This is a story about a mother, a daughter, and a rest area bathroom. The mother and daughter are together in a stall, the daughter clearly in distress: her first period. She knows what is happening to her in a clinical, puberty-filmstrip sort of way, but mostly she’s mortified in a –Didn’t-think-it-would-really-happen – sort of way. She moans, she sniffles, she whimpers. Her mother tells her to be quiet – She doesn’t want everyone to know, does she? That silences her.
Thirty seconds later, after a rapid exchange of whispers, the mother and daughter emerge. The daughter – no longer a girl, or so she’s been told, but a woman like her mother – will remember this bathroom with disgust as the place where she threw a bloodied pair of underwear away and stuck a diaper-sized pad to the inside of her shorts. The mother won’t remember this bathroom at all. In fact, years later when the daughter mentions it and how miserable she felt, the mother will shake her head, having had no idea. They walk out.
The mother is slightly annoyed, thinking now they must make another stop somewhere to buy supplies, but she doesn’t say anything. Neither does the girl, who can’t speak from the caustic anger rising in her throat like vomit. She’s furious with her body, budding breasts and rounded hips making all her pants too tight. She walks, bow-legged from the bulky thing between her legs, back to the car where her brother and dad are waiting. “That took forever,” the brother says, and she has never hated him more. She hates his boy-ness; she hates his obliviousness. She climbs in and slams the stupid, fucking-stupid-ass, shitty, STUPID door. The father says nothing.
I was this girl – we all were in some ways – shocked by the unprecedented physical transition of menstruation. I was this girl who didn’t want to bloom, betrayed by her own body deciding otherwise. I resented surrendering to the occupying forces of biology, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would celebrate it.
I longed for the simplicity of childhood, where affection was a natural progression of emotion, free of the confusing innuendoes governing my new physique. I was still me – still scared of the dark, still loved my dollhouse, still wanted to be held when I cried – why did everyone suddenly treat me differently?
I gathered from the hushes and intimations and bizarre representational “feminine hygiene” ads that having your period was secret-worthy and therefore disgraceful. I learned that the first rule of having your period is much like Fight Club: Don’t talk about it.
The second rule is: If you must talk about it, only use the sanctioned jargon, of which there is an ample supply. I bore the embarrassment of riding the cotton pony, communist takeovers, and unexpected visits from Aunt Flo all by myself and panicked monthly about my friends and (worse) boys detecting my condition. Looking back, I wonder how many of us agonized side-by-side in parallel stalls, collectively alone.
There are 7.2 billion people in the world, 3.6 billion of which are female. Of those 3.6 billion, roughly 2.4 billion are of child-bearing age. Therefore, at any given time on planet Earth, at least half a billion humans are menstruating and will menstruate monthly for decades of their lives. In fact, a typical female will spent five years of her life having her period. Why, then, does menstruation remain a universally taboo subject?
The stigma persists because it happens to females, because it’s a reproductive function involving blood in the absence of injury, and because we, ourselves, perpetuate the idea that it’s shameful.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We could change the culture of the conversation by acknowledging that nature’s fertility parameters don’t apply to modern society’s. (Six million years ago, it was a biological imperative to reproduce early and often for propagation of the species; today, not so much.) We could start talking about periods as casually as we talk about other things that were formerly stigmatized, like, say, divorce or adoption, without all the asinine euphemisms. If we stopped treating tampons and pads like smuggled contraband, we could remove a huge portion of worry from the already full plate burdening our girls. Healthy exposure curbs fear and shame.
So, stop burying your tampons at the bottom of your grocery cart, ditch the cutesy argot, and when your sons and daughters ask why you have the heating pad strapped to your abdomen, tell them your uterus is cramping – they can handle it. Our girls needs candid guidance, hugs and sympathy, and they need to know that everyone changes, even the boys. They need us to come out from under the red tent and be who we needed at their age.