In most cultures, a girl’s first period is emblematic of womanhood. Her first period not only indicates that she is fertile, but welcomes her into the world of women rather than girls. For me, my first period was not so sacred. I began to realize I was a woman not because I was met with admiration and respect, but because my body and my ability to menstruate were regarded as vulgar and obscene. My period marked my coming to womanhood in that I learned how I was meant to feel about being a menstruating woman. And it was because I was so angered by the old-world attitudes towards my period that I began to grow into my feminist-self and develop my feminist thought. My period marked the beginning of a new awareness of unjust attitudes and language regarding women.
Despite being slightly embarrassed when I came home to the raspberry-topped cupcakes my mother had made to commemorate my coming into “womanhood”, my period was not initially a source of shame. I did not share the horrific first-period story as do so many women--bleeding through white pants onto a classroom chair, staining a bathing suit. Rather, my first period was uneventful, almost, it seemed, of no consequence at all. I did not regard my period as a great source of shame, nor did I see any reason to. I did not question my own body and my right to menstruate and talk about menstruation openly until I found myself in the presence of boys at my coed high school.
It was around this time, during my freshman year at the age of about 14, that I began to see myself and my body in relation to boys, and I grew increasingly self-conscious and concerned with my appearance and appeal. It was also during this time that I began to view my period in a new way--as it was regarded by boys and within the context of a patriarchal society, the nuances of which I was growing more aware of as I grew into female adolescence. Of course, I knew periods were not openly talked about, particularly between adolescent boys and girls. But I was shocked to hear the conversations boys were having about menstruation and how they treated to topic.
My high school group of friends consisted of both girls and boys, although I was closest with the girls and talked more closely with them than I did the boys. During one lunchtime break, my friend and I reached the topic of menstruation, complaining and joking about its inconveniences and pains. When one of my good male friends--I’ll call him Max--listened in and realized what we were discussing, he began berating us for bringing up such a “disgusting” topic while he was eating. My friend and I were not even speaking graphically about our periods--there was a lot more we could have gone into detail about, but we were discussing fairly “tame” things such as whether we preferred pads or tampons.
“You don’t have to go through with it every month, so I don’t think you have a right to tell us not to talk about it”, I had said in defense, laughing because I didn’t realize he was truly peeved.
“I don’t care, I don’t even want to think about it. That is literally so disgusting, seriously, can you not talk about that in my presence? I’m eating”.
I was taken aback. I thought that I was in a safe space in this group of friends, even if it wasn’t an all-female circle. I wasn’t intending on having a detailed conversation examining the bloody intricacies of menstruation, I was merely speaking broadly about a natural process that myself and every other girl in our group was familiar with. I was furious that Max was so repulsed by a process my body carried out by no choice of my own, a process that, as a woman, is so inherent to my being.
Talk of menstruation resurfaced from time to time within my social group, almost always amongst the girls, and again Max would silence us by expressing his intense disgust and demanding we stop talking about the topic in his presence. In one of these instances, I responded by asking why it was unacceptable for girls to discuss an involuntary bodily process that affords us fertility, while masturbation and sexual conquests--which were often spoken about in great detail--were an open topic of discussion amongst boys in the presence of girls. Max responded, somewhat jokingly, that masturbation is something “boys can’t help” and is “necessary for their survival”. I retorted by impressing upon him once again that periods are not only involuntary, but are necessary for reproduction and that he, by the way, will presumably never menstruate in his life, and so should really not have an opinion about it. But nobody, not even my female friends, was as impassioned as I or even seemed to take my side. Nobody seemed to see Max’s reactions as part of a more complex issue, as a form of prejudice or shaming. Rather, the rest of my friends laughed about Max’s sexist jokes and his almost comical disgust regarding menstruation.
Through such conversations, I had learned that I was meant to feel ashamed of my period, and that I must spare people and never speak of it. I learned that I should sit and laugh as boys talked about girls as sexual objects, as they talked openly about their (alleged) sex lives while I was forbidden to even mention my body’s natural functions. I learned to furtively slip my tampon into my shirtsleeve or bra on my way to the bathroom, because I was terrified of informing the world that--shockingly--I, a woman, was on my period. I learned that this is how I was supposed to regard my period and my body, but I was still angry about it, and I didn’t want to follow the rules. It was around this time that I began to shape my feminist ideals, and I believe my own experiences with menstruation and observing how it is regarded by others has been inherent to my development as a feminist.
Reactions such as Max’s to menstruation are widespread, and likely familiar to many girls and women. While his attitude towards periods was offensive and degrading, it is also understandable, a normalized reaction. It is indicative of the taboo surrounding menstruation in the US. We live in a society where the topic of menstruation is seen as more vulgar and offensive than the prevailing images of violence and sexual objectification/degradation of women we see in the media. When women’s bodies are objectified and commoditized for their sexuality, while the natural functions of their bodies are put to shame, this is when menstruation becomes a feminist issue. And it was when I started to hear people talk down to my body, to enforce a stigma upon my body that it became clear to me why such attitudes affected me directly.