey into the domain of sexual and reproductive health.
Initially, I started creating social media videos to explain the process of using the cup. I experimented with washable cloth pads and decided to raise awareness about these products among my peers and colleagues. Soon Boondh (an organization based out of Bangalore working towards menstrual health and producing menstrual cups) and Ecofemme (a social enterprise working out of Auroville towards menstruation and production of cloth pads) lend their support in my quest for spreading awareness about sustainable menstruation. Over time, I reached out to other non-profit organizations in Kolkata in order to take forward this task of awareness building through sessions and workshops with young girls, women and organization staff as well.
In the process, I have had a few realisations:
Most narratives around menstruation are restricted to ‘managing’ it and/or the need to maintain hygiene around the time of menstruation. While these are important narrative points, they are narrow in outlook. We need to broaden the narrative and ask more inclusive and introspecting questions like – How can we understand menstruation in its totality? Acknowledging nature’s creativity, we need to move beyond and talk about the mental effects of the menstrual cycle. For eg, every time I suffered a recurrent infection, I used to question myself constantly that what am I doing wrong? I did follow the routine of medicine intake, enough water to drink etc as prescribed by my doctor, but why does it always come back? My friend was constantly put through blood tests to either detect herpes or detect HIV, and imagine the toll it takes on your mental health! One questions oneself, and it continues to haunt even after the test results come clean, because the physical ordeal still continues.
And then there is the other conversation – that of gender inclusivity. We need to acknowledge that not all menstruators are women and their struggle to deal with menstruation in an already taboo-ridden society creates a double burden. Why do we talk so less about the suffering that comes with menstruation for those who do not identify themselves as a cis woman? Or someone who is suffering from reproductive health issues like a PCOS or Endometriosis? Why is it still difficult to bring these conversations up till date? As a sustainable menstruator, I feel that our conversations on sustainable menstruation have to be woven around narratives of intersectionality of gender, sexuality, mental health, feminism, and the queer movement.
Fortunately, these conversations are slowly gaining prominence. Recently I got to be part of a fellowship under the Gender and Sexuality Lab offered by Orikalankini and Nazariya. Here I am continuously being exposed to conversations and narratives that addressed questions on sustainable menstruation in the most inclusive manner. These conversations are in no way mainstream and remain limited to these few organizations. I feel sustainability in our lives, bodies and environment cannot be ever complete without considering the narratives around all of them.
Being a cis woman, I have discovered that sustainable menstruation brings one closer to their own bodies. For e.g. the use of a menstrual cup or cloth pads help one establish a more synergetic relationship with their menstrual blood (which they are otherwise taught to be impure of dirty) and enables to connect back to the bodies which has been a common part of many ancient cultures. Sustainable menstruation teaches us the importance of reading the patterns in our physiologies and mental state which then enables a menstruator to connect back to the environment as well.
With the advent of commercially produced disposable sanitary napkins (DSNs), we have been continuously bombarded with ideas/beliefs like menstrual fluid is dirty, vaginas and menstrual fluid should always be smelling flowery, cover up the natural fragrance of blood with scented DSNs, the only hygienic way to handling menstruation is to use a chemical ridden DSN. One way for me to understand why DSN became so popular, may have been because it is a product that absorbs the ‘dirty’ or ‘unwanted’ blood but also can be immediately ‘thrown away’ so that one does not have to see, feel, smell or touch the blood- the same blood and mucus which is necessary in creating another life in the womb. It is a symbolic expression of consumerism in disguise of ‘hygiene management’ and/or ‘waste management’ where anything that does not please the patriarchal perception or standards of aesthetics, can be and should be immediately thrown away discreetly and fresh pack of products can be consumed/used to continue the cycle. I often find it similar to how we treat our daily waste.
Hence, menstruation has to be understood in all its entirety. I am trying to incorporate this inclusivity in my workshops for menstruators. The change has to start somewhere, the questions need to be raised at some point, the perception has to move beyond the realm of just hygiene management. Otherwise, menstruation and sustainability continue to remain alien to one’s body, continuing to feed taboos, shame, guilt, myths and stigma around it.
So, start the conversation and, happy periods!
About the writer: Sanjina Gupta is an independent sexual and reproductive health rights professional and she is passionate in bringing a change in understanding menstrual health better. She is associated with Boondh and Ecofemme and has done collaborations with many organisations in Kolkata to deliver workshops regarding menstrual health and hygiene.
This is the first article in the series to create awareness on menstrual hygiene. The last article in the series will be published on Menstrual Hygiene Day On 28th May.
In this week, we will cover a variety of topics around menstruation, which are eye-opening, thought-provoking and will inform you more about sustainable menstruation options. We urge our readers to stay tuned and participate in this crusade. #MenstrualHygieneDay: ‘It’s Time for Action’