Today in my American Lit class we were discussing a scene in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye where one of the young characters gets her period for the first time. My professor said, to make it clear for all the dudes in the room and to express the magnitude of this scene, that a girl's first period is often "a defining moment in a woman's life."
Before I get into the "defining moment" of my premier menstrual movement, I want to think about what exactly a defining moment in a person's life is. That's such a vague, grand concept when you just look at it as two words. Those two words don't carry a lot of weight until you really think about them. What exactly is a defining moment? A singular moment that's so great in size and matter that it comes to be a building block of your being. A singular moment, a minute or an hour or a day or a week that becomes such a huge part of you that it colors your whole life and the way that you view and interact with and understand the world. An experience that changes who you are as a person, that influences your soul and your heart and your mind.
I pretended to have a period while I was in late elementary school because my best friend had already had hers. She was a year older than me. I wore her pads and we'd lounge around her house and complain about "cramps" (Though I'm certain she'd had her period at that time, I'm pretty sure neither of us were actually cramping...) and talk about how much we were bleeding. It was absurd and I never really wanted a period but all of the components of menstruation (Like pads and tampons and PMS and heating pads.) seem very adult and glamorous to a little girl.
I only faked it a couple of times with her and then forgot all about the game for a long time until late in sixth grade, it was February I think, when I actually got my first period. From out of nowhere with literally no warning. And it was horrific to me, as I'd always associated blood with pain and now I was bleeding from my vagina and I was so afraid that any false move and I'd suddenly be in wrenching pain. Maybe cramps, I don't know, but I remember thinking that I was bleeding like someone had stabbed me with a knife and that really, really frightened me.
I had to tell my dad about it first. Luckily, even though I lived with two men and a dog (My most formative years I lived with just my brother and father and would visit my mom on the weekend. This should explain why I'm so lady-like all the time.) I did have a couple of pads stored away in my and my brother's bathroom. When you're at that magical age health class teachers and guest speaker nurses hand out pads and tampons and little pamphlets to you so when it happens, and it can happen anywhere, you're ready. It's like a natural disaster at that point, or what I imagine living in the United States during the height of the Red Scare would be like. You need to be informed, you need to be prepared, you need to be ready. Don't be afraid, be assembled. We'd practice putting pads into our panties and talk about different strategies for keeping our periods secret from boys and study tampon insertion directions regularly like air raid drills. Everyone always had new information and theories about it and how it happened and what it felt like. It was horrifying because it could come at any minute and maybe you wouldn't be ready, but it was also really exciting.
And then, very slowly, everyone I knew got their periods one by one and I didn't and then I even stopped caring. I had my little pad ready and waiting at home but I remember when I finally got it I didn't want it at all and, of course, the timing couldn't be worse.
I told my dad I got my period, that I had a pad but needed more. He hugged me and said, "Congratulations!" (Which to this day I still think is an extremely inappropriate thing to say to a young girl the day she gets her first period. When my little sister got hers I said "GROSS!") and then I packed up a suitcase and my dad drove me to my mom's house because the very next day she and her girlfriend and me and my brother and our foreign exchange student were all driving to Orlando so we could go on a cruise to the Bahamas. I walked in very sulkily and my dad announced to the room that I was currently menstruating and everyone said, "Congratulations!" and the foreign exchange student said, "You're a woman now!" and I said, "How am I going to swim?" And secretly kept to myself the fear that sharks would smell my period and come and try to kill me.
The whole trip was sort of marred by the fact that I felt uneasy the whole time because I was awkwardly half-shoving the tiniest, stupidest, applicator-less tampons inside of me (My mother and the exchange student vaguely explained the process to me, gave me the instructions and wished me the best of luck.) and trying to swim with my legs close together in case the tampon tried to get out. I was gawky and scared and confused for most of the trip and for years, even after all my friends were controlled and cool and knew how to handle themselves at that time of the month, I felt uncomfortable with tampons, my vagina and especially menstruating.
Was it anyone's fault? Was I unprepared for the whole ordeal? No, of course not, they all did the best they could, but nobody could have anticipated that my first period would come the day before I was supposed to get on a cruise ship and swim in the Bahamas and wear a bikini for a whole week.
How has this colored my life? How did my first period come to define me as a person? I'm rarely prepared for anything (Clearly being prepared for my first period did me no good..) and my sense of time and timing is atrocious. Almost nonexistent. I'm still continually mystified and horrified by my vagina, even though I do think I've got a handle on things for the most part. But I am still gawky and confused and scared when it comes to new things, and I am still scared of sharks hunting me for my vagina. Are these things a direct result of my body ruining my Bahamas vacation? Well, I'm just going to go with yes.
I made a vagina tag!