by Jane Tallman
I remember the exact day and place that I got my first period. I was 11 years old, it was Father's Day, and I was with my family at Kentucky Fried Chicken. My family was not chatty about the physical changes inherent in adolescence, but my mom had prepared me for this. She desperately tried to be subtle as she handed me a pad, hushing my loud exclamations over its complex inner workings. I remember being surprised, wondering why silence mattered in a girls-only restroom.
But silence did matter, and it made that first summer bloody hellish. If you aren't familiar with the demands of menstruation, let me enlighten you. I’m going to skip all the hormonal stuff and focus just on the physical experience. First of all, girls aren't traditionally taught about their bodies. Unlike boys, we don't have our "stuff" hanging out in front of us, to be fiddled with from infancy on. Until "the talk" with my mom, I had no idea that I had a vagina, much less what one was for. I wish I known about the vagina way sooner, if not as a sexual organ, at least as a legitimate body part.
That being said, no amount of information can spare girls from the reality that at some point their bodies start spending 3-7 days a month shedding the lining of their uterus. This process varies from person to person, but every case includes the potential for a huge MESS. Figuring out how to sleep, move and dress to minimize leaking or soaking from the blood and discarded tissue that drips, or sometimes gushes from the most private area...that takes time.
I got my period during camp that first summer. My mom and I saw it coming, and she swore me to secrecy. She seemed afraid that I would tell my friends before their mothers could, and something horrible would happen to their innocence. We put my supplies in a clean restaurant take-out box, and hid them under my bunk-bed.
Thus began the worst week of my life. I was still getting used to the whole process of keeping pads with me all the time, changing them in public restrooms, and transitioning out of the shower without dripping blood everywhere. I was completely unprepared to handle my body with no privacy whatsoever, and to change pads in a remote campground Honeybucket with no running water or garbage, much less how keep it all secret.
My worst memory is of trying to get a stubby cardboard tampon up that opening I barely believed I had, while my friends were outside my stall, calling at me,
"Hurry up!" "We've got to get down to the pool!" "Are you okay?!!" "What's taking you so long?" "You know we can't leave you here alone- it's the buddy system!"
My mother had been so firm about silence that even as my eyes filled with tears from the pressure and frustration of the situation, I still didn't tell anyone what was happening or why I couldn’t come out. I just kept saying,
"I'll be just another minute!" "You go on, I'll catch up." “I’m SO sorry guys!”
That summer I went away with my friend’s family for a weekend, again at the wrong time of the month. I had a few pads with me, but my period started earlier than I had expected, and I wasn’t sure I had enough. It never occurred to me to ask my friend’s mom for help. Nope, I just worried the entire weekend, cringing with anxiety. I was so terrified of anyone knowing about my period that I put my used pads back into my suitcase so that no one would see them in the trash. Eventually, my worst fears were realized: we had one more night, and I was out of supplies. I agonized forever, knowing I wasn’t supposed to tell my friend, but wracked with the impending reality of mess, embarrassment, and humiliation. In the wee hours of the morning I finally cracked, and woke my friend, gibbering about blood and periods and poor planning, pleading with her to go get her mom to help me. My friend was disoriented, had no idea what I was talking about, and promptly fell back asleep. I can still feel the powerlessness, revulsion and shame I felt as I decided that my only option was to re-use one of the yucky, dirty pads from my suitcase trash-bag.
I don’t introduce this topic to traumatize anyone. I have obviously survived, and these experiences of suffocating silence have led to my personal commitment to honesty and truth, to speaking the unspeakable, and hopefully inspiring those around me to do the same.
We cannot spare children from the mess of development, but our attitude may make the difference between isolated anxiety and supported acceptance. As I got older and decided to talk with my friends about periods, I realized that my struggles did not mean that I was incompetent, but completely normal. I lost my tight-gripped fear of being exposed. Far from corrupting each other’s innocence, having friends to share periods with meant that we had each other’s backs: literally, we’d watch each other’s butts as we walked across the room, checking for blood stains, and discreetly stealing off to the bathroom to clean up as best we could. Periods were often messy, but they were no longer repulsive.
I still don’t fully understand why my mom felt that menstruation should not be shared, but I cannot believe that she was the only one, or that I was the only little girl hyperventilating alone in a bathroom stall because she couldn’t find her vagina.
Be open with yourself, and with the young ones in your life. Prepare them. Explore your own lingering shame. Refuse to be intimidated and silenced by a culture without respect for the staggering pressure that girls everywhere face every single month, on top of the daily expectations of school and life.