‘Vicious Cycle’ trio dish on reproductive rights, Joe Biden and more

"Vicious Cycle" hosts Meghann Hayes, Kate Elston and Meg Trowbridge cover all things menstruation and cycles on their podcast. (Photo courtesy Claire Rice)

CONTENT WARNING: This story addresses abortion and miscarriage.

“One night, Meg and Meg were at a dinner party and, apparently, they started talking about their periods, and I guess they had the whole table laughing.”

That’s how journalist Kate Elston describes hearing about the dinner party attended by her friends, copywriter Meghan Trowbridge and teacher Meghann Hayes (Elston also has a sister named “Meg,” which she admits is “very confusing”). The duo used the story to pitch Elston on expanding the conversation into a podcast. Though they’ve all collaborated since attending the University of San Francisco — including with SF sketch troupe Killing My Lobster — Elston dismissed the idea as “too niche.”

“And then I was like, ‘Wow, there literally could not be a more un-niche topic,’” she says. “I mean, half the world’s population will bleed five days every month for like, 35 years, yet we all live in shame about it? Demystifying periods is very, very long overdue.”

“Vicious Cycle’s” 100th episode, “Everything Is F*cked: How to Thrive in a Post-Roe World,” will be recorded live this Saturday. (Courtesy Katie Newman)

Thus began “Vicious Cycle,” “the podcast about periods and the people who get them.” Since June 2018, the show has taken an often-humorous look at menstrual cycles and their cultural stigmas, as well as the billion-dollar feminine hygiene product industry. Episodes frequently include personal period updates (“Where Ya Bled?”), catharsis (“Why Did You Cry This Week?”) and asking menstruating guests — cis, trans and nonbinary — what their period’s Patronus would be. They also fancy blood-based portmanteaus: The hosts call themselves “blosts”; the audience are “blisteners”; deep-diving into a topic is conducting “bleedsearch.”

As the show progressed, personal revelations could often be auspicious (the birth of Elston’s daughter) and emotional (Meg Trowbridge’s ectopic pregnancy). Guests include OB-GYNs to Oscar-winner Sophie Ascheim to the trio’s own mothers.

On the verge of their June 2022 season premiere (their sixth), the trio conceived a live recording of the upcoming 100th episode. During planning, Politico leaked the infamous Supreme Court memo revealing an intention to overturn Roe v. Wade. In response, the blosts titled their ticketed event “Everything Is F*cked: How to Thrive in a Post-Roe World,” which takes place 7:30 p.m. Saturday at PianoFight in San Francisco

Ahead of the premiere and recording, I spoke with the trio about what to expect at the event, where reproductive rights now stand and what menstruation metaphor befits the office of U.S. president.

Did you honestly see yourselves cranking out 100 episodes, let alone the 100th would coincide with one of the most important moments in U.S. history?

Kate Elston: It’s funny, because people — especially people who don’t get periods — often ask us, “How could you possibly have 100 episodes-worth of things to talk about?” And it’s like, “Hooo buddy, do we have news for you. We haven’t even done an episode on pap smears yet! That’s how much other stuff we’ve got to talk about.” We have decades worth of de-programming and re-learning to get out of our system.

Meg Trowbridge: Early on, we wondered if we’d run out of topics to cover, but every season, we fill a spreadsheet with tons of ideas for episodes — turns out our bodies are weird, wonderful and hilarious. And while we we’ve watched access to abortion get chipped away in states across the country, I somehow convinced myself that Roe v. Wade was safe. How cute was I?! But once we saw the decision for the Mississippi abortion case was coming in June, and a right-wing stacked court would be making the decision, we decided to ring in our big milestone by bringing awareness to what actions we can take when that decision comes down.

Meghann Hayes: It’s pretty incredible that we’ve made nearly 100 episodes, and most were directly about periods. [W]e were concerned about running out of period-related topics. But, like the vulva, every season we peel back a different layer and a whole other world appears. This season, we interview our first cis male, which was really eye-opening and positive. His questions to us were incredibly thought-provoking. It’s exciting to continue to have those moments of discovering new journeys for the show to take. 

What noticeable ways have you all changed since the first recording, other than Kate having created a human being?

Hayes: We don’t have to share mics anymore! The first season, I think we only had two mics? We’re certainly more informed about our bodies, and I feel an awakened curiosity with human anatomy that I didn’t have before. I was always a student who struggled in science, so it’s kind of neat and comical that I co-host a science-adjacent show.  Our friendship is stronger and our creative partnership is so much more cultivated.

Trowbridge: As a Midwesterner, I was timid to talk about anything that might make people uncomfortable — that’s out the window, now.

Elston: I no longer carry shame about being a menstruator. I have gone from hiding tampons up my sleeve during the walk to a public restroom, to loudly complaining about my cramps to anyone who will listen. And I strictly use menstrual cups instead of tampons now, which is awesome for the planet and for my bank account.

Your mothers have been guests multiple times. Have other family members come to be fans, too, or is it still a hard sell?

Trowbridge: My family is very supportive, though I don’t know if my brothers or dad have listened to any episodes.

Elston: My sister is an occasional listener, but she has to be careful of playing it when my 5-year-old nephew is in earshot. Not for the topics, necessarily, but just for all the swearing.

Hayes: It can be a hard sell for older women, particularly Boomers: I definitely had a friend’s mom walk out of the room when I mentioned this show. I think because of their wave of feminism — particularly upper-class, mostly white women — their focus was blending into the workplace. This meant keeping all these conversations under wraps.

My Aunt Deanna was an early fan of the show. My sisters and mom are extremely supportive. My brother-in-law and his best friend now listen. My dad still does not know what a podcast is, but is always happy when I’m doing something creative.

Elston, Hayes and Trowbridge tackle previously taboo issues on their “Vicious Cycle” podcast. (Photo courtesy Claire Rice)

So, after having already staged a “Vicious Cycle” musical, how do you raise the stakes for the provocatively titled “Everything is F*cked”?

Trowbridge: Society did us a solid and raised the stakes for us! With Roe v. Wade in the balance, and so many anti-trans and [anti-]LGBTQIA+ bills passing in various states, I think a lot of us have reached our boiling point. We need to blow off steam so we can continue to work together to help the people who need it most.

Elston: We plan to rage, laugh and rage-laugh. We will share some interesting information and research about abortion, play some games to get our minds off of the pending apocalypse, sing some cathartic songs and give the audience concrete steps in how we can keep supporting our siblings in red states.

You three tend to get a comedic rise out of one another because it’s just you recording. Should the audience expect that, or will it be specially tuned for a live crowd? For instance, will we see the theme song performed live?

Elston: The whole point is to make the audience laugh and be entertaining! I promise, we’re not here to just talk about our latest periods — although, that will be one segment.

Trowbridge: There will absolutely be live musical performances by us! And plenty of dumb bits — it’s what we do best.

Hayes: The live show will have our usual blend of songs, games and bleedsearch. We’re really excited to explore this new medium of live podcasting. We had an absolute blast at our live show for SF Sketchfest, and are anxiously awaiting our return to the stage.

Being professional comedians, what’s your take on Gwyneth Paltrow’s “tongue-in-cheek” $120 Goop diaper to bring awareness to diaper taxes? Given the fun you’ve had covering Goop’s obliviousness in the past, would you call this a step forward to or back from self-awareness for them?

Trowbridge: Oh, Goop is such a mess! But … I do appreciate when someone with a far-reaching platform uses it to help raise money for a good cause. Especially when your followers can afford to drop $150 on a white T-shirt.

Hayes: I hadn’t heard of this! It’s so fun to make fun of Goop. Of all their shenanigans, this seems like it’s actually relevant and could support bigger efforts to ease the burden of parenting in America. It is mind-boggling that diapers have a luxury tax, although menstrual products still do, so are we surprised?

In the lead-up to 2020, a running joke on the show was the Trump years being four years of a cis man acting out the stereotypes of a woman with PMS. In all honesty, what metaphor would you use for Biden?

Elston: Oof, good question! I think Joe Biden is that suburban Boomer mom who’s too scared to do anything crazy in case the rest of the neighbors see her as someone who rocks the boat too much. Like, she’s the person who’s afraid others will call her out for being menopausal, so she just maintains the status quo and refuses to cancel student loans!

Hayes: Oooooof. I would imagine the Biden years are like going through horrible menopause. You think it’s going to get better, and there are hopes that it will in the future, but you feel like absolute shit through the whole process: You’ve aged; you’re moody; you’re going through an existential crisis about mortality; and you’re hot all the time.

Trowbridge: The best I’ve got is: He’s a regular tampon when what we really need is a super. Like, it works, but can’t get the entire job done, ya know? Like, a super tampon would have stacked the Supreme Court, ya know?

Trowbridge, Elston and Hayes have a hotline to receive comments from listeners. (Photo courtesy Claire Rice)

What hotline comments do you think you receive the most?

Hayes: I love hearing any period-related story. First-time stories are an absolute treasure. The wildest story we heard involved a jalapeño pepper and a menstrual cup! It’s a delight to be reminded that people listen and connect to our content. 

Trowbridge: We get a lot of product mishap stories, which are amazing. And I would love as many leak stories as we can get.

Elston: One listener told us we’ve been more educational than some of her med school classes, and someone else told us they quoted us in their dissertation about public health. My favorite call ever [hasn’t aired yet] has been the woman who thanked us for an “Everything Is Fine” episode, the episodes we do that consist strictly of fun and games. She listened to it while getting induced at the hospital!

Kate, as the only blost currently a parent, what plans (if any) does a modern parent make for raising a child — especially a girl — with body positivity and a podcast-blosting level of self-humor?

Elston: Oh man, I think about this all the time! Honestly, I don’t know that I even want my daughter to peddle in so-called “body positivity”. Why do women have to “love” their bodies? Why can’t they just exist in them? I want her body to work! I want her to run and jump and hike and dance and flip off s—y men! There will be days when she loves her body, and there will be days when she hates it, but above all, I want her to exist without feeling like her body needs to please anyone.

Meg. H, as a teacher, what potential age do you think is “right” to discover the show?

Hayes: Hmmm, good question. We decided early on that our focus was on engaging Millennials, Gen Xers and Zoomers in a journey where we all learn together. We did end up interviewing a group of middle-schoolers and their teacher, who made a short podcast about periods that won an NPR contest. It was a blast talking to them. Our show is probably more applicable to college students and above. That being said, students should be learning about periods far sooner than they do. I had a student start her period in third grade. So, I’m thinking we should start telling kids at least the basics of a period in second grade. The “one-and-done” puberty lesson in fifth grade isn’t cutting it. 

Meg T., the episode revolving around your ectopic pregnancy (Ep. 28) was a turning point for how the show addressed pregnancy and loss. What made the podcast the appropriate safe space to share that publicly?

Trowbridge: At the time, it felt important to share this specific type of miscarriage story for others who were going through it and feeling alone; and documenting my story helped me process what I was going through. But now, with states writing up legislation that would limit care to ectopic pregnancies, I think it helps put things into perspective for my friends and for the blisteners who now know someone who could have been affected if the timing were different. The treatment I received didn’t just save my life, but it also saved my fertility — so these [legislative] bills are outrageously misguided.

What’s missing in how such stories are covered publicly, especially with all going on? We hear more about Elon Musk’s latest tantrum than any women’s health issues.

Trowbridge: I don’t know if anything is “missing,” [but] I think it’s important that the person going through a miscarriage has a say in how the story is told. So, Britney Spears and Chrissy Teigen sharing to their followers is really beautiful and a necessary resource for others also suffering. [F]or people who want more pregnancy loss stories, there are hashtags on social media, like #miscarriagesupport, that can introduce you to a very active community. And we have an episode coming this season that covers a great book on the topic.

Kate, as a journalist, what would you change about reports on reproductive rights?

Elston: I would love to hear from men more on this topic, and I wonder if the tide is turning on abortion being wedged into “women’s issue” categories? It’s absolutely not just a woman’s issue. Behind every abortion, there is a man who splooged millions of sperm onto that egg. And while I think the decision to terminate or not should ultimately be left to the uterus-haver, we cannot kid ourselves that men don’t benefit from abortion, too! So, I’d love to see that conversation in the media more, and I would love to hear from dudes who demand reproductive justice!

What changes would you three like to see the podcast make over the next 100 episodes?

Trowbridge: At this point, I’d just really like the pandemic to wrap up so we can record in-person more often; maybe do more comedy festivals in person; and keep getting interesting guests to come talk about bleeding.

Elston: I want to keep snagging big guests and digging into topics that we think we… sort of know about? But do we really actually know anything?

Hayes: I want to see us continue to grow our community and explore new ways to demystify life in a uterus-having body. I’m inspired by more live shows and an evolution of our interview style.

It’s a cliché, but I gotta ask: dream guest?

Hayes: Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Rachel Bloom, Tiffany Haddish, Busy Philipps, Jana Schmieding to name a few!

Trowbridge: We love talking to comedians about their periods, so a short list of dream guests would be: Ali Wong, Nicole Byer, Amy Poehler, Cameron Esposito, Michelle Buteau, Margaret Cho … OK, I’ll stop manifesting.

Elston: I always say Michelle Obama, and that we would strictly ask her about her period. Barack wouldn’t even come up. No talk of Barack.

Both Megs, would you two say your influence on Kate’s daughter is more inspirational or more mischievous, a la Sabrina’s two aunts?

Hayes: I’d happily be compared to Sabrina’s aunts! I would say [our influence is] a healthy dose of teaching [her] how to read but also teaching her how to smoke a candy cigarette, if ya know what I mean.

Trowbridge: I’d say it’s more competitive. We’re in a constant battle to see who [the baby] loves more, and it’s truly a toss-up day by day.

Elston: We often say we’re the dudes in “Three Men and a Baby,” which makes me Ted Danson, Meg T. Tom Selleck and Meg H. Steve Guttenberg. Since we’re all huge “Golden Girls” fans, Meg Hayes is absolutely a Rose, and Meg T. is also Rose, but with Sophia rising.

“Vicious Cycle’s” 100th episode, “Everything Is F*cked: How to Thrive in a Post-Roe World,” will be recorded live in front of an audience at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at PianoFight, 144 Taylor St., San Francisco. Masks are required, and other COVID-19 protocols will be in place for visitor safety. Tickets and more information can be found at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/everything-is-fcked-how-to-thrive-in-a-post-roe-world-tickets-333877004107 .

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