It’s only natural that in reading about menarche this week, I was reminded of my own first experience of menstruation. On the last day of fourth grade, I woke up and went to the bathroom to discover the red mess that I had not yet been prepared to expect. While I always looked forward to the last day of school with excitement over the fun and games in store, I told my mother what had happened and convinced her to call in sick for me. As I remember, I didn’t really feel unwell, but I was not prepared to spend the day with my peers after this discovery. I was only ten years old.
My mother had talked to me some about what would happen when I got my period, but I had heard so little about it elsewhere that it was still a bit of a mystery to me. My exposure to the realities of “becoming a woman” in popular culture was mainly limited to ads for feminine hygiene products that were about as informative as Tina Fey described hilariously in her memoir Bossypants (“nowhere…did anyone say that it wasn’t a blue liquid!”). Being so young, none of my friends had started their periods, and even our school-sponsored “sex ed day” would not come until the next year. While my mother tried to talk to me about the physical aspects of growing up, this was clearly a topic that she was not comfortable with and these few conversations were quite brief and basic.
My experience of my period has shifted several times over the years as I’ve moved through different phases. Young described this type of changing experience of menstruation during different times of life (teenage years, adult years when the ability to have children is either embraced/pursued or avoided, menopause), and I can identify several different relations to my menstrual cycle that I have experienced over time.
Despite my rocky start, I soon came to appreciate the connection I felt with my body. Even as a teenager, I could track my cycle based on how I felt, pinpointing ovulation and being able to predict the start of my period reliably each month. Janet Lee described menarche as an experience of alienation from one’s own body – something that happens to a young woman rather than within her – but my continued experience actually made me feel more aware of and connected to my body. I enjoyed this intuitive understanding of my own body that I developed, despite the pain and discomfort that sometimes came along with it.
As I grew older and became sexually active, my experience of my period changed again. I became aware of my menstrual cycle as intimately tied in to my reproductive potential. Every late period was experienced as panic over potential pregnancy, and my monthly bleeding was greeted with relief and reflection over my readiness (or lack of readiness) to become a mother.
Eventually I started taking birth control pills, and my experience changed once again. Although I came to appreciate more piece of mind over the control I felt over my own body, I no longer felt my intuitive connection with it. Just as the pill moderated my cycle and muted my menstrual pains, I also no longer knew or felt exactly what was happening within my body at any given time. This last step – one that it could be argued have me the greatest agency over my physical condition – actually caused me to feel more alienation from my body than even menarche did.
I often wonder how these experiences would have changed if our culture had coming-of-age rituals for girls like those found elsewhere in the world. If we had celebrations when young women achieved menarche (celebrations that actually recognized it as an achievement rather than something gross or dirty), would young girls like me feel more prepared and excited about this significant milestone? Would my mother have felt more comfortable talking to me about my changing body? These are questions I will need to keep in mind and consider in my own role as mother. How can I normalize and celebrate this fact of life if/when I have my own daughter? I may not be able to change our culture as a whole, but I can consciously influence how my own children relate to their bodies.