Why Is The Menstrual Cup Still Not Mainstream (Part I)

You certainly have that friend who - after a few glasses of wine and discussions about periods - urges you to try a menstrual cup.

"You seriously have to get a cup. It's amazing!". "Yeah, yeah, I know".

Yet you didn't.

As far as menstrual cups are concerned, menstruators are hesitant to make the switch. According to market research, 98% of American menstruators manage their periods with disposable tampons and pads while 2% choose reusable products (menstrual cups, washable fabric pads, and sponges mainly).

Various reasons are mentioned (from academics to marketing experts to friends) to explain why the menstrual cup is still not mainstream. They range from "menstruators are grossed out about touching a menstrual cup", "nervous about inserting it or changing it" to the friend who "tried one and it totally leaked".

Menstrual cup users have tons of good reasons to preach their lifestyles:

Even regular tampon users report feeling more satisfied with menstrual cups than their usual means of menstrual management. Those who don’t use tampons cite a number of alarming reasons why: They find them uncomfortable, potentially hazardous to their health, unintuitive to insert, even unnatural. And yet, the overwhelming majority of menstruators (81 percent) continue to use tampons, either alone or in conjunction with pads. How did we get like this, when a better option has long been right in front of us?

In a society where innovation is king, you could expect that cheaper, more convenient, and more beloved products creatively destroy their costly and inefficient competitors. However, the menstrual cup teaches us a hard lesson: changing consumer behavior requires the cooperation of social norms, effective entrepreneurship, and extenuating circumstances especially in an industry that faces menstruation’s immense and long-standing cultural baggage.

In addition to that, strong lobbying efforts from disposable products' manufacturers and wholesalers play a role in protecting the feminine hygiene industry from being disrupted.

A brief history

Period taboos have traditionally been so engrained in the culture that women's experiences with the menstrual cycle are close to absent from the historical record. Historians argue that a lack of period management products had disastrous consequences on women participating in the public sphere and gender equality.

In the late 19h century, as women's roles expanded to include more employment outside the home, menstrual technology finally got its break when women's fashion changed to reflect their more active lifestyles. Patents mainly filled by women were granted for various menstrual napkins, but they still had serious shortcomings.

A small Wisconsin paper company called Kimberly-Clark was supplying surgical dressings to hospitals overseas in the midst of the so-called "Great War" in 1914. The company developed a new material, "cellucotton" in a panic over tumbling newsprint prices before the war. After the 1918 armistice left the company with a major surplus of these dressings, Kimberly-Clark uncovered a new use for the material. French war nurses had apparently been repurposing the extras as sanitary pads — a trick that Kimberly-Clark decided to copy wholesale. That was the first true menstrual product takeoff. It took a war and a company bold enough to pay attention to what women were doing.

In 1921, “Kotex” hit the shelves. By 1927, consumer surveys showed they were already more popular than homemade reusables.

A few years later, another woman brought outstanding innovation. One July day in 1935, Leona W. Chalmers filed a remarkable application at the Philadelphia branch of the United States Patent Office: a funnel-shaped receptacle of vulcanized rubber inserted low into the vagina to collect menstrual fluid, rather than soak it up as a Kotex pad did.

Chalmers’ tediously named “catamenial appliance” was so paradigm-busting that it was never fully appreciated in her own lifetime — nor, as of yet, in mine.

Tassette, the first commercial menstrual cup was born. Yep, the first menstrual cup was invented almost 85 years ago...

One of the first ads for the funny new product appeared in Photoplay magazine in 1937. “Mrs. Leona W. Chalmers invents invisible protection … so comfortable you’ll never feel it … so secure you’ll always be at ease!” the copy read.

Chalmers’ invention had all the promise to become the product of choice for dynamic, modern women. But a man had already beaten her to the punch.

Tampons weren’t exactly a novel concept. For over a century, doctors had halted bleeding and infection by stuffing patients’ wounds with compressed cotton. By the 20th century, tampons were heavily used in surgical operations — even if the fact that resourceful World War I-era French nurses reached for pads, and not plugs, illustrated that tampons, if medically accepted, weren’t the intuitive solution for menstruating women.

Tampons weren’t embraced immediately. In fact, tampons and menstrual cups would face similar challenges to mainstream acceptance in an era of pads. Tampons overstepped cultural boundaries: Insertion required extensive contact with the genitals and could undermine one’s “purity” by snagging the hymen. Tampons were, in essence, terribly unsettling.

But if tampons and menstrual cups were both relatively whacky and scary ideas when they emerged in the 1930s, why did their respective 85-year trajectories pan out so differently?

Follow us to discover the rest of the story next week on ARYA's Blog!

We're looking forward to seeing you all in the comments.

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