My Period in Four Parts

or Bleeding For Almost Four Decades

Caveat: This picture is *not* how I feel about tampons

If you menstruate or have menstruated at some point in your life, you’ve likely done the math. Typically, a girl gets her period at 12 or 13 years old and you’re sucked into the bleeding vagina vortex until you’re 50 years old (or thereabout). Women bleed every month for approximately 38 years. That’s a lot of blood to soak up and a lot of tools necessary to do the soaking. In the United States, we’ve got the first presidential hopeful in Hillary Clinton to have come this far who has menstruated up against Donald Trump who seems terrified of and disgusted with the very idea of women bleeding every month. Clearly, we have work to do to strip away the stigma that serves no one but shames many. I’m doing my (four) parts.

  1. I got my period for the first time when I was 13 years old. I’m 47 years old now. I was on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon. It was 1982 and I remember what I was wearing: my blue and white striped nylon “Dolphin” brand shorts and a yellow t-shirt with a sailboat and swaying palm trees. In a photo from that trip, I’m standing by myself facing the camera. My wavy bangs swoop down across my eyes and keep my gaze a bit mysterious. I have one hand on my hip. I swear I can practically read the entire story of the trip in this one photo. Though I call it a “family vacation”, what I mean is that I was on the annual “summer trip with Dad”: the pre-arranged week away with my father, my little brother, and this year my brand new stepmother. My parents were divorced. I was not close to my father or my stepmother. Neither seemed to like my brother or me much. So when I hopped into a public bathroom after a small plane ride through the canyon (during which my brother spent the entire trip with his head hung down between his knees trying desperately not to lose his lunch) and glimpsed the glob of reddish-brown staining my underwear, I gasped. I was terrified. Plus, of course, I had a blood stain on my shorts. Luckily, my mother had been packing me pads for the last six months whenever I traveled without her. Despite my “Gahhhhd, Mom!” when she did, I never felt more gratitude to my mother than I did that day. From then on, for years I used pads. Big, white, puffy pads that weighed down my underwear and pulled stray pubic hair in the adhesive (that still happens and it still hurts like hell, as so many of us know). It took me awhile to learn how to place the pad strategically so as to not let some of the blood seep into my underwear. This was especially important when walking the high-school hallways with an almost-vibrating fear of the dreaded “blood spot” on the back of the jeans. It happened anyway, of course.
  2. At 16 years old, I thought I was supposed to wear tampons. All of my friends talked about using tampons. Until I was 40 years old, I thought I was a freak for not being able to wear a tampon. I hated tampons. I couldn’t bear the thought of walking around — all day — with what may as well have been a padded baseball bat in my vulva simply to absorb the blood. It was a problem during the summer time. Beach outings in high school were common. All of my friends said, “I’ve got tampons. Don’t worry! We can still go swimming!” But I made up excuses. Then I heard somewhere that your period stops when in the water so I’d jump in the public pool with no pad and hope and pray it was true. For the record: it’s not. Your period does not stop when you’re in the water. It’s just that the blood may not flow out of the vagina because of the “counter pressure.” Also for the record: I still don’t use tampons. I tried them a couple of times as an adult. It still felt like I was walking around with a blood-soaked quilted third leg.
  3. Wadded up, rolled up, folded up toilet paper. This was common in my teens. On the outside I was an upper middle class Long Island teen in all of her 1980s designer clothes and gelled hair glory. But underneath I was a mess. I was insecure, terrified, and clinically depressed. Purchasing menstrual pads was not a priority for me; it was embarrassing (why should menstruation be embarrassing? It shouldn’t.) and I simply could not do it in my smallish town. My mother bought me pads but often I couldn’t get it together to ask her. So I regularly used streams of toilet paper to soak up the slough. I’ll go ahead and say it: I still do that sometimes. I’m 47 years old and yet I still find it annoying to have to purchase pads regularly. I’m lucky I am not a heavy bleeder.
  4. The final chapter (I hope). Period panties. Otherwise known as Thinx. Thinx is my savior. My goddess. My dream. I took a break from writing this to order another pair. One for me. One for my 14-year-old daughter. I hope she will not need to wind her way through the menstrual-tool maze I’ve spent my life navigating. Thinx are “period proof underwear” — underwear with an absorbent material sewn into the crotch. There is nothing to do but put on your underwear in the morning and get on with your day (or whenever you chose to get out of bed and believe me if you’ve got cramps like many women do, maybe you’re taking a little bit longer to stay in bed until the damn pain subsides). There are different levels of absorptive materials depending upon how heavy ones’ flow may be, but they all keep you dry so you’re not hanging out in your blood. I readily admit Thinx is not for everyone. Some people may simply bleed too much and feel uncomfortable without “something else.” It’s also expensive. Each pair costs approximately $34 and that’s for one pair. But these period panties have changed my life and I’m hoping to ride this one into menopause.

Menstruation is about a lot more than the tools we use to catch the blood that flows from our bodies every month. Yet it’s important to talk about them. These products cost women more money than they should: in most states tampons, pads, and menstrual cups are taxed as luxury items (although, yay New York City!). It’s also important because another generation of girls do not deserve to experience menstruation as shameful, embarrassing or stigmatizing. I’m not saying we all need to throw “You’re a woman now!” period parties for our newly menstruating daughters (though, hey, if your daughter is nothing like mine, maybe she’ll be into that). But we do need to continue our efforts to normalize menstruation and bleeding by being real about how our bodies work and how we deal with a lifetime — or at least 38 years — of bleeding.

If you’d like to join in on social media, #Tweetyourperiod and share your own stories to “shed the shame.”

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