Don't trust anything that bleeds for 5 days and doesn't die.
-Men's rest room, Murphy's, Champaign,IL
It's an old joke, and not particularly funny, but it's been running through my head ever since NatchLucid circulated the survey that was the groundwork for her excellent writeup under menstruation. A number of female noders, myself included, participated in the survey, and I was extremely impressed with the methodology and results.
Answering the sometimes very personal questions was a lot of fun. My particular favorite was "Do you have a special name for your menstrual period (ie: monthly friend, the curse, etc.)?" It was a surprisingly thought-provoking experience. I mean, "the curse"? Why have countless women from time immemorial considered such a life-affirming process a source of shame and fear?
For that matter, why have I?
After NatchLucid's survey results were noded, I sat down and wrote a long journal entry concerning my feelings about bleeding. My own private survey, so to speak.
It was time well spent.
As the firstborn of three girls, I was the family trailblazer. No one ever sat down to have "the talk" with me. As a matter of fact, I have yet to meet a single woman whose mother or aunt ever sat her down for the talk at an appropriate age. I wasn't utterly unprepared for my menarche (though I certainly didn't know that word). I had Judy Blume and her fictional Margaret in my corner, but I didn't really relate to the religiously conflicted Margaret and her horrendous clique of breast-size-obsessed friends. I was an advanced reader, and I remember going to a book fair with my mother when I was about seven and picking up a copy of Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.. I didn't know what the book was about, but I had already blown through Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and liked the look of the cover. My mother didn't so much as raise an eyebrow as she tossed the book onto the growing stack in our shopping basket. The only reason I even remember the purchase was the hysterical reaction of the matronly lady at the checkout:
cashier to my mother, stage whisper: "M'am, do you know what this book is about?"
Mom (confused, Sotto voce): "Is there a problem? It was in the children's section..."
cashier: "Actually, it's in the adolescent section. You see, it's about...(looks around furtively, lowers voice to a volume discernable only by owls)...menstruation."
Mom (exasperated, her hand tightening on mine): "Lady, that is without a doubt the stupidest thing I've ever heard. She's a girl, isn't she?"
cashier (glancing at me, her voice becoming more strangled): "Well, yes...but..."
Mom: "Just give us the book. In a brown paper bag, if you must."
Obviously, my mother had no profound hangups with menstruation as a concept, but I still never got the talk.
I skipped eighth grade, which was the year my small private school's entire class was divided between giggling girls and confused boys for the institutionalized version of the much-whispered-about "Sex Talk". I imagine parents all over our town signing the requisite permission slips and breathing a collective sigh of relief that they were off the hook and could leave the messy stuff to the gym teachers. But I was already a freshman in high school, not yet thirteen and relatively clueless. I had fallen through the cracks. Most of my friends were still underclassmen, and from what I heard I missed little more than a filmstrip (circa 1962, copyright Kimberly-Clark) and a packet containing a couple of sanitary napkins (one meant to be worn with a belt, which was outmoded even back in the day, one with a strip of adhesive, both distressingly diaper-like), a mystifying booklet with some godawful title ("You're Becoming A Woman!"), a number of coupons for Kimberly-Clark products, and the ultimate prize - a pink, flowered-plastic "purse carrying case" full of five tampons.
(It was whispered on the slumber party circuit that not only did Lisa Holliman have the biggest boobs in the entire lower school, she also had started her period when she was only TEN. To top that breathlessly repeated piece of juicy gossip, one girl insisted that Lisa's mother allowed Lisa to use tampons. This was intensely scandalous and titillating to us, her flat-chested and envious classmates. We would have given anything to actually need the bras we had with scarlet faces and cottony tongues begged our mothers to buy, but none of us could imagine asking our mothers to buy tampons for us.)
Maybe it was the mass embarassment of the Great Grand Sex Talk that made me and my friends ashamed of our periods. The guys teased us mercilessly - Walter Goldsby, a freshman wise to the upcoming Sex Talk, even managed to sneak into the coach's office and get his fat, sweaty hands on an entire box (tantalizingly marked "FOR GIRLS HYGIENE TALK") full of the packets. It was excruciating for my friends to walk into the lower school girls' restroom the morning of The Talk to find their sanctum sanctorum desecrated by dozens of pads and tampons strewn and stuck on the porcelain, the stalls, the ceiling ... spattered with red paint and ketchup.
Twelve-year-old girls are very sensitive about these things.
But I can't blame Walter and his ilk, much as I'd like to. Before the boys had discovered that our worries about our developing bodies were an endless source of amusement, we had spent countless hours at late-night sleepovers talking about what "IT" would be like. Some of us had older sisters, but teenage girls generally looked at us with vague contempt when they deigned to look at us at all. They were no help, and neither were the Teen Beat-style magazines we were quickly outgrowing. None of my circle of friends had any real idea what "IT" would be like, only a vague sense that it would be excruciatingly painful and that it wasn't ever, under any circumstance, to be discussed in public (meaning anywhere the conversation might be overheard by adults or boys). Shame was implicit in our whispered conversations about cramps, tampons, and - most dreaded of all - the "accident". We were just beginning to dabble in angst, and we found rich fuel for its fires in worst-case scenarios and urban legends about unfortunate girls who were rendered untouchables by wearing white on the wrong day.
I had the mechanics of menstruation down pretty well. It wasn't very mysterious in and of itself, and it didn't require much more than a basic understanding of biology. But what I needed, what I craved, was anecdotal experience. This was years before the internet made such information easy to obtain, and I didn't even have an older sister to pester. I wasn't about to ask my mother, and as my friends and I got older and slumber parties became passe, I grew increasingly desperate. My friends who started their periods before I did were at first maddeningly silent on the topic, then quickly grew blase and dismissive. "It's nothing," one friend yawned, "just a pain." Nothing to YOU, I thought, you know from experience. I knew I would bleed, but how much? What would it feel like? Did tampons hurt, and would using them be tantamount to losing my virginity? How much did cramps REALLY hurt, and were they debilitating? And what about toxic shock syndrome, which had only recently been documented and was causing a major public panic?
What did it feel like to bleed?
I found out soon after I turned thirteen. A group from my class was going to the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. We were to take a bus from Charleston, South Carolina, and I had to get up at three am to be ready to leave the school at four. I stumbled to the bathroom and checked my underwear hopefully, as was my usual habit. I was jolted awake by the rust-colored stain on the white cotton crotch of my panties. A thrill coursed through me as I realized - this is IT! Almost immediately, another sort of feeling overwhelmed me, and this time it was shame, not excitement. I had Soiled Myself. It was as though potty training had come back in all its technicolor horror.
begin mild rant
It didn't occur to me until I was writing in my journal about the link between the shame that all too often accompanies toilet training and the shame of menstruation. We're taught from such a young age about the solemn importance of being clean "down there", of the "filthiness" of our bodily functions, that it's no wonder women (and men) are often intensely squeamish about bleeding (see above "joke"). Even if parents don't shame their children, little girls are not as a rule encouraged to touch or explore their genitals with anything approaching the freedom little boys are allowed. I wasn't subjected to a campaign of shame in my home, but I still felt like a pariah. No recorded culture has escaped taboos about menstuation or menstrual blood, and the sight of it on my formerly pristine panties was a little overwhelming.
/end mild rant
I didn't get all the answers that week (it was several months before I worked up the courage to use tampons), but I learned a few things. Since a lot of you on E2 are men, and therefore must be curious about what it feels like to have a period, I'll do my best to give you an idea. Here's what it feels like to bleed - for me. This is subjective. (Any female noders: if you have other significantly different experiences, /msg me and I'll add to this list.)