I was in the sixth grade when I got my first period. Two white girls came up to me in gym class; tennis rackets in hand, stern-faced and whispering as they approached me. Um. We think you got your (they leaned closer and whispered) period.
The gym teacher handed me an unopened box of Supers cardboard tampons and whispered for me to come find her “if I needed help.” I stood in the bathroom stall and dangled a giant tampon in front of my face by the string. I watched it twirl slightly, my heart racing, my mouth agape.
I stared in horror at the pink and white foldout sheet of comic-strip instructional diagrams. After a few minutes of full-bodied panic, I folded the sheet of paper carefully and placed it back in the box. I threw the tampon away, pulled approximately four yards of toilet paper from the dispenser, and stuffed a giant wad into my panties.
I waddled out of the bathroom and stood against the wall of the gym until the teacher came over. Everything alright? She looked concerned. I nodded, silent and terrified.
Before lunchtime, I had bled through my jeans. I went to the nurse’s office and sat on a newspaper until my mom came to pick me up.
For years I felt betrayed by my body, like it was the scene of a crime I didn’t commit. I felt like a victim to my period. I resented it. Felt punished by this blood. Hated that it was mine.
I didn’t understand my period. I didn’t know how to handle my period. And I definitely, definitely didn’t talk about my period. For a long time, I didn’t realize how much shame I carried about what my body did once a month. Until I started to put it down, I didn’t realize how heavy that shame become.
As girls, we are socialized to make ourselves small. We’re taught – via subtle and explicit social norms – that our bodies and voices are not to take up too much space. Subconsciously, I followed this rule like religion. When I got my period, I felt like my body was waving a red flag in a white room.
The fact that no one was talking about their periods made me believe they were something to conceal. Other than the occasional PMS joke, everyone pretended like it wasn’t happening.
This silence complicated my menstrual cycle. My cramps were debilitating, my mood swings drastic and unpredictable. I endured these sufferings alone—accepted a life of discomfort as my fate.
It took me years to see my period as something other than cruel and unusual punishment. On that journey, I’ve been lucky enough to stumble across this wisdom: Anything I am told to conceal is worthy of my close examination. People in traditionally “othered” bodies—women, POC, trans and genderqueer folk, people with disabilities—are constantly told that our bodies are problems to be corrected.
Shame and oppression are inextricably linked. Shame is emotional and psychological bondage—a foundation of a system that serves to create and uphold the power of few.
Artist-activist Sonya Renee Taylor, founder of The Body is Not an Apology, asks us to consider, “Who profits from your self-loathing?”
Whenever I feel shame, I am compelled to ask myself: What power do I have that this shame is preventing me from accessing? Who is invested in keeping me away from that power? Why are they so afraid of what might happen if I claim that power as mine?
I started to think about what might happen if girls and women embraced our periods, instead of trying to pretend they never happen. What would happen if we stopped trying to hide our pads and tampons on the way to the bathroom? If we engaged in open dialogue about the ins and outs of our body’s monthly ritual? What if we redirected all the energy we spend on trying to fix and hide our bodies towards something else entirely?
What might shift—culturally, socially, politically—if we stopped apologizing for our periods?
I have a feeling the world might change. I don’t know for sure, but I’m trying to find out.
Image credit: Emilie Stovik