By Kate Zieman
Before you get all excited, be aware that this is not another anti-tampon manifesto, guide to the construction/use/care of alternative hygiene products, or article about how I found the Goddess Within by painting with my menstrual blood and howling at the moon. I can’t help you with any of that, since I have only a passing acquaintance with moss and have only ever used rags for wiping up cat puke. Instead, I want to take a journey to a little place I know, a place filled with braces, rampant mall-hair and the inexplicable need to wear neon bicycle shorts. A place called Adolescence (here circa 1988-1992). It is at this ugly, ugly time that many of us first experience that most bizarre of bodily functions, The Period. For me and several of my friends, it was also at this time that we discovered the yawning chasm between life as people say it is and life as it really is. There are many people to blame for this, but in my experience the makers of sex education films and Judy Blume are the prime offenders.
Starting in grade 4, I had to watch an ever-sillier parade of “health” movies, although I’m still not sure why they used that particular euphemism. The first one starred Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables as a farmer whose horse was pregnant (not by her, you perverts). Over the course of the film, the horse gets fatter and crankier and eventually shoots out a baby horse, at which point everybody oooohs and aaaahs over the Miracle of Life and flute music plays. The random children in the film ask Marilla/Farm Lady about the horse’s pregnancy, and she answers in non-threatening-yet-anatomically detailed language. We were all pretty bored, having come to class prepared for hardcore porn (why else would they make our parents sign a permission form?) and afterwards life carried on much the same as before, which is to say comfortably abstract.
The next year, though, things started to get freaky. This time it was filmstrips from the early ’70s featuring the most hideously unattractive people the casting director could dig up, probably in a Degrassi-esque attempt to make us relate. The first strip featured a boy who was having some masturbation issues (mastur-what? Marilla, why has though forsaken me?). This velour-clad gent, whom we’ll call Luke, lived in fear of growing hair on the palms of his hands, turning blind, etc. and in one Oscar-worthy scene he had to secretly wash his sheets in the middle of the night after an “accident”. The entertainment value is unparalleled, and the message is a good one: you’re not a freak, don’t believe your friends, and consider investing in rubber sheets. Fine. The final film, though, was the one that had the most resonance. It involved a girl we’ll call Amy who was a paragon of well-adjusted girlhood. She was super-proud of her “new breasts” (an actual quote that has stayed with me for the past thirteen years) and wore tight orange turtlenecks everywhere to show ’em off. One day she gets her period, much to her delight, and this completes her Voyage to Womanhood. The narrator seems really happy for her too, rambling on about how much more attractive she is to boys and ain’t it grand to be a lady. Gone is the, “yeah, puberty’s gross and creepy, but eventually it will seem funny” punch-on-the-arm approach of the boy’s film. Now it’s all about workin’ it in an orange turtleneck at the seventh grade dance. I’m not sure why girls were supposed to matter-of-factly accept everything happening to them with nary a whimper, but there it is.
This brings me to Judy Blume’s novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. If you haven’t read it, it’s about a girl named (wait for it…) Margaret, who positively lusts for her period and goes so far as wearing a belt and pad around so that she will be prepared when the Day of Days finally comes. She’s a bit like those doomsday prophets who wear the sandwich boards. Anyway, at last she gets her damn period and she’s suddenly mature and content and somehow more, just like that. It’s Amy all over again, sans the turtleneck (although Margaret does misguidedly fashion some “new breasts” out of cotton balls in an earlier moment, but I digress). It’s as though these girls read the Secretes of Adulthood in their bloody drawers, tea-leaf style, and afterwards they are unshakably chill. That’s all fine and good, but if my life is at all typical it is also a dirty stinkin’ lie.
Contrasting adolescent Kate with Amy and Margaret is a dismal exercise indeed. In this blossoming-woman story, Kate wakes up the day of the big soccer tournament to discover that something is very, very wrong. Kate cries, and must play The Big Game in what is essentially a diaper, and won’t tell anyone for a year in the hopes that it will go back where it came from and the slate will be wiped clean. Kate is thoroughly convinced that she is a freak of nature since all her friends have also adopted the code of silence. Carrie is a more accurate filmic representation of my experience than any healthy filmstrip, except that my gym teachers were never that hot and we didn’t have to take group showers. Anyway, where is my sparkly glow of woman hood? Where is the pride and quiet confidence? Buried under my Blossomhat and the fucking largest sweatshirt money can buy? No, friends. It is nowhere. This actually makes me really sad, because my mom is nothing like the mom inCarrie and tired very hard to make me well-adjusted, but the trauma was still brutal. And informal poll of my friends yields similar results:
Kate: What did you think when you first got your period?
Kasha: It happened when I was living in Indonesia. The Canadian Embassy had cottages in the mountainous region of Puncak (poon-chak). As a child with a long history of incontinence, I wasn’t entirely surprised (at 13!) to see strangeness in my undies, but the sight left me terribly confused. ‘I’d be more likely to pee myself’, I thought. ‘I don’t SHIT myself. I think I would have known if I had had a crapcident!’. After some trepidation as to what course of action was next (always comically illustrated by one’s pants around one’s ankles) I think I stuffed a wad of toilet paper in my pants, thus beginning a long and beautiful tradition. “Mom”…I squeaked, as she yapped with my brother on the patio. She was oblivious as ever, and made me announce my emergence into woman hood. I don’t think I had even considered that it my be my period. After years and years of filmstrip training, I still thought it more likely that I would poo my pants than get my period. Unfortunately, as I was in the mountains, I couldn’t have a bat and had to use stacks of tissues in place of pads (after ripping open a cheap Indonesian pad, I discovered that there wasn’t a difference): The “what orifice…” game/humiliation continued later in the year when I first tried to use tampons, and when I told my mother that it didn’t feel quite right, she asked, ‘did you put it in the right hole?’ Thanks, mom. You make it all better.
Jamie: In no way whatsoever did primary school sex ed prepare me for my ‘first period’. I was so unprepared that when I go my period I can remember thinking to myself: “Oh my God! I’ve shit my pants!” Desperate to conceal this horrifying accident, I discretely threw away the evidence and i vowed never to share this information with anyone. When I got home from school that afternoon I noted that I had “shit my pants” again! I was horrified! Thinking that I had some uncontrollable bowel dysfunction (and desperately needing some support at that moment), I decided to bring my Mom into the situation. After she explained to me what was REALLY happening, we both began to cry. My Mom shed tears of joy, while I shed tears of anger and sadness. My final words to my Mom before leaving the bathroom: “Please, don’t tell Dad!”
Vanessa: When I got my period…I was worried. Not so much by the fact that blood was coming out of my crotch. Rather, I was worried that getting my period would put a damper on my daily masturbation regimen. At the age of 11, the two things that brought me the most joy where the World Wrestling Federation and masturbation (but never at the same time). Now that I had my period, I was at a greater risk of getting pregnant from masturbation. And what would I tell my father? He would surely punish me by taking away the television, thereby taking away my wrestling viewing privileges. So for me, the arrival of my period meant an end to happiness. Thank god Judy Blume had the sense to write Wifey, which helped to reverse the damage caused by Are you there, God? It’s Me, Margaret. And my lesbo lovin’ ways have ensured that pesky issues such as ‘accidental pregnancy’ will not be of concern.
I don’t think we could’ve believed Amy and Margaret even if we wanted to. Unlike masturbating Luke, any insecurity or fear they might have had is never discussed. I’m sure the filmmakers and Judy had only the best intentions, but they were also labouring under the early ’70s/flowing hair/Helen Reddy/Essential Woman paradigm that just didn’t fly in 1989 suburbia. I’m sorry, but I did not feel ‘womanly’, whatever that is, with my giant puffy hair and cramps and seeing a filmstrip about people who supposedly did just made me feel worse. If Margaret had thought ‘I’ve shit myself’, or if Amy had tried unsuccessfully to fashion a pad out of Kleenex, we all would have been better off.