At Phaedo 64a, Socrates — who will shortly be given hemlock by his executioner — begins one of many famous parts of this discussion by saying that “those who happen to have gotten in touch with philosophy in the right way devote themselves to nothing else but dying and being dead.”
What follows is a discussion of the philosopher’s relationship to pleasure and to the freeing of the soul from the body. The pleasures of food and drink, sex, too many material goods, and other things are seen as to be indulged in only out of necessity — not completely shunned, as we are embodied and have needs, but placed where they do not become encumbrances on the serious matter of turning towards the soul.
“First then, in such matters, isn’t the philosopher clearly beyond other human beings in releasing the soul from communion with the body as much as possible?”
“And certainly, Simmias, most human beings are of the opinion that the man for whom none of these things is pleasant and who doesn’t have a share of them doesn’t deserve to live. In fact, the man who thinks nothing of the pleasures that come through the body is pretty much headed for death.”Phaedo, 65a
Diving deep into the Phaedo over a long period of time — four months, with others — means nibbling on bits of the text in a process that interweaves with daily life. It has been occupying a portion of my mind as I fuss over my elderly cat and her new hypertension medication, cook my meals, get frustrated with my work-from-home desk’s obviously bad ergonomics, lust over the Bloomscape Hoya plant collection that my appetitive soul is trying to convince me would make my life cheery and calm when I know I need to put more in my emergency savings …
… and my period started.
While menstruating, I sometimes think about passages in Proclus and other thinkers about women, passages that are sometimes othering, farfetched, or that offer correct conclusions based on outdated premises. One of the things that comes to mind often is the discussion in Proclus on the Republic and the Timaeus about the status of men and women in incarnation cycles, both in terms of specific incarnation and the longer cycles driven by each soul’s natural oscillations into and out of generation, where ones taken as more manly are treated as better. At one point, it is said that women often fall farther into generation than men, but when we become holy, we often surpass men in the extreme. That is something I chew on a lot, especially the question of whether “better” means intrinsically or just due to who benefits from how most human societies are structured.
Plotinus tells us to never stop working on our statue. One of the places where my statue needs work is with consumption habits.
So. This is the month that I decided would be the one to end my foolish fears about menstrual cups.
For years, I had assumed the worst about them, as my period would fill a standard cup in an hour or two on my heaviest days. (I use three times as many disposable products as other people because my cycle is long and heavy.) My fear is that switching to a cup would mean having to remove it in the public bathroom at work, creating an embarrassing gore scene. It is a reasonable fear about why I might want to use disposables at work on my heaviest days, but it is a spurious reason to avoid menstrual cups entirely because even halving my consumption of disposables would have a positive impact on the amount of personal waste I produce.
There was also a Guardian article about reusable period products, including underwear, and I learned about Modibodi, an Australian company that produces one of the most absorbent period underwear on the market, trusted by others with heavy cycles. If I still have to use disposables on my heaviest days, would reusable period underwear be enough to at least cut down on the number of pads?
A menstrual cycle makes it impossible to ignore the body. There is blood, there is gore. There is fatigue and occasional — or frequent — cramping, depending on the person. I ordered a menstrual cup, boiled it, and stared at it as I waited for it to cool. I tried to insert it a few times as my cycle was starting (before the heavy flood) and failed.
“And I suppose the soul reasons most beautifully when none of these things gives her pain — neither hearing nor sight, nor grief nor any pleasure — when instead, bidding farewell to the body, she comes to be herself all by herself as much as possible and when, doing everything she can to avoid communing with or even being in touch with the body, she strives for what is.”Phaedo, 65c
It feels shameful and humiliating to be responsible for your body and to realize you have no idea how a part of it works well enough to insert a piece of silicone the size of an espresso cup. It was like a repeat of my 20s when I had vaginismus and couldn’t relax enough for a successful pap smear. I kept the cup visible during the heaviest days of my period — Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday — and frowned at it while dealing with tampons and hyper-absorbent period underwear. Wednesday night, I decided. I was free. I had nothing planned. It would be light enough. I would learn how to use a cup on Wednesday.
There’s a widely-told story about Hypatia and menstrual rags. One of her students was enamored of her, and she tried everything she could to get him to fall out of lust. When all else failed, she produced dirty menstrual rags and told him that that was his desire. The sudden shock worked — he stopped pursuing her.
On Wednesday, when I returned to the bathroom, washed the cup, and tried again, I kept thinking of the Hypatia story and its symbolism. This time, I used a different cup folding method, and it went in. It took a while to open properly, and then it went … up. I could barely reach the stem with my fingers, but I could tell from tugging that the cup had correctly expanded. I made dinner. I Googled videos on how to remove it. I had brief anxiety about how embarrassing it would be if I couldn’t get it out and needed to go to urgent care. Eventually, I made rooibos tea and tried to convince myself I was relaxing while my mind raced about the Timaeus and the cosmos as an agalma. Why do the commentators describe the cosmos the way they do? Why is the feminine/passive element in the system treated in the way that it is?
While enjoying my tea, I considered the model of our lives if they are uninterrupted — menarche, years of menstrual cycles, perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopausal life. Death, then rebirth again. I thought about the cycle of the universe since the beginning of measurable time — first the hot cosmic soup, then the coalescence of the first stars and galaxies, now the steady clustering, the soon-to-come exhaustion of gas and fuel and heat death and (if Penrose is onto something) its renewal. We are forced by embodiment to deal with this.
Eventually, I felt ready to take the cup out, just in time — it was leaking after two and a half hours due to being full. I went into the shower, just as the Internet advised. I could still barely reach the stem. It took about ten minutes of contorting and trying not to panic to even reach the base, and I had to move beyond said base because I couldn’t get a grip on it to release the suction. Option B was to somehow push the side of the cup in. Eventually, it was able to come out, but I dropped it. The shower suddenly looked like murder scene.
I learned after decompressing from this experience that the ordeal was caused by a “high cervix” and that I needed a different kind of cup. I didn’t even know that cervixes had heights. For the past day, my head has been filled with these passages of the Phaedo and how f—ing absurd my entire Wednesday evening was. I spent an hour researching cups for high cervixes and bought two (three, actually, because one of them was BOGO) from competing brands while thinking about Socrates talking about the unphilosophical person acquiring “diverse cloaks and sandals and the other, body-related beautifications” (64e). All I wanted was to be a responsible, environmentally-conscious person doing my part as a citizen to fight climate change and honor the Earth, and here I was, buying diverse silicone cups. (I rejected the menstrual cup style in a “unicorn” tie-dye because that seemed like excessive ornamentation. I mean, it’s not a display piece.)
Sometimes, engaging with our bodies anchors us in desire or in reactive emotions; sometimes, it roots us in intellect and in the more lasting parts of our selves. The body is louder when it does things that we have to deal with, whether it’s menstruation or another in-your-face this-body-is-loud-and-very-present thing. Dealing with the physical while in a philosophical or theurgic school or equivalent is like showing up at the gym when one’s ordinary life already involves a lot of lifting and running, which could be part of why the ancient commentators saw philosophical women as being so impressive.
June 4, 2022 update: I used the Flex Cup at home and tampons at work from the time I learned how to use a cup in September to now, 9 months later. I liked that the Flex Cup made reach issues irrelevant — regardless of how high it rode up, I could always get it out. I could last about 1.5 hours on my heavy days with it, so it wasn’t a huge improvement over a tampon. The thing I enjoyed less about the Flex Cup was the amount of pressure I had to put on the pull tab to get it out, and it would leak all over my hands — a very explosive gore situation sometimes. And the suction still felt like it was active, and the pull tab would often pull right through (there’s a stopper on the inside to keep from doing that) and blood would come out through the hole. I often just didn’t use it on lighter days and relied on period underwear (Modibodi, which is better with flooding than Thinx) instead because I wanted to give myself a break from the suction and had heard that the suction issues could actually hurt the cervix. Even with all of its issues, I vastly preferred it to tampons, especially since I’ve soaked tampons through enough for the string to almost come out. You can’t do that to silicone.
I never considered using a menstrual disc because they looked terrifying to get out. Most of them have a little hook for the finger that, according to reviewers, is too slippery for a grip — so anyone with a high cervix can’t reach it well. I read stories about people who injured themselves getting discs out or who needed a doctor’s help. Lumma, the only disc with a removal string in the group, had mixed reviews, and to me, the silicone string on it looks fragile and like it could break at any moment if enough pressure is applied. However, in spring 2022, I learned about something called the “Hello Disc” — a disc with a pull tab that looked very solid. I waited a month or two deliberating about it, but then — like a proper Platonizing woman — realized that my fears were irrational because they had been addressed through design improvements. I preordered in early May, got it in late May, and am now using it on my heaviest period day. It was released at about the same time as the Pixie Disc, another one with a silicone string like Lumma, but with a wider and stronger attachment at the base — however, we’re going to talk about the Hello Disc here.
Parasocial readers, this thing is a game-changer. Sure, the tab can be a bit pokey when in the dropped position for those of us with reach issues, but it’s so much easier to remove than a cup. It’s also orders of magnitude less messy than some of my “blood bubbling from everywhere” moments with the Flex Cup even though, for people with less ridiculous flows, it sounds like discs are messier for them than cups. The Flex Cup leaked even when it wasn’t full, and the only time the Hello Disc has leaked for me is during the time I know I will have leaks — when I’m asleep. Even so, it can hold much more than the Flex Cup, so the leaking isn’t even as bad. I’m skeptical about the “auto-dump” feature — it sounds like the Hello Cup fits too well (yup, it’s too good!) for many users to benefit from it, based on reviews on r/MenstrualDiscs — but I have gotten it to do that once, perhaps (again) due to having a very heavy flow. I’d have to know this feature worked reliably in order to wear this onsite at work during heavy days, but at least with the disc, there’s a chance that such a thing is possible, versus my knowledge that a cup would be untenable. I’m so happy that Platonism helped me have the courage to deal with these irrational fears about cups and discs, and I hope this post has made Hypatia proud.