It was Fall during my 8th grade year—16 years ago. Junior high school, for our school system, marked a time when all three elementary schools merged together. Self-surveillance was at an all-time high. Certain friends you used to have in elementary school now no longer acknowledges your existence because you are not wearing “the right” clothes or hanging around “the right” people. The lines between those who were considered popular and those who were considered nerds are demarcated. Nevertheless, you cope hoping that one day things may be different and that maybe you will find your own voice among the many. Add to this burgeoning dilemma of figuring out who you are to the uncertainties surrounding becoming a woman.
I remember sitting in Mr. McIntyre’s* English class listening to a muffled discussion about conjunctions. This room was smaller than the others in our junior high school. The desks are all lined up row by row facing the front of the room towards the teacher. You could reach out in one arm’s length to touch your neighbor. Chalkboards created the boundaries that surrounded your lack of interaction with the outside world. Each chair had a single desk attached to its hinges and there were no cushions just hard, plastic molding wedged between your body and the seat. I usually sat in the back close to the door since he was not one of my favorite teachers. On this particular day, I failed to hear a word he said. I remember feeling a warm sensation stemming from my lower abdomen flowing downward. I was never one to excuse myself from class so I just sat there…thinking. What is this feeling? This sensation feels awkward but tickles. At times when it seemed that no one was looking, I remember moving around on my seat trying to observe myself. I saw nothing. I became so frustrated that I started counting down the time to the bell.
As soon as the bell rang, I ran to the bathroom. I was horrified with what I had discovered. I went to the office and explained to the secretary that I pooped myself and needed to call my mother for a change of clothes. I said, “Mom, I pooped myself. Can you bring a change of clothes? Can you make sure to put them in a brown bag so it looks like my lunch?” She said, “You didn’t poop yourself, you had your first period.” “What? I thought periods are supposed to look bloody? Mine isn’t bloody, its brown and clumpy, like poop.” My mother is a nurse and began to discuss the uniqueness of the first menarche. She said, “Every woman’s first period is unique for her. The amount and type of flow is different for each individual.” It was like the Gestalt switch went off in my mind. So, this is what it looks and feels like to become a woman? Cool.
As I reconstruct my own experience, I cannot help but recognize the themes that Lee and Young articulate about menstruation. I acknowledge that my own experience relates to the contaminated body that Lee describes. After all, I did think I soiled myself. I also felt shame. In recollection, this shame stems from the ideas that we read last week in Foucault—that someone is watching me. My paranoia is the awareness that I am somehow different from my peers at that very moment in time. Young (2005) suggested, “On the one hand, girls should take pride in becoming women, with the sexual and reproductive powers that this entails. On the other hand, they must take care to hide evidence of their bleeding from family members, schoolmates, and even strangers on the street” (p. 101). I become the abject, monstrous body that other feminists talked about. The hush hush that I experienced at school on this day only perpetuated this feeling inside me. None of the school administrators talked to me. I was told to sit in the office and wait until my mother arrived. I felt as if I was a bad student waiting to receive punishment. In turn, I myself responded to this internal turmoil by hiding my change of clothes by directing my mother to bring a brown lunch bag.
This is a moment that I will never experience again—a new beginning that marks my becoming a woman. After reading the stories of others, I feel that there should have been less concealment and more celebration. Is the answer really making the strange familiar in order for others to accept our differences in society? I am not so sure. Why can’t we be sensible to all our differences and celebrate these experiences that make us unique individuals? *name changed