I was a competitive dancer growing up. My first period came half an hour before I was due to be on stage wearing a white costume, as the universe would have it. I was twelve, the golden age of trauma and humiliation. The dance was a duet; I had to perform with this older girl from whom I seeked validation. I went to the bathroom for my customary pre-performance anxiety poop, and there it was. I remember the blood being a disturbingly bright shade of red.
In elementary school—when puberty was, at most, a vague concept that the “bad kids” would (highly inaccurately) explain at recess if you begged long enough—my school counselor showed us third graders a video about our “changing bodies.” A permission slip was sent home weeks in advance, y’know, in case any parents weren’t cool with their kids finding out they were gonna grow hair in some new places in a few years. Girls and boys were split into separate groups, and the permission slips read that we, the lucky young women of Lonoke Elementary’s Third Grade Class of 2009, would be receiving our very own “goodie bags” at the end of the presentation. The boys were enraged to find out they would be receiving nothing of the sort. It was not until we all walked out of the closed-door room holding limp, sad sacks of the lowest quality sanitary napkins money could buy that the boys stopped complaining about the “horrible injustice” they were facing. I remember making tampon jokes with my friend Zoe for the rest of the day in a desperate attempt to disguise my horror.
It was three years of having a period before I started using pads. After my period’s big debut, I shoved a wad of thin, scratchy public restroom toilet paper into my underwear and waddled out of the stall, praying to whatever is up there that my white shorts stayed white while I performed under painfully bright lights. I didn’t say a word.
It was three years of having a period before I started using pads. When I got home that night, I looked up “how to tell your mom you started your period” on the laptop that my older sister and I used by stealing the neighbor’s Wi-Fi.
I searched through pages and pages of Google results, reading every preteen advice forum known to humankind, looking for a good way to break the news that I was a normal, healthily functioning member of the human race. I never found one.
To this day, my mom has not once talked about periods with me. For three years—three years—before finally working up the courage to ask my friends to bring pads to school for me, I continued shoving uncomfortable, unreliable wads of toilet paper into my underwear for one week every month because I was too humiliated to tell my own mother. I was silently raised to be ashamed of the way my body worked; periods were gross, embarrassing, and to be left unmentioned. My mother was raised the same way.
I buy my own pads now. I can walk into a store and just buy a package of pads. I have that power. Crazy, I know.
My best friend hates her boobs. Says they’re too big, make her feel dirty. She wears sports bras from Walmart in a size too small, squeezing herself into the fabric and out of sight. Another friend of mine has polycystic ovarian syndrome, a condition that can lead to facial hair, acne, and obesity in women. Birth control is used to help prevent it from leading to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. My friend doesn’t take the birth control pills that she was prescribed. Says it isn’t worth it. She does, however, spend thirty dollars every few weeks to buy wax for her chin. I still keep my head low and power-walk to the self-checkout when I buy pads. I feel ashamed that I’m still ashamed. I feel like a fraud when I say I’m a feminist, and maybe I am. But by God, I am trying.
It was three years of having my period before I started using pads. Three years of discomfort, three years of jackets around waists, three years of throwing away good pairs of pants because the stains were too obvious. It was three years.