I don’t actually remember how old I was when I started my period. I definitely don’t remember the exact day or what that first period was like, the way girls always do in books. But I must’ve been 11 or 12, because I know I’d started before I left middle school.
We hit a certain point—around 5th grade or so—when lots of conversations became about “menstruation” and what the hell that might mean. A few of us had been talked to or handed literature by our parents about periods. And it was a right of passage for us—my friends and I spent days and hours obsessing over whether we were developing breasts, talking about what it would be like to have a period. Even those of us who hadn’t gotten them yet carried around at least a pad in their purse or backpack “just in case.”
But that pad falling out of my purse was always a nightmare possibility. I remember dropping my purse once, the contents spilling onto the ground. The girl behind me, who wasn’t one of my close friends, noticed the pad. Her eyes got a little bigger. “Did you start,” she whispered to me. I blushed, told her not yet, but that I thought I would soon.
Once my period actually started, there were all sorts of difficult waters to navigate. What if I got blood on my clothes? How would I know when it stopped? How would I get myself into the bathroom with a pad without someone seeing? If I only carried my purse to the bathroom a few days out of the month, everyone would know what that meant! And somehow, having everyone know that I was on my period was just as bad as having people think that I was too undeveloped to get it yet.
Because periods are negatively pathologized.
Among some useful information about what was actually happening to my body was lots of social stigma and confusion. I was made to feel as though symptoms of PMS and PMDD were normal, everyday occurrences, when in fact those are medical disorders present in only a fraction of menstruating women. I was told that severe physical and psychological symptoms were normal, and as a consequence it was years before I sought the medical treatment that I needed to make my periods more bearable.
And that’s only here, that’s only my period.
Across the world, girls endure more difficulty than I can imagine connected with their periods. While I have the option of walking half a block and choosing from a multitude of disposable pads and tampons and/or ordering and using reusable cups or pads, that is not an option in many places. Girls miss school, women miss work. They have to use unsanitary materials to catch the period blood. They are ostracized.
There are a lot of conversations going on about periods right now. Women are protesting taxes on sanitary products. New organizations are helping women and girls across the world gain access to sanitary products.
But we still have a long, long way to go.