My Little Red Book: My First Period
Almost every woman remembers her first one......
My Little Red Book, by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, brings together the funny, poignant, and lively accounts of women who, across generations and backgrounds, share the circumstances of their first period. It's Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul meets The Vagina Monologues.
The idea for My Little Red Book grew out of my own first period, which arrived during my seventh-grade spring break, while I was away with my widowed, rather old-fashioned grandfather. Under the circumstances, I had to fend for myself. My mom's long-distance, over-the-phone efforts at explaining the use of a tampon failed miserably, and the napkin aisle at the pharmacy, with its huge array of unfamiliar products and packages, was completely bewildering to a beginner. What was worse, my parents had signed me up for a week's worth of water-skiing lessons as my main vacation activity. My predicament was funny, but only in retrospect.
When my mom began to share the news and the circumstances with other women in our family, I was initially embarrassed. Then, I began to hear amazing stories and accounts of the events surrounding their own first periods. One aunt got her period while being strip-searched at the German border as she fled Nazi deportation. A cousin's period arrived while she was on summer holiday visiting a French country farmhouse without any modern plumbing. My mom had never heard any of these stories before. Although most women remember their first period quite vividly, few have had the chance to share these intensely personal memories.
My story also provoked nostalgia among the women I spoke to, and for my mom, a flashback to her experience in 1973. Like so many women, this memory had been forgotten, and came back along with recollections of herself at that time. Mom felt the powerful bonds of mother-daughter kinship being strengthened through this rite of passage. Quite suddenly, she recognized that I was no longer a child.
Inspired, we decided to gather the recollections of friends and acquaintances and add the perspectives of women from very different backgrounds, as well as some well-known and admired public figures.
There is an obvious feminist side to this topic. As Gloria Steinem imagined in "If Men Could Menstruate," her 1978 classic essay in Ms. magazine, if men had periods, there would be much bragging and bonding and period envy each month. The world would be quite a different place. By airing our own stories, we reclaim our history, and open the channels of communication between women: mothers and daughters, sisters and aunts, to bring on the celebration. We lay a common ground. We shed new light on who we are as individuals.
There is much that is revealed about each individual through these diverse stories. Barclay Gang tells us how she experienced her first period with her Jamaican maid at her side - helping her from the other side of the closed bathroom door. Leigh Bienen experienced her period through the aching confusion of her parents' divorce, and Ilene Lainer through the traumatic loss of her home to fire. Zannette Lewis's family used the occasion to recall the painful memories of her ancestors' slavery. And it is remarkable how the details of the moment become seared in our memories: some ten, twenty, and in even thirty years later, women remember exactly where they were, and even what they were wearing and doing.
Until recently, many women felt the subject was not even appropriate for conversation. We approached one woman, Shelley, who claimed her own story was not interesting. We pressed on, and asked if someone else in her family might have a story - and inquired specifically about Shelley's mother. The answer was revealing: "Oh, I don't think I could possibly ask my mother about this subject." As an antidote to this, My Little Red Book will give women permission to tell each other these stories, and in the case of our mothers and grandmothers, will secure a valued place for these personal histories, before they are lost altogether.
The time is right for this type of empowerment. Before the widespread acclaim of The Vagina Monologues, this topic might have felt too risqué. Now, with reality television, and the focus of so much of our culture on sticky situations and embarrassing moments, the public is ready to accept and embrace this topic.
A Puddle, 1991
I get my period when I am in the seventh grade. In the morning it is one single red brown dot at the center of my panties. I am embarrassed. Annoyed. By the time I get to school, my period is heavy. I bleed though a pad in an hour. Inside my locker, I keep stacks of soft pink squares wrapped in plastic. I wedge them inside my purse one at a time when no one is looking. They make noise next to my chapstick and house key.
In English listening to the teacher diagram a sentence, I can feel it. The blood between my thighs runs and fills the pad, the wet stickiness warm and gushy. I sit very still, my thighs pressed together. I have twenty minutes before class lets out. There is no silent reading today so I can't leave with a bathroom pass to change my pad. I stare at my notebook while wrapping my fingers around the edge of the plastic desk, trying to avoid any gum. I slide my fingers down onto the cool metal of the arm and focus on that instead of my rag. I can't possibly ask to be excused. All my pads are in my purse. Everyone will know when I stand up why I take my purse with me to the bathroom. She's so gross, they'll think. Yuck, look at her. It will be just like Carrie. Plug it up, they'll scream at me.
I shift in my seat and then I look, look in between my legs to see if any has gotten on the chair and it has. Blood is on the chair! I have tissue and when no one is looking, I slide it under my thighs. I will my period to stop. I squeeze my insides, but I feel the blood ooze and seep. I begin to chant: stop, stop, stop, stop. Closing my eyes, I imagine the little vessels closing up and shutting their mouths or that my body is like a facet and all I have to do is shut it off. I do this in my head, turning harder and harder to off. But all I see is the blood squirting everywhere. Ten minutes left. Blood is on the tissue. Blood is wet against the upper thighs of my jeans. Wet. I take away bloody fingers. And then the bell rings and I slowly order my books on my desk. Take my time until the whole class leaves. And then I stand up and look at the blood on the plastic chair. I hurry up to the teacher's desk and tell her I left a puddle.
-Laura Madeline Wiseman, Arizona
Laura is a graduate student and a community activist.
The Ming Period
There are periods of world history - large, expansive, extremely important and eventful times in human existence - that I will never remember, yet for as long as I live, I won't forget the Ming Dynasty, for it was to the noise of their clashing swords that I became a woman. I was in seventh grade, age 13, and we were watching a movie on Chinese history. While the Mings were in the midst of expelling the Mongols, I began to feel this unearthly pain in my lower abdomen.
We were all sitting on the floor of the classroom to watch the movie and I remember attempting to discreetly lie on my belly in hopes that it might go away. Facedown in the scratchy carpet, I tried to figure out was happening to me. My two guesses were 1) appendicitis, and 2) my period. As the Mings were reforming the Chinese Civil Service Examinations, I weighed my options: if it was appendicitis, then either I would have to go to the hospital, or just die, and not have to come back to school in either instance. Of course, if I had gotten my period, then that was another matter - that meant a lot more.
Back in the days of middle school, at least at my middle school, getting one's period was akin to a competitive sport. Everyone knew who had theirs already; everyone couldn't wait to join their ranks in womanhood. My best friend at the time who I had known since preschool had gotten hers a couple months earlier, and I remember sitting jealously in my living room as my mother congratulated her and explained to her womanhood, what it meant to grow up, and the finer points of the tampon vs. pad debate.
I was very excited, lying there in the carpet, at the notion that now it might be my turn. I ended up sticking it out for the whole film, which I still feel is quite an accomplishment—it was a very long movie, there is a lot that happened in 14th century China. After a trip to the girls' bathroom and a harrowing experience with the pad dispenser, I got on the school bus to go home, excited to tell my mother the news. I expected a lot from that talk. I expected secrets to be revealed, meanings to be exposed, and to emerge somehow closer to my mother and her adult world. I remember beaming as she sat me down on her bed with a package of pads and launched into a similar version of the talk she had given my friend. But about five or ten minutes into it, her then-boyfriend got home from work and walked into the bedroom. She looked at me, handed me the package, and nothing more was said. My first period remained an event shared only by the Mings and me.
-Aliza Shvarts, Los Angeles, CA
Aliza is an Art major at Yale.
Slippery in the Stairwell
Unlike a lot of girls at that time (1965-66), I knew quite a bit about what to expect. My mother, who had studied nursing for two years, had been careful to explain the Facts of Life in a way I could understand from the time I was very young. Around about fifth grade I discovered I could put off bedtime if I asked her to explain to me about the uterus and the ovaries again. (She drew pictures, which was time-consuming for her and more stay-up time for me.) I was a problem child for the poor teacher who was given the job of (highly controversial and new) sex education for girls, because I would show off my learning and use the scientific terms when I asked questions. (Okay, I admit it, I was a geek as a kid.)
I spent fifth and most of sixth grade in a state of high excitement, waiting and hoping for that first period, the sign that I was a woman at last. I knew it would be soon, because when I bounced and watched myself in the mirror, I began to see jiggling, which was my mother's bottom line requirement for a first bra. Until the boys in my sixth grade class noted it, I hadn't realized I was getting hair under my arms - another milestone. So I waited, even though it seemed like I waited forever.
I can still see the time and place where I got that first hint. In the hall outside our sixth grade classrooms, as I was walking down the stairs, I felt some kind of slipperiness between the cheeks of my rear. It never occurred to me to look until I was home. My parents were out, we had a babysitter, and I startled her immensely by joyfully screaming, "I've got my period! I've got my period!" She celebrated with me, having reached that longed for state two years before me. The first thing I did was find the pads and the little belt (in those days you either hung a pad off a little belt inside your underwear, or you pinned it to your underwear - no stick-on napkins then), assemble them as my mother had shown me, and put my first napkin on. When my parents came home I got hugs and congratulations.
By the next day I was introduced to the downside of having a period: my first, very mild, case of cramps as my parents wondered if I should go to a roller-skating party. In later months I would learn about worse cramps, lower back pain, and the fact that you can't wear a napkin to a swimming party, which included a painful first introduction to a tampon. But I have never forgotten those first few hours, the slippery feeling that led to triumph, that feeling that I'd passed the last test of womanhood and could conquer the world.
-Tamora Pierce, New York
Tamora Pierce is the author of the best-selling teen fantasy series The Lioness Quartet