In the last decade, collective conversations around menstruation have been diversifying, connecting dialectically with a range of related subjects. Along with women’s health, dialogues on cultural taboos, gender inequality, inequity, discriminatory social norms, poverty and climate change have become central themes from which to understand many aspects of menstruation. Menstrual products are one of the intermediary (re)sources through which activists and brands are educating us on the wide ranging impact of our choices and the alternatives that the market now offers to us. At IKKIVI, we partnered with ‘Hiccup’ to help share their message of making menstrual cups the norm for all menstruators. We spoke with Meenal Velani, Founder of the menstrual cup brand ‘Hiccup’, about why she started the enterprise, and about the scope of impact that our everyday choices can have on intersecting problems. Sharing with us her insights and experiences, she describes the importance of being mindful in selecting and working with menstrual products, and in learning to become more conscious both as brands and consumers.
Could you tell us of your background and interests through
your early years?
I come from a city called Jamshedpur. As a kid I loved Literature, hated Math and was a phenomenally curious being. Being brought up in a middle class joint family in a small town meant that I was always instilled with the values of not being wasteful and thinking community – first. My family is predominantly women – all of them strong, willful and fiercely independent which I gained from them in inheritance – something I am most proud of.
For my education, after schooling locally, I did my Undergraduate in Literature from Kolkata and moved to Delhi to get my Masters in Advertising. Since I was in school, I was working towards becoming a copywriter in an Ad agency. However, actually joining the workforce quickly disillusioned me about the real nature of advertising. I felt very conflicted working for organisations that were actively and negatively affecting the lives of people and the quality of the planet.
I still really enjoyed the work I did which is why I left my first job to start Oddity – a marketing agency that works exclusively with small and medium businesses that are actively working on making the world a little better. We work with businesses that are just starting out (eg: a sourdough bread brand, an organic cold pressed oil company, an EdTech firm) to help amplify their voice. This was more aligned to who I was as a person. Somewhere in this journey, my partner and I had a realisation about menstrual cups and decided to start Hiccup – a step that was made easier to take because of my background in advertising.
There’s a lot to be said for forces aligning in my favour, at least in this case. With my background and immense passion for the environment and my partners’ background in Gender Studies, it was like starting Hiccup was meant to be for us.
How did you come to the idea of starting a brand dedicated to selling menstrual cups? Could you tell us the influences and inspiration(s) that led to the inception of Hiccup?
We started Hiccup to provide awareness about the single most sustainable menstrual product and allow people to have access to high quality care. We encourage a market where all menstruators can decide for themselves which product they would like to use, for example, reusable cloth pads, period underwear – while not harming the environment.
When I personally started using a cup is when I realised how useful it was in the larger context – for the health of menstruators as well as for the environment. I belong to a city called Jamshedpur, that is in one of the poorest states – Jharkhand. We directly saw how inadequate Menstrual Health Management affected people in every aspect of their lives. Working in Delhi for the past 7 years also brought to light the problems surrounding waste management as we’ve all seen the mountain of trash and foamy Yamuna in the middle of the city. As someone who is also passionate about the environment and takes active steps to live a more mindful life (plastic free purchasing, no fast fashion clothes, reusable everything, composting) it was a joy to discover that simply using a menstrual cup can help us work towards the Sustainable Development Goals set by UNDP. We can achieve Climate action – SDG13, Good health and well-being – SDG 3, Gender inequality – SDG 5. All of this led to the birth of Hiccup.
Hiccup is one of the only few brands in India to exclusively offer menstrual cups. Could you share with us why it was/ has been important in your view to introduce these in the market? Were there any connections between your own experiences with menstruation and with launching Hiccup as well?
It took us almost a year of research into the Indian cup market to decide that we wanted to start Hiccup. There are a few menstrual cup brands in India that sell cups for really cheap that are low quality and made using hard polymers. This means that first time users have a bad experience and cannot completely shift to cups. I personally tried some of India’s most popular brands before realising that the current solutions on offer weren’t good enough. We had to be able to do better!
Since Day 1, we have been very clear on the fact that while menstrual cups are phenomenal for the health of menstruators, the environment was a big part of why we were doing this. There are some companies in India that sell cups but also sell single use sanitary napkins – which goes against the very ethos of Hiccup. We knew we only wanted to sell cups despite the fact that pads get picked up faster and have a repeating customer base because otherwise we wanted to stay true to who we were. We have also noticed menstrual cup companies distribute sanitary napkins to the underprivileged as a part of their CSR programs. This makes me so sad – it’s like going one step forward and five steps back.
At Hiccup, we stand against the concept of “poor solutions for poor people”. This is why while we do understand that not everyone can pay for a cup, our Buy 1 Donate 1 program allows us to create education around cups and donate them to those who can’t afford them. Systemic problems require long term solutions and not the band aid of solutions that are effective only in the short term. In the coming years, we see hiccup becoming a catalyst that brings together governmental organisations, NGOs, foundations and feminist researchers to provide all menstruators regardless of their social capital, with a
cup as an alternative.
How did you come to select the name ‘Hiccup’ for the brand? Does it signify something in particular?
Before we came up with the name we knew the word “cup“ had to be part of the brand since most of our users are being introduced to the product category itself. We didn’t want to add another layer and make it more confusing. We spent a few weeks dismissing a lot of names before Hiccup came to me while watching an animated film that has a character by the same name (How to Train Your Dragon).
I loved the name immediately because it worked on so many levels! There is so much stigma around periods that they are almost considered an abnormality – a hiccup in daily life and we wanted to take back the word and make it mean something positive. Plus, it sounded so fun and we didn’t want a brand that takes itself too seriously.
Could you tell us a little bit about your design and creation process of the cups? What materials are used, and how the cups are made?
Sure! So, menstrual cups that are available in the market are typically made with two materials – either TPE or silicone. Hiccup is made with medical grade silicone at an FDA approved manufacturing unit. Silicone is an inert, non-reactive material which essentially translates to it being completely safe for long term internal use. In fact, using menstrual cups is safest when it comes to risk of infections, disease etc.
Our cups are made of soft silicone that is easy to insert and remove, making it great for first time users. We’ve also made sure to add a stem at the bottom that makes a cup easier to locate for removal. We spent over a year figuring out the perfect firmness, size and colours for our cups since we knew that a majority of our customers would be first time users and we wanted them to have as seamless an experience as possible!
Are there any challenges you encountered in starting the brand, given the cultural stigma toward menstruation? Or even, since the start of the business? If so, what have your experiences been with it thus far and how do you/ have you respond(ed) to them?
To be very honest, starting Hiccup was the least challenging part of the journey. When I used my first cup, years before there was so much information around them in India, I knew I was a menstrual cup evangelist. Starting Hiccup to fill this gap seemed like the most natural, almost necessary thing to do.
Once we started up however, there were definitely operational challenges. From trying to figure out which tax bracket menstrual cups fall into (there is absolutely no clarity on that even today) to explaining what the product was to delivery partners comes to mind. Our team aims to be very patient and transparent in all conversations but we have often faced awkward silences when it comes to collaborators who are not from this field. On the contrary, the conversations on our social media and DM’s have been a revelation to us. The questions usually come from a place of curiosity rather than hate. This is in part due to the safe space we create in all our interactions. The stigma definitely persists but we do not expect to undo intergenerational ignorance and conditioning. We try our hardest, remain patient and strong in our convictions.
Since the incoming of Hiccup, what kind of responses have come forth from consumers? What kind of appreciation and apprehensions have you seen them carry toward menstrual cups?
In India, a majority of the people who reach out to us are first time cup users. A few questions we get very often are how using cups will affect their virginity (it won’t), will it hurt (it doesn’t) and why they should buy a Hiccup and not some other/ cheaper cup. Since it is a comparatively higher upfront payment, a lot of people tend to pick the cheapest option available. Since there is a difference in quality, they end up having not the best experience and then we’re faced with the challenge of getting them to try another cup.
On the flip side, those who use the cup and get used to it, absolutely rave about it! We get messages every day from users about how it has changed their lives or the different conversations they had because they use a cup. That is absolutely gratifying. We also get a ton of appreciation for being an open, inclusive, honest brand that spends time on education about the climate crisis, gender, sex positivity and of course, menstruation.
We notice that educating consumers and the public is a significant part of your work through your social media channels. Could you share with us why you think that is vital, and what kind of dialogue you have seen unfold(ing) – about menstruation, womens’ bodies, health – through it on social media?
Making menstrual cups mainstream is a goal we cannot accomplish in isolation. Asking someone to move from a pad to hiccup isn’t as simple as asking them to shift loyalties to a new brand but rather, is a lifestyle shift. When it comes to menstrual cups, the personal is political. Using a cup means unlearning everything we’ve been taught about how to interact with our bodies. It means feeling empathetic and proactive about the future of the planet. It means recognising the inequality in menstrual care, it’s correlation with poverty and trying to find equalizers. It is a big ask to make. We acknowledge that and don’t take it lightly. So when someone trusts us enough to make that shift, we owe it to them to arm them with as much knowledge as possible.
The Hiccup social media channels are therefore spaces of inclusive advocacy that promote education and awareness around menstrual health management, body neutrality, sex positivity, gender and climate change. We do this because using a cup genuinely lies on the intersection of these issues and there is an abysmal lack of education or awareness surrounding these topics. We aim to fill this gap and increase accessibility to this information as much as possible.
Making a transition from conventional utilities – such as sanitary napkins and tampons – can feel intimidating and invasive (as the cup needs to be inserted inside). Could you offer some guidance on what someone who would like to try it could do to make the experience easier?
I completely understand that using a menstrual cup for the first time can be really intimidating. Even tampons are barely used in our country and there is such a taboo around insertion!
My first suggestion to first time users would be to get familiar with your body. A lot of us, even if we are sexually active may not be familiar with our anatomy. When you’re not on your period, use your fingers to find your cervix. Insert a finger and move it slowly to familiarise yourself with the area. When you’re comfortable, insert multiple fingers. You’ll see that the vaginal walls are flexible and inserting a cup will seem less daunting now.
My second suggestion would be to use a cup for the first time on a lighter flow day of your period (ideally the third or fourth day). This way you get the natural lubrication of your period without the worry of potential leaks. You could even use a pad along with the cup the first few times if you’re really worried. That way you’ll be more confident to wear it by itself.
Lastly, choose the right cup. A soft cup will make both insertion and removal easy. If your cup has a stem, you’ll be reassured that the cup will be easy to locate. (Hiccup is a soft cup with a stem).
Finally, trust that the cup cannot get lost – it is anatomically impossible for it to vanish. Converting to a cup isn’t a one time thing. It is a slow gradual process so be patient with yourself. It will take 2-3 cycles to get used to it but I promise that once you are comfortable with it, you won’t change back!
Are there any specific intentions Hiccup holds to generate an impact for the wider Indian public and consumers?
Our goal with starting hiccup is to make menstrual cups mainstream. When we talk about period products or simply when we teach young menstruators in schools about what their options are – we want the thought of menstrual cups as an option to come as easily as pads. Along with this, we want menstrual cups to be easily accessible. Anyone, across the country – whether they stay in the capital city or in a small village, should they choose to use a menstrual cup, should have access to it.
This is something we cannot do alone. To create a deeper and more meaningful impact, we aim to work with the State, private corporations and foundations to do intensive research on the Indian menstrual space factoring in the well-being of both menstruators and the environment. This will help us keep researching and developing better and more effective period care solutions.
What are your subsequent aspirations with, and for Hiccup as a brand and as an enterprise carrying a collective voice to show menstruation as a healthy and normal process of our bodies?
Our aspirations for Hiccup as a brand that is Activist not just in words but in nature, goes beyond normalising conversation around menstruation for us. That I think is what we want to tackle as our first step. Not only do we want people to be comfortable talking (and listening) about periods, we want to be able to extend that normalisation towards uterine diseases, mental health, sex education, body neutrality, the gender and sexuality spectrums; among a hoard of other things.
We do this the best way we know how – we talk about it normally without making a big deal about it. We amplify the voices of those who have lived experiences, we try to be as open and inclusive a space as possible and creative vetted and responsible education around it. Currently we do this through our social media but our plans extend to working with NGOs to make this information available for those who are underprivileged and working with Governments to make accessibility easier.
Is there anything you would hope for, or expect, clients to discover and take from Hiccup?
So many things! First and foremost, we want menstruators to feel free and comfortable during their periods. Cups are outwardly invisible – letting you do all things you would on any other day. You can do headstands, swim, even scuba dive on your periods with a cup. I think that’s a special kind of liberating. There is also a different kind of comfort knowing that there aren’t any chemicals touching your body or that there won’t be any rashes after a few hours of having your period.
But something most people don’t talk about that becomes a crucial part of the menstrual cup experience is self awareness about the body. Using pads or tampons gives us a very misleading view of how and how much we bleed. Using a cup showed me that it is way less than we are led to believe by the stark, sterile white of other period products. Not just that but the simple act of inserting something safely and non-sexually into the body is intimate in a way most of us might be unfamiliar with. I expect (and hope) cup users get more comfortable with their body and have a more mindful understanding of their periods – the colour, the texture etc.
Lastly, it is an amazing feeling to not have to dispose of something every few hours!
Could you describe how your experience of working on this venture since 2019 has been?
The experience of founding and running Hiccup has been challenging but also very rewarding. Convincing people to consider menstrual cups as an option isn’t easy. We battle stigma, myths and disapproval every single day. However, when someone uses the cup and comes back to us with how much they enjoyed using it – it is a victory for us. When people DM us asking us personal questions – it is a victory for us. When mothers buy a cup for their child – it is a victory for us. When we get orders from small cities we have never even heard of – it is a victory for us. We know that somewhere, someone is taking control of their own body and being climate positive which makes it all worthwhile. We understand that we are a far cry away from making cups mainstream, but we’re in it for the long haul.