Have been reading this wonderful article on experiences of starting periods: The Day I Got My First Period
There are some wonderful stories there, I’ve laughed at some (Call the Cops), cried happy tears at others (Bring us together), and felt saddened by others (Cosmopolitan Past). While they are all different stories by individuals from different eras and backgrounds they all have a common thread.
I have no love for menstruation, you’ll find no desire for period parties here. I see no strength in the menstruation itself, for me personally it’s been hellish from the very start. But there is great strength in the shared experiences of women, it transcends age and location.
Every born woman will have past experience of menstruation, yes, even those whose bodies didn’t do as they were meant to. Because they too will have grown up watching their peers go through it, and felt the worries related to it though multiplied. We all experienced the stigma and the status of menstruation. We all knew it’s significance of changing us from children to women, and the knowledge that we were expected to use this bit of our biology to bear children. Even at that young age we knew that our bodies were seen as ready for sex and procreation, and that to be unable or unwilling was seen as transgressive.
I remember there being a lot of talk of periods just before I started, one of the girls in our year had started at 9 years old and most of us had been told or read that we were likely to start any time after we turned 11. We were 10 years old, already feeling like we weren’t properly children as our age was in double digits. We weren’t like the little ones playing skipping rope in the playground. Instead we’d gather around teen girl’s magazines that someone had pinched from an older sister, or copies of Judy Blume books. We’d devour all the information we could on starting our periods. Alongside it we’d read about sex acts and how we were meant to look, the three seemed to always be packaged together.
We were simultaneously terrified of starting, and excited at the same time. We knew it marked the leap from girlhood to womanhood, we also knew it meant that our bodies were about to go through some massive changes. Some sounded great to us, let’s face it we all wanted boobs – some sounded awful, just how painful could period pain be?
We’d go through lists of what puberty entailed, trying to spot if any of us were showing any signs.
The girl who’d started early was our mentor, we all looked to her for advice and support as she was the “woman”, she’d been there. Through starting she’d suddenly been catapulted from being a girl like us to something else. We were proud to be friends with her, we were respectful of her experience, and we also felt pity for her as we knew it was scary to be first. We were both jealous that she’d been through it, and relieved it was her and not us.
We took bets on who would be next? Who would be last?
There was status in being on of the first, but also fear. We were worried it would hurt, and nervous of others (specifically boys, younger children and adults) knowing.
Conversations in whispered groups shared our hopes and fears. What if it hurt? What if it never happened? Did it mean we had to have sex? How did you use tampons? Did you need to have sex first to use tampons? How embarassing would it be to buy sanitary towels? What if only our dad was home when it started? What if we started in public? Or at school? What if boys spottted sanitary towels or tampons in our school bags? So many questions.
Then as different girls started we talked over what had happened, commiserating, celebrating and mentoring each other. In many ways it was a great equaliser, despite our differences we all shared these moments with each other. We all knew that despite our differences we were all together, and our shared experiences were a shelter in which we could be scared and vulnerable but safe.
We felt like the only ones to go through it, but also knew it was something bigger. For some of us it helped forge a closer bond with female relatives, for some with girls they’d previously been at odds, female teachers changed from distant and unknowable creatures to someone you relate (in a small way) to.
We were part of a club, not with the intent of exclusion, but one of support and safety. We needed to not take this first step into womanhood alone. Over the years I’ve spoken to women who’ve been supported through it, and those who haven’t. And no matter how things were at the time they started, all have been helped by discovering at some point that they are not alone – that they share this part of girlhood.