I’m 12 years old and in the last weeks of eighth grade. It’s been a weird year—one of my good friends died in a car accident last summer and I feel isolated from the rest of my friends. My Spanish teacher and soccer coach, who has an intense phobia of blood, broke my nose and I had to miss the eighth grade dance, what was then the social event of the year, to have surgery. I’m sitting in Spanish class at the end of one school day when I feel the urge to go to the bathroom. That’s when I find it has finally come—my menarche, although I don’t know the word for it. I miss track practice because I’m somewhat unprepared for it, even though I’ve been anticipating its arrival. I find a female guidance counselor and tell her what has happened.
I’m 14 years old and still involved in athletics every season of the year. My menstrual cycle comes only a couple of times a year, which I attribute to my athletic body. My vagina won’t allow me to use tampons so it’s pads for me when it does come. I’m becoming more aware of my body, how my muscles work, how the inner workings of my body come together to make an awkward teenager. This is the year I’m diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a bleeding disorder related to Crohn’s disease. I’d rather have my period regularly than have to go through all of the procedures and visits to the doctor’s office.
I’m 16 years old when I become sexually active. Even though I have never gotten my period regularly, I freak out every month that I don’t have a period. I don’t associate my non-bleeding with the fact that I can’t get pregnant if I don’t ovulate. But the doctors are telling me that I could be ovulating, the blood could be stuck inside of me, building up into a mess of old blood. This is the year I read “Cunt: A Declaration of Independence” by Inga Muscio. It’s the year I begin to love my menstrual cycle…no matter that it’s pretty much non-existent.
It’s not until I am well into my 20s that I’m diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS. The doctors finally listen to my pleas to find out why I only bleed two weeks out of the year or sometimes not at all. I have come to love the times when I find myself bleeding in my underwear and I know I’m lucky to have relatively pain-free periods. The doctors put me back onto the pill to regulate my cycle. That first period and many after it were my first experiences of pain during menstruation. My breasts swell, causing tenderness and soreness up to two weeks before the bleeding starts. My back hurts and my abdomen feels cramped, but it’s nothing I can’t deal with for a few days.
In “Menstrual Meditations,” Iris Marion Young discusses how girls are devalued and oppressed in their social relations with men and how, even in the so-called free world, women as menstruators are oppressed with the shame associated with the physiological process and compelled to conceal their menstrual events. Young’s article is a poignant account of how public institutions fail to accommodate the menstruating woman’s social and physical needs.
It does not surprise me that many women associate their menstrual cycles with shame and embarrassment. When I experienced menarche, I was lucky to have some practical knowledge about the experience from my two older sisters and my mother. And yet, my menarche was nothing to celebrate. It was the beginning of a rocky relationship with my mother, one where truthfulness about my sexuality didn’t always sit well with her. I refused to allow that to shut down the communication between us. I refused to let her hide behind a wall of passivism and I often talked openly about my cycle with both of my sisters.
Regular periods are not a common occurrence in my family. I remember when I was a young girl hearing about my oldest sister’s one-month-long period and how she didn’t bleed regularly. This openness was kept between the women in the family, however. It was still hidden away from my dad and two brothers. Even in a liberal family full of Yellow Dog Democrats, I learned at a young age that men don’t want to know about “that time of the month” (in my case, that time of the year). As I grew older, I didn’t allow the men the comfort of ignorance. I talk openly about my menstrual cycle with the male members of my family and with my boyfriend. Sometimes, I still see the discomfort in their faces. But it really isn’t any different than the discomfort they show when I talk about my bowel movements related to my ulcerative colitis. The difference is obvious. Colitis is a disease. Menstruation is not.
After seeing the Vagina Monologues as a junior in high school and reading “Uncommon Women and Others,” a play about a group of women at a seven-sister school in which one eccentric character tastes her own menstrual blood, I began to reclaim my bleeding. I’m unnatural if I don’t bleed and yet society would tell me that, as a menstruating woman, I’m queer. They want to shut me in a closet but I make too much noise. It’s a slow process, but I will continue to flaunt my menstruating body with confidence. And if they don’t like seeing the evidence, I guess they can look away.