I was young when I got my first period. I had just turned eleven and was still much smaller than the other kids (thanks to my doomed genetics that destined me to forever be shorter than the other kids). I wore a training bra that I hid underneath oversized t-shirts and sweaters. I smiled with my lips shut becuase I didn’t want the world to see my multi-colored braces. And I got my period.
I was filled with both pride and shame. I got my period before all my friends — I was a “real woman” first— but…I got my period before all my friends. I slipped pads into the sleeves of my sweaters and ducked out of a game of jump-rope at recess to go to the bathroom, forever afraid that I would bleed through my pants and my secret would be out. I didn’t want to be known as the first girl in the grade to get her period.
Whispers at sixth grade slumbers parties. In a game of truth or dare, someone would ask: have you gotten your period? And quietly, I would say yes, sometimes with the company of another, and sometimes the sole bleeder in the room. My chest would swell with pride when they asked me questions — does it hurt? How long does it last? Did it bleed through? I liked being able to answer their questions, to reassure them that I got my first period and survived. I liked giving them advice and celebrating when they told me that their first period finally came. But then…there was the shame.
The shame set in after a dreaded sex-education lesson. They separated boys and girls in the heteronormative, binary way that perpetuates in all U.S. schools. I was one of the few who had gotten their period, and somehow, that had spread between classrooms. When the boys came back into the room, they snickered. One told me, “You’re mature now, huh?” I could feel them looking at me differently, trying to see the outline of my training bra that I hid so well. I slid down in my chair and pretended not to hear them.
And suddenly, I became painfully aware of the fact that, since I was a menstruator, I was a distraction. A sexual object. When in reality, I was just an eleven-year-old.
I tried to mask my fear with my pride, reminding myself of all the times my friends came to me for advice or asked if I had a pad they could borrow when their first periods came in the elementary school hallways. But since then, I became painfully aware of the fact that I was desirable, that somebody might want to have sex with me, that I could get pregnant, and that I had to be careful.
I was eleven. Eleven-year-olds shouldn’t have to worry about getting pregnant the minute they get their first period. They shouldn’t have to worry: what happens if someone rapes me? What if I’m a pregnant eleven-year-old?
Periods are beautiful. Eleven-year-olds should not be sexualized the moment they get them. Nobody should be sexualized the moment they get their period. This is how pervasive rape culture is — the moment I turned eleven I became even more afraid of rape, because now I could get pregnant, now I was an object. And that’s messed up.
And on top of all that, there’s added pressure that menstruators feel to get their periods at the “right” time — I felt like mine came too early. I had friends who felt like there’s came too late, that they were the last ones to bleed, that they weren’t desirable because they were fifteen and still hadn’t had their first period. Again, an example of how pervasive the male gaze is in society — menstruators don’t feel desirable until they bleed. But if they bleed too early, they have to be careful.
Now, I’m glad I got my period when I did. It’s taken me a long time but I’m finally comfortable with my menstruation and still feel a sense of pride when I look back on my days helping out friends who got their periods for the first time and didn’t know what to do. But there’s this added shame that comes with getting your period early, a feeling of being sexualized at such a young age — a sense of guilt because somehow, because I got my period at eleven, it was my fault I became a distraction. My fault that the boys snickered and stared.
I think it’s time we start teaching young menstruators to love their bodies, regardless of what age they get their periods. And it’s time we start pushing back on all the ways that rape cultures influences how menstruators feel about their bodies.