I woke up one morning just after my thirteenth birthday with blood on my bedsheets. Along with embarrassed and apprehensive, I was thrilled. Menarche came to me later than to my friends and at thirteen, the odd-one-out is a dire position to find oneself in.
This period, my very first, chose to arrive at an inopportune time: there was no running water in our house for twenty-four hours. It was the height of summer. I was spending the day at home alone with my father while my stepmother went to visit her family. In the rush of the morning, I had no idea how to broach the subject of what had happened to me and all I wanted was a shower. Welcome to womanhood!
When I was a teenager, periods were a thing of shame. At school, we would furtively fetch tampons from our bag at recess and shove them up the sleeve of our uniforms before sauntering casually into the toilets, lest a boy should guess what we were doing. We wanted the boys to know we weren’t little girls but we didn’t want to remind them that we bled and we certainly didn’t want them to know when we were doing it. I remember sacrificing a rare opportunity to walk back from the shops on a Friday afternoon with a school friend who was the object of a passionate crush, because I had purchased pads and tampons that day. The supermarket bag that I carried them in felt so flimsy and transparent, I was sure he would know. Somehow, it seemed more important to keep him from the knowledge (which he must surely have had in at least an abstract way) that I menstruated, than to spend any time talking with him. This was a common fear: we asked check-out staff to double-bag our tampons, or we bought them only when plenty of other shopping would mask their existence.
I suppose much of this came from the home. My father was conservative and prudish: my stepmother had a hysterectomy and stopped menstruating for good long before I started. I always got the impression it was an inconvenience she had no desire to revisit, even vicariously, so we never talked of it much. And I guess others’ homes were similar, because their fear of embarrassment was just as strong. We all pitied the girl with the jumper round her waist at school because we knew that underneath we’d find a spreading stain on her school dress and that was the ultimate mark of shame.
At my boarding school, it was mainly left to the older girls to help younger ones deal with leaks and cramps and stained knickers and fears and I suppose in that way I was lucky: there was mentoring, and there was always someone around with a spare tampon if I ever ran out. Still, the message was very clear that outside of the female domain of dorm rooms and toilets, periods were taboo.
Because of this, I was genuinely shocked when I visited a friend’s house and found a shelf dedicated to tampons and pads, open and in full view, in her bathroom. What does your father think? I asked her.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this school friend was one of the few to have a strongly feminist mother. In their house, women’s bodily functions weren’t hidden and taboo, they were normal. Blood happens, that bathroom shelf seemed to say. And it does.
When my stepmother did find out that I had my period that first time, it was because she found my bedsheets before I could wash them. And she cried, because I hadn’t told her. She seemed proud and sad at the same time and she said something that she almost never did, which was that she loved me. At the time I thought this was embarrassing but now I see it for what it was: mothering. It must be impossible not to identify with a daughter at the cusp of adulthood. It is hard to separate out our cultural understandings of what it means to be ‘cursed’ with blood from what it means to grow up. It must be harder still, to not be invited to know about these bodily changes in a loved one, and all that they herald.
I have had over a hundred menstrual cycles since that first one and there will be untold numbers more. It has long since ceased embarrassing or frightening me. I don’t mind the blood. I don’t actually mind any of it. To tell you the truth, the only thing that bothers me about menstruation is the thought of all those girls who are told it is filthy and shameful and the people that tell them so. Those people are not only parents and peers – some of the most powerful of them are marketers and advertisers; writers, TV producers and magazine editors; religious leaders and other policers of women’s bodies; literally, they are douches. Let’s not listen to them.
Let’s give our daughters frank information and loving regard and tell them the truth: they are never any less precious or beautiful or clean or worthy or pleasant or smart for having vaginas that bleed. For being women.