In October of 1994, Pulp Fiction was released in theaters and
I got my first period while camping in Yosemite with my entire eighth grade class.
Urge Overkill’s “Girl You’ll be a Woman Soon,” repeated in my head as I horse-collared my cousin Lindsey and hissed that I was unprepared for this momentous event.
“I’ll ask my mom to go to the camp market,” Lindsey said. “I promise I won’t tell her it’s for you.”
For the rest of the week Lindsey wordlessly served as my maxi pad mule.
It would be helpful to tell little girls not to expect their first period to gush a measuring cup full of blood, the way commercials demonstrate with blue slow-mo waterfalls.
Dramatization: if this volume of blood comes out of you all at once, you are hemorrhaging internally and you need to call an ambulance.
The inconvenience was not permitted to ruin my Yosemite trip,
a trip I felt I earned outright after I sold I Heart Saratoga bumper stickers at four bucks apiece, door to door, even though I, myself, did not heart Saratoga.
I had more fun in Yosemite than anyone else, in spite of everything. Classmates and adult chaperones tried to drag me down, oh they tried. But hiking switchbacks in the rain and snow, breathing the majesty of the valley,
hours away from the Silicon Valley,
was worth listening to Jason’s Mom snipe insults at me and my sister when she thought no one else could hear her.
It was worth it even when some of the other girls try to stage a sit-in rather than hike to the falls, calling the trip “stupid”.
Word got around that I was bear bait
which, under normal circumstances,
would send me plummeting to shame faster than a stumble off the sheer cliffs. But
I remained steady atop the highest ledge of El Capitan, watching sunbeams steam-clean the curve and slope of Half Dome, a delicate mist sparkling from the surface.
Wishing I could seep into Half Dome’s rockface and stay forever with the legend of Tis-sa-ack,
I thought, “I won’t care what these people think of me in twenty years. I will not care what they think of me now”.
That was the moment I became a woman,
not because I could lay an egg or my uterus was sloughing off old cells, and not because I was impregnatable or that I felt practically embalmed with estrogen and progesterone,
but because I refused to give a damn what anyone thought about it.
But shame is learned. Shame is regressive. I would learn shame.
My mom stocked our shared bathroom with maxi-pads, but she refused to buy me tampons, because I was “too young”. Even when I turned sixteen, I was still “too young”.
Periodically, I have to remind myself that my mom went to finishing school in the 1960’s, an era when they understood hygiene
and apparently virginity
differently than we do today.
I sought second and third opinions on tampon virginity.
“WHAT? No, you are not too young for tampons!” - Aunt Carole.
“Is she afraid this may lead to your sexual awakening?” - my friends.
“That’s a myth” - my doctor.
I bought tampons with my own money.
Menstrual shame, ancient and oppressive, passing through generations preceding Biblical times, is institutionalized.
The anemic woman, reaching through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ tunic for healing, was
desperate, drained, destitute and dirty in the eyes of society.
We think we’ve come so far, but have we?
“Yes, this is natural and normal and expected,” they tell us as tweens (unless a cycle lasts twelve years), but it is also a taboo subject and if you have questions you must glean the answer from advice columns in teen magazines, or by listening to Love Line with Dr. Drew and Adam Carolla.
In college, my friend Tommy hated girls’ periods worse than anything. He mimicked a gag reflex. Mom mailed a care package to my dorm. The custom on our all-girls floor was to
open our care packages in front of each other. Inside was toothpaste, a bag of Dove chocolates, and a giant package of meadow-scented maxi-pads with sticky wings.
“I don’t use these,” I said.
“We don’t use them either,” eight other girls said.
After careful consideration, we agreed it would be best for me to stay up all night painting Tommy’s name in red nail polish on the maxi pads and stick them to his door while he slept.
At my local drugstore, my friend Matt worked in the pharmacy, so I always looked both ways to make sure he wasn’t nearby. I tried to be as discreet as possible. Coast clear, I’d reach up for that box of tampons and suddenly I’d hear Matt say, “Hi Jody”.
Like a goddamn ghost.
With one hand firmly clamped on a box labeled Super Absorbent, I would loudly engage in light pleasantries with Matt, while slowly dying inside, as though my voice volume could mask my outstretched arm and the wide variety of feminine hygiene products stretching the entire length of the aisle.
Matt, undisturbed, would inquire about my overall well-being and that of my family. How was work going? Any fun vacations planned?
This happened more than once.
As an adult, I still toss my box of tampons on the checkout counter with false confidence,
a Come-At-Me-Bro-I’m-Ovulating attitude.
I once heard someone call my name from the next lane over. Four people from my office waved at me. Too late to use my body to block their line of sight to my purchase, I froze like a statue and smiled, chatting, while wishing them all dead.
They kept their eyes locked on my box of tampons, as if they were having a conversation with it instead of me.
The cashier noticed the brand I was buying and said, “Oh, these are the best tampons! I love these. You know I’ve tried all different kinds, but these are the only ones that work for me”.
“Yep,” I said, hardening to stone.
“Because you know sometimes at night, I leak? And these ones, I don’t leak.”
I felt the person behind me stop breathing. The cashier kept going.
“I recommended these to someone and she told me she doesn’t have a problem with that, with the leaking, and I told her, I guess you don’t have a very heavy flow then…”
My skin felt prickly all over. I tried that trick with my eyes where I non-verbally tell someone to shut up,
The cashier didn’t know shame, and I tried to teach it to her.
I dashed out the door, vowing to order tampons online from now on,
The yoga studio keeps tampons available in the locker room, for free.
And here is something that I think about oh, say, once a month:
If men needed tampons for themselves there would be tampons raining from the sky. Tampons would be free like toilet paper in every public bathroom. Tampons would be subsidized and tax-free and included on all food-drive shopping lists.
But nobody thinks about the socioeconomics of feminine products or about poor people having to choose between basic personal care and _________.
It is taken for granted. Some of us don’t think about the mountains women will scale to obtain and hide and re-prioritize feminine hygiene.
We have adapted to our landscape.
We have seeped into the century stone, spreading the dark, silent stain against which we took so many cottony precautions.