"OK. I'm going to write down, 'homework: Feel ... for ... cervix.'"
That's my grad school buddy, producer and comedian, Kate Elston, keeping herself accountable during episode 20 of Vicious Cycle, the podcast she co-hosts with her improv and sketch pals, Meghann Hayes and Meg Trowbridge. When Elston told me she and her hilarious friends and fellow bleeders had created a weekly podcast designed to demystify, normalize and yes, make fun of, menstruation, I was stoked.
As a longtime women's health nerd, I live to learn about topics no one wants to talk about like PMS, hormonal imbalances and the ups and downs of menopause. So when I heard Elston and the Megs were taking on menstruation, one podcast episode at a time, I was ready with open ears.
Over the course of 21 episodes, Vicious Cycle covers a lot of territory in its first season, from period basics and tampon taboos to endometriosis and the specific issues trans people face when dealing with their cycles. While the entire season is worth a binge, I found episode 20 — the one in which Elston jots down that self-imposed homework assignment — particularly eye-opening. It's the second in a two-part series titled "What's Up With Menstrual Cups?"
What is up with menstrual cups? I've heard of them, seen cute ads for them, but never really understood them. And that's an embarrassing bit of ignorance to admit, given my supposed expertise in everything from IUDs to bacterial vaginosis. But it turns out I wasn't alone in feeling in the dark.
"We didn't know much about menstrual cups going into recording this podcast episode, other than many of our 'blisteners' (bleeding listeners — you get it) swear by them," Elston says. "So we dug a little bit into the menstrual cup's history, sizing guidelines and environmental benefits."
Upon digging, the ladies turned up some seriously interesting factoids. Take the menstrual cup's origin story, for example. While the product — typically made from hypoallergenic rubber or silicone — seems to have picked up popularity over the last few years, it's actually been around since the 1930s. And it wasn't a doctor, scientist or engineer who dreamt up the idea of a small, flexible, insertable cup designed to collect blood rather than absorb it like a pad or tampon. It was a frustrated former actress named Leona W. Chalmers.
In researching the menstrual cup's history for the podcast, Elston stumbled upon an extensive article for Pacific Standard by Natalie Shure that delves into every detail imaginable, including the product's birth story. In 1935, Chalmers, a former Broadway star, filed an application at the Philadelphia branch of the United States Patent Office for something she called a "catamenial appliance." Not the most consumer-friendly name, but the product itself was a major innovation, particularly for working women like Chalmers who couldn't afford to constantly swap out their sanitary protection, or, in Chalmers' particular case, accidentally bleed onto their pristine white stage costumes mid-show.
"It eliminates belts, pins, napkins, and inconvenience," she wrote in her 1937 book, "The Intimate Side of a Woman's Life." "Furthermore the device does not have to be removed in answering a call of nature. It is truly a Godsend to professional and business women."
As ladies intimately familiar with the potential pitfalls of life on the stage, the Vicious Cycle hosts enthusiastically backed Chalmers' inventiveness. "She was in this lead role wearing this angelic white outfit," Elston tells her co-hosts. "Kotex hadn't been developed yet, so there was no pad, there was a weird strap ... contraption but that could be seen through her dress, so at the time she used a version of tampons by shoving fabric up her hoo-ha, which apparently a lot of actors did. But oh my gosh could you guys just imagine being on stage in white and not having — we've all been onstage before and even when I'm tamponed up, I'm so nervous I'm going to bleed and everyone's going to see me. And on Broadway?!"
As the episode goes on, we learn Chalmers' patent was developed into the first successful commercial menstrual cup, Tassette. She even appeared in the product's first ad campaign in 1937, along with the copy, "IT TOOK A WOMAN to ease women's most trying ordeal."
"I was surprised by how early the menstrual cup was invented — just a few years after the tampon!" Kate says. "I had thought they were a recent invention. And the thing that blew our minds most was that they were invented by an actress. Of course! Theater people will save us all!"
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Curious to learn more about menstrual cups and pretty much every other piece of period-related info you could imagine? Check out season one of Vicious Cycle now wherever you get your podcasts.