By Franny Choi
“Periodic” is a monthly column by poet Franny Choi. Every month, she writes a short column on the first day of her period—a check-in that might cover issues of gender, queerness, writing, health, and/or love. This series is an experiment in occasional writing and an exploration of what it means to write about menstruation with a queer imagination.
I was today years old when I learned how to change a menstrual cup in a public bathroom without making a horrible mess—and I learned it from a Korean woman wearing a Santa hat. It’s been six-ish years since I first attempted to use a cup, and I never quite got the hang of the thing enough to make it comfortable to wear on my heaviest days, especially if I needed to be in the world for longer than six hours at a time.
But today, I watched a woman on YouTube cheerfully drop a menstrual cup into a half-full, Nalgene-like water bottle, and give it a hearty shake. And then, she explained, you just pick out the cup and dump the dirty water out into the toilet.
Cue skies opening up overhead! As feminist life hacks go, this is top-tier!
The most remarkable thing about all this, for me, was that this particular feminist life hack came from a cute Korean girl who looked, for all intents and purposes, like your typical cute Korean girl: hair dyed reddish-brown, long bangs, a pair of those round, wire-framed glasses that everyone in Seoul seems to have bought in 2017. She also wore a lab coat and explained that she worked for EVE, one of the very few—and relatively new—companies in South Korea that manufacture menstrual cups. The Santa hat was because the video was filmed in December—and Koreans love costumes.
For those who don’t associate South Korea with intense discomfort around anything having to do with sex, this all might not strike you as an astounding development in the order of things. But as someone who grew up watching Korean media tiptoe delicately around the topic of sex, not to mention two parents who tried to instill in us what they knew of Korean culture—that is, Korean culture of the 1980s—my mind was blown. Korea was where, in 2010, I got called a feminist for the first time in a bad way. It’s where government sex education guidelines include sentences like, “Women have to work on their appearance, and men have to work on improving their financial capabilities;” and where, until this April, abortion had been banned for over sixty years.
The other day, I watched a clip of the Korean boy band BTS being interviewed on Ellen. If you don’t know BTS, it may be enough to know that they are the objects of the (intense) desire of 90 million official fans around the world. If you don’t know Ellen, it may be enough to know that she’s daytime—and therefore, generally pretty tame. There was this part in the interview where Ellen asked if any of the group’s members ever hooked up with a fan. The on-stage interpreter, attempting to keep things civil, tried to translate the question with the word for “date.”
“Explain what ‘hooked up’ means, come on,” pushed Ellen.
Looking uncomfortable, the interpreter tried again: “Is there any time that you’ve met someone, not publicly, but privately?” Some of the members of BTS laughed awkwardly. One shouted, emphatic, “Not! Not! No!”
This brief bit of friction between mainstream American and Korean pop culture figureheads is, to be sure, a tiny example. But it circled around a discomfort that’s always seemed to me to be persistent in the culture—a discomfort around the acknowledgment of sex as an actual, human activity rather a fantasy that colors every facet of the behemoth of cultural production that the Kpop industry has become. In Korea (as in every country), sex is embarrassing, dangerous, pervasive, a top-seller, a sin; it is everywhere and nowhere.
When using a menstrual cup, there’s no room for shyness around the actuality of one’s sex organs. You fold the cup’s rim to make a little triangular insertion point. Squatting, you press the object in, past your labia, into the vaginal canal. In order to make sure you’re going at the right angle for the thing to cup your cervix, at some point you’ll have wanted to go in and find your cervix, to confront its shape, to learn how high or low it hangs. You let go of the rim so it opens, umbrella-like, inside you. You grab the bottom and twist; you check your work at the rim; you pull gently to test the suction. You get blood on your hands, so much blood, though this is gentle work—to correctly position this little silicone shield, knuckles-deep inside the most vulnerable part of your body.
Working the menstrual cup inside me, I’m reminded of the centrality of the speculum to feminist movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Take a mirror and examine yourself,” encouraged the landmark 1971 book Our Bodies, Ourselves, which instructed readers on how to view their cervixes. “After all, you are your body, and you are not obscene.” In the hands of abortion rights activists, the speculum, that unwieldy tool which emerged out of gynecology’s violent history, became a bridge to reproductive autonomy. Self-examination was seen as a necessary step toward claiming and freeing the body.
Our Bodies, Ourselves was published nearly twenty years before I was born; nearly fifty years before the first menstrual cup arrived in my family’s country. I was twenty-four years old when I first folded a piece of silicone and maneuvered it, wincing, inside me. Today, at 30, I’ve still never made it work or, for that matter, looked at my cervix. In researching for this essay, I read an article extolling the emergent sexual revolution in South Korea, and for the first time, it occurs to me that Korea never had one, at least not in the 70s, while white women here were cranking open their vaginas on bookstore tables and building clandestine abortion clinics. It’s one of those times that I feel as though I am—as though my people are—tragically late to it all.
Which, I think, is why I feel that tragedy ease a little while watching these Korean menstrual cup videos. In another of these, an editor from Ease & More demonstrates the differences between the various brands that they sell on the site. She speaks in a soft, soothing voice as she shows how to fold and insert menstrual cups against a cross-section model of a reproductive system. She’s wearing a headband that announces, “ONE OF A KIND!” in red, glittery letters as she gently explains that firmer isn’t necessarily better.
The woman in the video keeps saying another word I don’t recognize, so I look it up in the Korean dictionary app on my phone. The word is jil. It means “vagina.”
I was today years old, in other words, when I learned to name my body in my family’s language.
It’s hard to feel anything but shame in this moment—shame that I never thought to learn this word, shame for everything I’ve assumed I know better than the cute Korean women I imagine to be typical cute Korean women. If I don’t know this word, how can I think to know anything about a country’s timeline of feminism, its perceptions around sex and reproductive health? How can I have any understanding of all of the ways this country’s particular histories of Confuscionism, colonization, war, American influence, Christian martyrdom, explosive globalization and capitalism, intense Internet culture, etc., etc., might play out in what Korean feminism looks like, the pace and directions in which it’s moving?
In confronting this simultaenously tiny and astronomical gap in my knowledge, I’m reminded of two things that are important to remember when thinking about what a progressive Korean feminism looks like. One, that those movements that brandished speculums as radical tools for power were—or overlapped with—the same radical white feminist movements that birthed the modern TERF. And two, that though it may be true that abortion was banned in South Korea for decades, it’s also true that massive, powerful organizing led to that law being overturned during a year when, in the U.S., state after state is stripping away abortion rights.
I say these facts to myself, though I say them gently—with the gentleness that’s needed, I’ve learned, to examine oneself.
“Have courage,” reassures the woman in another video from EVE. “Your body can be sensitive during this time, and you might be afraid that it’ll hurt. But it’s a good thing to become more familiar with yourself.”
She’s wearing big, ridiculous glasses, made of red tubing and LED lights. I have no idea why. And I think that’s probably okay.