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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Coming Out of the Menstruation Closet


posted by Silvana
I got my period when I was eleven. In fact, I believe that I got it during church, when I was eleven. I had been expecting it, and I had learned about it all the year before in a special girls-only lecture in my fifth-grade classroom, carried out by a woman I'd never seen before. In fact, I'd really learned about it all three years before, sitting in the stacks in my school library with a book about sex and reproduction. I'd looked up "sex" in the card catalog. See, I was a curious child, as most are, and having found some oblique references to sex in books laying around our house which I had devoured with dusty fingers on weekday evenings, I wanted to know more. I never got to the point where I was anxious for my period to come, although I'd read enough stories about menarche and "You're a woman, now, little Susie" to wonder, on the sight of first blood, whether I would be subjected to some kind of "talk" or a bouquet of flowers, or a crate of fluffy Always pads. I hoped not.

Whatever. I had to get back to Sacrament Meeting, so I stuffed some toilet paper in my underwear, readjusted my dress, and went to sit back down on the padded folding chairs and endure a talk about Listening To The Still Small Voice. I wondered if I would get blood on the fabric of my dress, or worse, the nubbly chairs. I waited, through the rest of the meeting and then Sunday School and then Young Women's, until glorious twelve-thirty when I could, starving, get the hell out of there. I examined my situation--I felt fine. I had read about cramps, and PMS, and bloating. Did I feel bad? No. I was hungry, and jonesing for some Chinese. I figured I should talk to someone about this whole thing, but I wasn't sure who. It was November, and the Cairo are was getting a little chilly, and I wore a jacket I'd stolen from the scraps in my older sister's abandoned closet.

My sister had left for college just a few months before, and my older brother had gone off to military school for his sophomore year. I was kind of desperately lonely in the house without them, and I'd promised God several times that if they could only come back I'd be the best little sister ever. Nevermind the fact that up to that point I'd been a pretty stellar little sister as it was. No, I was a religious child, and therefore filled with a deep sense of guilt and inadequacy! So it was just me and my dad, and I guessed that I should probably let him know. After church we'd stopped by his office to do something or other, and as we strolled out, past the jasmine tree with no blossoms, I told him. He kind of shrugged and asked me if I was okay, and I said I felt fine.

I think it took me 'til the next month's bleeding to get around to buying feminine "products." I was scared the first time, but I figured I'd just throw them in with a whole bunch of groceries from the store near our house and, hey, they could be for anyone, right? I stood there in the aisle wondering why my sister hadn't ever sent me to buy her pads--she had sent me on all kinds of errands, including buying her shampoo, picking up books from the library, and getting papers out of her locker. My high-school age sister loved nothing more than to lay in bed all day reading books and listening to extremely loud music on her headphones, so I was surprised that she was buying them herself when I was a willing errand-girl. I guess I decided that day that taking care of your period needs was just something you did yourself.

For the next six years, I did just that. I would ask my dad for money for pads (or tampons, once I switched), and he would give me some, and I would go to the grocery store, or the pharmacy just around the corner, and pick them up. When I started having cramps, I would pick up some ibuprofen 600 mg tablets from the selfsame pharmacy. The fall of my tenth-grade year, when the cramps really started to get intense, I had a ritual: I would come home right after school, and pop 1200 mg of ibuprofen, take a long, hot shower, and go to sleep. I'd wake up around six for dinner, feeling rested, clean, and not like total shit. My junior year, I don't remember much about my menstruational history except that one evening, during Model United Nations, I'd bled a spot of blood on my jeans and I knew it, and I heard two male friends of mine behind me looking and laughing about it, and was humiliated.

Fourteen years after I started bleeding every month, I feel like I've mostly gotten the hang of it. But the other day, I realized the extent to which having "gotten the hang of it" is only true within the limited context of our culture of concealment. Getting the hang of it means learning how to conceal it as best as possible, so no one ever knows you've got it. Where menstruating is embarrassing, and though almost every woman of child-bearing age menstruates, you still don't want any man not your intimate to know that you are actually bleeding right now.

A couple storefronts down from my office is a corner convenience store, and me and my coworkers go there all the time, to get drinks, snacks, or use their microwave. One of the cashiers there always calls me "honey", which I don't like at all, and the guys both set my creepometer off. And the other day I believe the other one was making a comment about my breasts, although when I tried to call him on it, he feigned innocence. So when I found myself at work with no tampons and a lot of blood, although the sensible thing would have been to run over there and buy some goddamn tampons already, I didn't want to. Because I felt like I knew those men, I didn't want to present a box of Tampax Regulars for purchase, even though I wouldn't have so much as batted an eyelash purchasing them from a male cashier at any other store. I waited until lunch, and I bought some when I got a sandwich from the grocery store.

I still worry about bleeding onto my clothes, or onto furniture. I still put the tampon in my pocket, or tuck it in my waistband if I don't have pockets for the walk from wherever I'm sitting to the bathroom, to make the change. I still don't think I would ask a female friend for a tampon within earshot of any dude not my boyfriend. And I'm twenty-five, for god's sake. Most of the men I know are pretty comfortable with The Woman Thing and not inclined to act like twelve-year-olds and giggle. But it's still awkward. It still feels strange to disclose to a male friend that I am grumpy as fuck because I have awful, awful cramps. The culture of concealment is strong, and it means that I can't buy tampons from the store right next to my office. In fact, there's a liquor store right across the street from my house that I've been going into for years and I don't think I'd buy tampons from there, either.

Why do I feel this way? It's utterly stupid. Because somehow my making these men aware of the fact that I am menstruating is going to make them briefly contemplate my vagina and then their heads will explode? Or is that I shouldn't impose my gross bleeding on other people because this is a Private Matter? And yet, I doubt I'm at all unique in having these particular thoughts. Like menstruation is a shame that we shouldn't impose on men. I never had anyone buy me pads or tampons until, I think, about three months ago. My boyfriend thought it was weird that I was like, "Are you sure? You don't mind?"

So here's a revelation. Menstruation isn't gross, or shameful. In fact, it's actually kind of boring. It's only "weird" or "should be private" if you think of men as the default human beings and women as some sort of otherworldy creatures with bizarre practices. It happens every month in about the same way. Sometimes it hurts a lot, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it's unpleasant and sometimes I forget that it's even happening. It's not that much of a pain in the ass except for the fact that there is this elaborate ritual of concealment that we have to play a part in, lest we offend the men. For my part, my concealment ritual is socially- and self-imposed (rather than by any actual men who've told me to shut up), and I think I'll try to let it go. So, world: I AM MENSTRUATING RIGHT NOW. And it doesn't particularly suck, and I don't particularly care what you think about it.

[Image and an excellent analysis of it from here]

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