Editor’s Note: We here at Beauty Coup love a good guest post. We love sharing your thoughts, musings, ideas, and experiences. In light of the recent attacks on women’s rights and agency, we’re launching a new series (and co-opting a brilliant phrase that someone else coined) called Mind Your Own Uterus, about all things lady-parts-related.
To kick things off, we bring you Menstruation Nation by the one and only Amy Banks.
The other day after getting home from the gym, I realized, to my horror, as I was changing out of my sweaty workout wear, that I had bled through the back of my dove-grey compression leggings. Oh snap! I did the frame-by-frame bleed-through scenario in my head: when did it happen? On the elliptical machine? When I was doing pull-ups? In spin class? Just kidding, I only did one of those things (spinning), although I did hang a little from the chin-up bar to stretch out my spine afterward. Not like I could lift my own weight or anything! Geesh! But I know in my blood-spewing heart it happened when I got up from the stationary bike. I felt the gush of my flow, finally free after having been restricted and sealed off by my firmly-planted-to-the-seat nether regions. But I didn’t think I’d soaked through. I wore an overnight pad, for christ’s sake! And *gulp* I had been surrounded by gym rats: tons of women and several men. I even bent down in front of a group of them, all of them running on treadmills, to tie my shoe. OMG.
Old-as-hell me is still embarrassed by a little period blood? Apparently so. I shrugged it off after a minute of red-faced chagrin and went about my day. But for a moment, my wizened adult self was transported back to my cousin’s porch on a dog-day of summer, back when I was but 13 and a total newb to the Menstruation Nation.
A gaggle of us kids were hanging out, bullshitting, swearing just because the words felt swollen and ready to pop, drinking sodas purloined from my aunt’s private stash, thinking up more ways to do nothing. Somebody had the idea to ride our bikes down to the frog pond and catch some tadpoles (probably because they resemble sperm). I had to run home (next door) to get my bike, so I jumped off and over the edge of the porch to beat rocks before they left me behind. Suddenly everybody was laughing – like hooting and hollering – so I turned around the see why. They were all pointing at me. The boys were doubled over with giggle fits and the girls were laughing too, probably horrified but thankful it wasn’t happening to them. My cousin Kevin, always a nice kid, jumped off the porch and led baffled me away. When he told me why they were laughing, I felt like I would drop dead right there. He added, “Jesus, didn’t your mom teach you how to take care of this kind of thing?” I ran in my house and didn’t come back out that day, or for seven more days, until the nightmare was over. You guessed it, I had gotten the girl flu and the crimson tide had come in all over the back of my shorts. I didn’t even know. What’s worse is that Kevin hit a real sore spot by bringing up my mom. No, she did not help matters at all.
I distinctly remember the first time I got my period. It was a Saturday morning in summer. I know this because it was at the breakfast table and we were eating pancakes, which we did every Saturday morning. I was wearing a white tank top with lace trim, and my favorite shorts, which were pink and blue pinstriped. I was having a hard time eating because my stomach hurt so bad. Like really, really bad. Then it suddenly felt like I had wet myself. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and that’s when I discovered I had achieved Menarche. Level Up! Of course I had taken health class so I knew it was “normal” and that I wasn’t dying; I was the last of my friends to get it, and they all survived somehow (lots of Midol, ice cream, Depeche Mode and Elliott Smith was the advice I most frequently received). But I wasn’t expecting the cramps to hurt so much (I figured out what my stomach ache was) or for the blood to be so copious and, well, bloody. I had a sampler pack of feminine products from the school nurse stashed in the bathroom cabinet along with an extra pair of undies (on the advice of friends in anticipation of the grand event), so I carefully opened the cellophane package that housed a single, gargantuan sanitary napkin and pasted it to my panties. I remember making the choice to use pads after a particularly horrifying health class film depicting the insertion of a tampon into a graphic representation of a bleeding vagina, and later that same week listening to my best friend Rachel’s sister dry-heaving and swearing and crying, as Rachel explained in hushed tones that Donna had Toxic Shock Syndrome from leaving a tampon in too long. So tampons: No.Fucking.Way.
So after performing these ablutions and looking for several minutes at myself in the mirror (searching my face for tell-tale signs of obvious womanhood) I burst forth from my bathroom cocoon, a beautiful, bleeding butterfly. I fluttered back into the kitchen, plopped myself at the table and announced to my mom, step-dad, and baby sister that I had officially begun to menstruate. My mom didn’t even look up from the morning paper, but said, “Well go put on a rag and stop bitching about it. It’s not something to tell people or be proud of.” Nobody else said a word and that was that. It was a deflating puncture wound that kept me feeling downtrodden, negative and pissed off at my mother for a long time. Other friends’ mothers had marked the occasion with a cake or a trip to the store to pick out their own favored personal hygiene products. My mother dismissed my experience fully, told me to shut up about it, and used an ugly slang term to describe what would be a lifelong monthly expenditure, an item even more important than clothing or movie tickets or haircuts or junk food. An item I needed, a necessity, part of my womanhood, personhood, my genetic right. It really was a crushing blow to a piece of my journey that felt special, and that I thought would unite us in sisterhood. To make matters worse: my period had ruined my favorite shorts, and though I scrubbed and scrubbed them in the sink, I never got the stain out (I didn’t know to use cold water and set the stain by using hot).
And now that I think about it, my mother never did supply me with my own feminine products. I just used hers, whatever I could find in the bathroom or bum off of friends. When I got babysitting jobs, I used the money I made to buy my own, which I kept hidden away shamefully like a pack of cigarettes stolen from your grampa or a porno mag, lest anyone see it and think you’re a shithead or a weirdo creeper perv. And following my mother’s example, I always bought generic, shitty pads that never quite got the job done and didn’t stick well and were too short to boot. I think she felt spending money on something you’re going to bleed on and throw out was a burden she wasn’t willing to make heavier by spending more on a fancy version. Here’s a secret: nothing is ever going to make your period enjoyable, but if you spend the extra buck on the fancy pads that soak up more blood, cover more panty area and come in their own pre-wrapped single packs, your life will be a little easier at that time of the month, and you will ruin less underclothes. It has taken me all this lifetime to find myself worth spending the extra dollar on the fancy foam ones. But guess what? I’m worth it, and so are you.
That lesson came to me through an enlightened friend, who has the most impressive stash of feminine hygiene products known to womankind. I was invited to her house once for a party, and when I excused myself to use the bathroom and flicked on the light in the loo, it was as though I was transported to a magical land of righteous girl power. On her massive vanity were candy jars and dishes – a whole confectionary shop’s worth! – full to the brim with maxi pads, tampons, vagina wipes and pantyliners in a gleeful rainbow of colors. I marveled at the display – I’d never seen anything quite like it – and was actually sad I didn’t have my period so I couldn’t sample any of the delights. Had she gone mad? She knew she was having guests (male and female) over – why would this attractive, fun, educated and poised single lady leave the accoutrement of the curse out in plain view for everyone to see? I realized she possessed something I had none of: total confidence in her womanhood and all aspects of it. And here I was, a 40-ish mess of a shame-bleeder.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my period. The beginning was not so great. Lots of times since have not been, either. My periods were so random and so harsh in high school that the family doctor put me on the pill. This made me “regular” and the cramps weren’t quite as atrocious. It also put a time limit on the bleeding, which sometimes before had lasted two to three weeks. Later I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which came with its own fun set of menstrual mishaps. Then I had babies, and the weirdness abated some. I became regular without the pill. I cramp less harshly. I flow for a normal amount of time. And at this late date, I can see an end of my monthlies in sight. But I’m not quite ready for that, even if I do occasionally still embarrass myself with a slash of crimson pride on my workout wear.
After all, menstruation is a cleansing of the body and to me, the spirit. Every month we women get a do-over. The build-up of a month’s worth of potentially life-hosting primordial lady sludge evacuates itself in a ritual our bodies know how to perform without our having to even think about it. We women are magical creatures, full of life-giving nourishment and the ability to grow human beings, in sync with the cycles of the moon, the tides, the sun. We chart our flows to the rhythms of our lives. We plan calendar dates around them, vacations, goals, reproduction. I look at my period as a time of renewal and a reminder of a choice I made to not have a child this month. Sound complicated? It is as much as it is not. It is nature, a miracle of a function, my bleeding birthright.
As for my mother’s reaction to her eldest daughter beginning her cycle, it remains a complex mystery. Though as the mother of a now-adult daughter myself, I feel I may have gained some insight. When my daughter, my lovely, first-born baby girl, began her cycle it was a time to celebrate her, but also a time of grieving for me. It was realizing she would never be the fist-pounding, gurgling blonde curly-headed and drooling crayon artist that could never get enough of me again. It was a realization that she would, indeed, be leaving my household someday and beginning her own journey that wasn’t part of mine. It was the dawning of her passage into womanhood and the birth of my old age. But what it wasn’t was a dark secret. Unlike my mother and her mother before her, I didn’t sweep her experience away with the angry flick of a newspaper. I embraced it. I let her pick out and experiment with as many feminine products as she could possibly want. I probably embarrassed her with my gleefulness and celebratory machinations. I stopped short of sending engraved announcements, and I may have made it more about me than her, on accident of course. But I wanted her to celebrate being a grown-ass woman and to never feel shame about it. Today she is a Trump-protesting, artistic, feminist, bad mamma jamma who advocates menstrual cups and talks freely about topics like bloating and blood stain removal. I love her so. And honoring her cycle made me realize that it was time to celebrate my own, too.
Now when I menstruate, I carouse in my own special way. I buy the expensive pads. I inhale the special chocolate if I want to. I don’t feel embarrassed when I buy feminine hygiene products, even if it’s from a man. And I find that my healthy attitude makes menstruation if not fun, kind of special. I’ll be sad when it’s over, and I hope to enter the next phase of womanhood in a positive and upbeat way. I promise not to kick and scream. I’m actually kind of looking forward to it.
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Want to help girls and women who may not have access to feminine hygiene products? Happy Period has got you covered. Menarche!