I got a Keeper in my 20s. And I kept it to myself.
The Keeper is a muddy-red-coloured rubber menstrual cup that looks like a metastasised pencil eraser.
It wasn’t pretty. And it sure wasn’t cheap, either. Maybe $30—no small outlay of cash for a retail shift-scrounging early-‘90s undergrad; thirty bucks was more than my entire power bill back then.
But I loved it immediately; adored it. No more four-hour tampons, no more packaging waste, no bleach, no weird “scents,” no chemicals. And after I swallowed the capital cost I appreciated the monthly amortizing value of my little period pal.
But I definitely kept my Keeper to myself.
For the uninitiated, the concept of the menstrual cup is simple. You fold and insert the cup—about the size of a shot glass—into your vagina. You empty the contents after eight to twelve hours, rinse it, and pop it back up there. With a menstrual cup, you can see and smell the fluid. You know the colour and the consistency. It is your body and its processes, magnified.
And therein lies the problem with the Keeper in a public bathroom.
You’re on your period loud and proud when you carry a bloody menstrual cup to a public bathroom sink, flip the taps, and watch the remnants of your mucus-y flow carry down into the drain. The women applying lipstick next over are not always accustomed to this. Back when I got my Keeper, most of my friends even hadn’t heard of them. Today, you can buy them at Lawtons, Walmart and in grocery stores, but menstrual cup-users aren’t the majority. About sixty percent of women report using tampons as their primary method of period-wrangling; most of the rest, pads.
I don’t shave my underarms; I go topless on any beach where it feels right. But Keeper-rinsing wasn’t the hill I was ready to die on in the name of body acceptance. So, I opted for the discreet, if somewhat ineffective, in-stall toilet-paper wipe.
My friend Nancy? Un-uh.
It was Nancy who introduced me to the Keeper, which, in those days in Halifax, you could only purchase at the newfangled environmental store, on the shelf next to the crystal rock deodorant. Nancy used hers, talked about hers, showed off hers. Nancy loved her Keeper. One time, her fluffy blond hound, Darcy, ate her Keeper when she left it unattended in the bathroom. That dog adored the smell of blood. Nancy, too, it seems. She bought a new one and kept-on Keepin’ on.
Nancy’s take on the public bathroom rinse was simple: it was necessity. Not unfortunate necessity. Not shameful necessity. Wonderful, welcome, please-excuse-me-I-need-to-do-this-thank-you-bye-bye-now necessity. Nancy rinsing her Keeper at a public sink was an act of defiance. She was taking a stand for herself and all women by way of freaking out bystanders who were too prudish to embrace their periods the way she did. She didn’t know who they were; she didn’t care. She waved her Keeper like a placard: I am woman, hear me pour.
But Nancy wasn’t aiming, I don’t think, for a revolution in menstrual admiration. For her, mere recognition was the goal—plain acceptance that navigating periods was the business of the bathroom, public or not. Sort of like: I know you deal this, too. Or you have. Or you will. Because, heck, we pretty much all do, at some point. So? No biggie.
Period-wise, Nancy was way out of the closet.
Me? I was still in there, with the door firmly locked.
In the field of public bathroom research (yes, of course there is such a field—how could humanity not study the culture and mechanics of such an everyday institution?) menstruation is often called “the third elimination.”
And that’s third not by factor of volume or frequency, but of shame.
We are embarrassed of peeing and pooping. (Let’s not even deny this. I am revising this essay on a plane and I began by reducing the font size from my usual 13-point to 11.) Going to the bathroom is a private matter in our society—quite opposite the late Romans who’ve left ample evidence of communal toileting—and our insecurities and neuroses only magnify when we take this private business into public spaces, be they bathrooms in concert halls, schools or hotel lobbies. Some of us refuse to empty our bowels anywhere but home; some of us pad toilet bowls with gobs of paper in order to lessen the sound of our urine hitting the water.
But menstruation? Menstruation is shame beyond.
For millennia, female has meant lesser. And the female body has been an object to control and fear—powerful and unpredictable, a site of unknown ickiness. (Remember, though, not all menstruators are women; many transmen get periods, too. And when was the last time you saw a tampon dispenser in a men’s room?)
Popular media only adds to the mystique and mystery, the invisibility of menstruation. The tone of most commercials for menstrual products is one of sly secrecy: “discretely pocket-sized,” “ultra-thin” and “you barely know its there.” An unnatural blue liquid that looks like melted Mr. Freeze dispatched from a glass pipette has long been the norm for illustrating the absorptive power of menstrual products on television.
This is what we get to represent a commonplace state of human health. One quarter of all women of reproductive age are menstruating at any given time. On average, women spend three thousand days over a lifetime menstruating. Can we have just a wee bit of space to have a real conversation about it?
In October 2017, UK pad company Bodyform took a turn from Mr. Freeze-land. The company, in a series of online ads, not only used red liquid to illustrate menstrual blood, but doubled down on killing period euphemism and double-speak with the slogan “Periods are normal. Showing them should be too.” One ad even shows blood dripping down a woman’s leg in a shower.
It’s a start. But no one’s waving around bloody Keepers in the mall bathroom just yet.
I gave up my original Keeper after about a decade. A Keeper is not a keeper at all if you get your first one before you have kids; women must move a size up after vaginal birth (which is at once horrifying and true and yet somewhat unbelievable since nothing feels different up there). I accidentally lit my second Keeper on fire boiling it dry on the stove. Such is life. My third is a Diva Cup, which is the clear silicone hipper little sister of the Keeper. It should stick with me through the end, barring any unplanned pyrotechnics.
So, I suppose there’s still time for me to take the plunge and start rinsing at the public bathroom sink. Or at least vow to increase the font size next time I’m writing about my period on a plane.