Go with the flow: Menstrual Health Panel sparks dialogue of choice, empowerment, sustainability


Photo illustrations from top left: kotex.com, raisingmyboychick.com, johnnythundersmidnitespookfrolic.blogspot.com, tressugar.com, kanga-care.com, diapersafari.com.

Photo illustrations from top left: kotex.com, raisingmyboychick.com, johnnythundersmidnitespookfrolic.blogspot.com, tressugar.com, kanga-care.com, diapersafari.com.
Photo illustrations from top left: kotex.com, raisingmyboychick.com, johnnythundersmidnitespookfrolic.blogspot.com, tressugar.com, kanga-care.com, diapersafari.com.

Women flock to the front of the room, forming a line that nearly reaches the door. Each stakes out her spot, standing on tiptoes and peering toward the front of the line. This competitive spirit is usually fostered on campus by the promise of free food. But these women have their eye on a different prize: a free Diva Cup.

On Thursday, February 7, the student group Mac Activists for Choice organized a menstrual health panel and Diva Cup giveaway in JBD. Alizarin Menninga ’14 said the goal of the panel was to “start a conversation about menstrual health, reproductive justice and sexual health.” The three main panelists included Liz Jansen, a visiting professor in the biology department; Dan Buck, the programming and grassroots organizing for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota; and Natalie Harter, the clinic director at Family Tree Clinic. In addition to the “expert” panelists, there were also four Mac student panelists.

Creating a space

As the panelists arranged themselves under the stage lights, the auditorium filled up quickly with students. The audience was almost entirely women, with a few token men, and the friendly chatting and excitement was only quieted down with the screech of the microphone and Menninga announcing the start of the panel. Although she was worried about the turnout in a space as large as JBD, she said the turnout exceeded her expectations. “They filled the entire space, both physically and with their positive energy, enthusiasm and questions,” Menninga said.

The dialogue throughout the panel touched on many aspects of menstrual and sexual health, from the nitty gritty details of the menstrual cycle, to the Diva Cup, to the TLC show “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.” But a theme throughout was the need for open dialogue about menstrual health.

Buck, the only male voice on the panel, said he has become much more comfortable with having conversations about his wife’s Diva Cup. And apparently everyone in his household has, too, he said with a laugh. He often finds the Diva Cup stuck to different things around the house, a clear indication that his kids have been involved. But returning to a more serious note, Buck said, “It’s about having that healthy relationship and talking about the self-care that your partner uses. We should all have those conversations.”

In addition to emphasizing dialogue in relationships, the event created a forum for public discussion on this traditionally private subject. “I feel like this is a discourse that doesn’t happen in most other situations, except in pretty private, behind-closed-doors-in-somebody’s-room, girl-to-girl conversations,” Menninga said. “I think the audience’s participation overall was astounding because it was so open.”

Not-so-sexy education

These conversations are supposed to start in middle school health classes, Buck said, but they are often lacking in content and depth. “In most schools you don’t get sex ed,” he says. “It’s mostly the basics—your body is going to change and you’re going to get weird.”

Many Macalester students echo the deficiencies of sex ed in their own personal experiences. “I was always taught to feel ashamed of [my period],” said Mina Bakhtiar ’13, a student panelist. “It’s such a troubling mentality to have.”

For one reason or another, the middle and high school health classrooms are often not a space of productive dialogue about women’s health issues. “I had a male baseball coach health teacher in high school, and he was probably inadequate in explaining anything female,” said Sonia Pollock ’15.

And in Minnesota, which is teeming with Catholic schools, abstinence-only mantras often ring out with little other discussion of sexual health. Sarah Hanlon ’16 said her health instruction in Catholic school was clear-cut and lumped with education about vices: “You don’t drink, you don’t do drugs, you don’t have sex,” Hanlon said. Talking about menstruation was apparently lost in the necessity to hammer these messages home, leaving most dialogue to go on between peers.

Even when menstrual health is discussed in middle and high school classrooms, it’s usually after students have been separated by gender. From the beginning, guys are thus taught that the subject of menstrual health is not for their ears to hear. “There wasn’t a high level of cross-sexual understanding of what the other group was going through,” Jeanne Stuart ’14 said. “I think men especially would benefit from that.”

This separation of genders in discussion and understanding of menstrual health continues into adulthood, long after the days of school health class. “I find that I feel more reserved, or maybe more weird, saying ‘vagina’ and ‘uterus’ and ‘cervix’ in front of guys,” Menninga said.

Stuart said she feels most comfortable talking about menstrual health with other women, and although she’ll open up to some men, the discussion is more limited. “It’s partially me preemptively filtering myself, but it’s also due to a few past experiences of pushback,” she said.

“Boys that I talk to are happy to listen, but definitely don’t engage as much,” Menninga said. “Some of them do ask questions and it really warms my heart, but other times people will just put up with my speech. It varies.”

An ‘exceptional’ community

Despite differences in health education from middle and high school, many students say that the Macalester campus environment provides a more comfortable and accepting space for dialogue about women’s health issues that are often swept under the table in other contexts.

Margaret Nemetz ’15 said her brother attends Notre Dame, a stark contrast to the Macalester environment. “He’s appalled by how much people talk about sexual and reproductive health here at Macalester,” Nemetz says. “He said he doesn’t think he’s seen the word vagina on [his] campus or even places where they sell condoms.”

Although the condoms sitting in the health and wellness center, I Love Female orgasm events and menstrual health panels might all seem commonplace at Macalester, Stuart emphasizes that “Mac is exceptional in its openness in relation to other communities.”

Menninga shared a story of a woman from the community who attended the event. She was not connected to Macalester, although she was invited by NARAL for Choice Minnesota (to which Mac Activists for Choice is related). “She wrote on our Facebook page how excited and happy she was that we were able to be having this conversation and how she really wished that she had been able to have access to this type of dialogue when she was our age, even, but hopefully much younger,” Menninga said.

Even after the event, “I’ve had so many random people come up to me and say how happy they were with the event, say that they’ve been so excited to use their Diva Cups and how much more open they are to talking about it,” Menninga said.

Diva Cups, sponges, cloths, oh my!

In addition to openness and dialogue at a community-wide level, education about women’s menstruation is also important at an individual level. Natalie Harter, the clinic director at the Family Tree Clinic right around the corner from Macalester, said that, for many women, their periods are a source of empowerment. “There are people that embrace the cycle, plan things around menstruation, and find that it is a time when they feel more powerful and sexy,” Harter said.

Buck said that he considers the availability of so many different menstrual products—from Diva Cups to sponges to cloth pads—to be “straight up liberating … It’s about freedom, decisions and choices that you need to make for yourselves.”

And new markets for these menstrual products are popping up in different places, providing a fresh contrast to the generic Kotex boxes that line the local Walgreens. Harter said that “Party in my Pants,” a female-owned business based out of Wisconsin, is one of the best examples. They sell handmade cloth pads in different designs, shapes and sizes. On their website, they say that these pads “will change the way you think and feel about your period.”

Many Mac students say that switching to a more comfortable form of menstrual product was an empowering decision. Bakhtiar said switching to a Diva Cup was “seriously the best decision I ever made.” A Diva Cup is a reusable silicone cup that collects menstrual flow throughout a woman’s period. Although many people initially balk at the thought of emptying out a Diva Cup, many of the panelists said that Diva Cups were much less gross than using a tampon. “There’s something alienating about throwing a tampon into the toilet and looking away. I hate this image and the way it makes you feel about your body,” Bakhtiar said. A Diva Cup is “more organic. It’s dealing with your cycle as it was meant to be.”

The panelists switched to Diva Cups at different times and for different reasons. For Anne Sombor ’14, throwing away hundreds of tampons each year seemed to clash with her environmental activism. ”I felt weird protesting a landfill and then producing a massive bag of waste,” Sombor said.

For Emma Buechs ‘13, it was also about eliminating her own personal waste, but in the context of outdoor trips and backpacking. “I wanted something I could use that I didn’t have to pack out all of my waste,” Buechs says. “I do a lot of leave no trace backpacking.”

And although the Diva Cup seems like it would shift in a woman’s body throughout the day and produce leakage, Bakhtiar said it’s pretty miraculous how tight-fitting it is. “I’ve definitely been in a yoga class in downward facing dog and been like, ‘What is happening?’ But it’s fine.”

Regardless of their reasoning for switching to Diva Cups, all of the student panelists agreed that Diva Cups made them think different about their periods and their bodies more generally. “It helped me come to know my body and be more empowered. It’s a process,” Buechs says. Professor Jansen says although the Diva Cup will not change a woman’s actual cycle, like hormonal contraception does, “it can change your experience and perception of your cycle and your body.”

Menstrual health isn’t just about the menstrual period itself, either. “I think it’s really important because the menstrual cycle and the hormonal cycle and the ovulation cycle play a big part in people’s lives,” Menninga said. “I know at least for myself, I can tell what part of my cycle I’m in, in a big way based on how I treat myself, and I think that just comes into a much larger realm of rhythm of how I interact with the world. It’s a kind of beautiful, spiritual thing in a way.”

It appears that the women of Macalester, at least those in attendance at the panel, are poised to jump on board with this line of thinking, judging by the fact that so many people came and claimed Diva Cups that Menninga and the other co-chairs ran out. They ordered a shipment of an additional 50 Diva Cups, which will be SPOed to women who indicated that they were still interested.

According to the Diva Cup website, the average woman uses 240 tampons per year. If all 150 women who received (or will receive) Diva Cups at the menstrual health panel stop using tampons, it will prevent 36,000 tampons from entering landfills this year.

Menninga said the original genesis of the panel was to simply hand out free Diva Cups, but it grew into something much bigger. “It really became more about empowering people to talk about it and generating this conversation,” she said. “There was such good energy in the room the whole time. People were laughing, people were engaged.”