This article is a frank narrative of my personal experience with – yes, menstruation. After a suggestion from a friend I realized just how much we need to talk about it. Especially in India, having one’s periods is not even considered normal enough a topic to be frank about – even between women. We need to understand ourselves and talking about it should not be a hurdle to that. If you are the prude kind, turn away, the following content is not meant for you. If you are a creep, well don’t bother commenting. But if you truly grasp why I am about to talk about this, do reciprocate. I would appreciate it. 🙂
The first time she sees Red, is probably the most awkward time in any woman’s life. You might panic that you are suddenly a woman in all quintessence, you may be in the dark as to how to deal with the pain and the flow; I personally know of someone who was terrified when her periods arrived, because she could not stand the sight of blood and was afraid she would die despite knowing that most women face this day sometime or the other. There was an instance I heard of, where the ‘girl in red’ literally started whooping in joy, since hitting her periods meant she could have sex; poor girl thought sex meant it could now be considered perfectly alright to kiss a boy. Yet again some people are confused as to how they should even react to the situation in the first place.
Of course, experiences differ according to societies and the timeline. In the Indian society of the yesteryear, for instance, the menarche was celebrated with rituals and offerings since it meant then the girl bride could bear children (women were often married off before puberty in those days and had their first periods at their in-law’s residence). The child would be attired as a bride on days following the event, in preparation of the ‘marital bed’ (suhaag raat). Even today the custom exists in many spheres. Urban population may see less child marriages compared to the past, hence less child brides and, the ‘marital bed’ taking place right after the wedding of two adults itself. Yet in some families, girls at menarche are still dressed up in bridal finery and worshiped though unmarried. And even today, in many families having one’s periods means seclusion from public life. In most cases, women stay away from religious work and sexual acts among other things.
No matter where and when, the first time in any woman’s life is one of the most remarkable memories, along with the incidents taking cue since then.
Now, to commence with my own story, let me burst the bubble right at the beginning. I had no rituals, was dressed up in no finery, had no explanation; in fact I had, to put it plainly, no frickin’ idea of what was happening. And that continued for such a long time that I wonder now, how did I ever manage to survive.
My mum did not talk to me about it other than the perfunctory “it happens to all women” phrase. When I pressed on incredulously, “All women?” she replied, “Yes, yes. It happened to me, to your grandmothers, to your cousins and even to Steffi Graff”. And there I was, left hanging with a truly gross mental image of Steffi Graff bleeding between her legs! And my over-active imagination led to more horrifying images of bleeding women starting from Mother Teresa to my school teachers! It came to such a pass that after one point of time I had possibly imagined every known female bleeding profusely and, had to stop myself only when I found I could not sleep due to the weirdness creeping into my mind. Somehow though, the thought of my classmates and my friends experiencing blood was more comforting. I could talk to people who were my age, right?
Wrong! I figured no one in my class, almost a hundred girls, knew what it was except for two of my friends. And even among the abysmal number of the three of us, I was the only one who was actually having her periods. The others just picked up on the knowledge from their elder sisters. Why you may ask.
Because I was just NINE years old during my first time and at the start of my fourth grade, still in the junior section of my school. Twice I was sent back home by teachers since I had stained an almost invisible corner of my white skirt and, the other girls were too innocent or smart (I don’t know) to be told that I had brushed it against a rusty piece of iron lying around.
The teachers were certainly less awkward in dealing with the situation than my mum. So while my mother, when she saw my cotton dress marked in patches of red, kept me in a terrifying dark for two days before saying “it happens to all women” and, let me think I somehow hurt myself really bad at my dance lessons, my teachers were more forth-coming. Five months after my over-active imagination of bleeding women had come to a closure, one day during a morning games class, our teacher, Miss Joseph noticed a faint red stain on my skirt. She called me aside leading to privacy in a corner and was shocked to know I had already been undergoing my cycle for quite some time. She explained something about women undergoing changes at one point of their lives due to something called hormies (hormones) and that it was somehow related to motherhood, all of which just went over my head. While she lost me in her kind speech, little did I realize she was actually explaining the rudiments of the reproductive system that I was to study four years later. I was too caught up in the latter part of her explanation and was already imagining myself with a swollen belly.
She must have taken pity on me seeing that I was staring at her like a dying duck in a thunderstorm and hurriedly, bought me a mini-pack of sanitary napkins from the school office, while also fetching me an extra skirt from the school’s charitable provisions. She briefly explained to me how sanitary napkins worked as I was provided with only a folded piece of fabric to stem the blood and hide my condition until then. Inside the loo, I stared dispassionately at the pack. I had seen sanitary napkins in television advertisements before and thought it was some really advanced or innovative sort of handkerchief. To know that ‘this’ was why it was used, was sort of disappointing. But I set about doing what I was told, anyway. Miss Joseph unfortunately, did not mention anything about removing the adhesive paper on the pad before sticking it and foolishly I did not act on it either. Consequentially, by recess my new skirt was stained as well and my mum was called. When Miss Joseph along with the junior school headmistress, inquired my mother in astonished tones as to how could I possibly have it at such a young age, for the first time she confessed it ran in my father’s family and that she had no idea how to explain it to me at a time I was not really ready. But what caught my ears in the conversation was my teachers asking her about any pain that I may have.
That took me another couple of months to realize. Our class was a rowdy one and we would frequently be made to stand for an hour in punishment. During one such session, the pain came. It was faint but gnawing. I clutched my stomach hoping it would go away but it did not. Miss Joseph came to my rescue again when she saw my face screwed up. She asked me to sit down and rest my head. The incident repeated itself a few times over the next few months and my classmates, who did not know my predicament, assumed I probably had the teacher wrapped around my fingers since she asked me to rest frequently. They would point at me angrily and poke fun till I excused myself saying I had a problem with my legs and had to rest.
Well, to tell the truth I slowly got used to the ache soon enough. It stopped straining me -till exactly one year later, when during one such cycle I discovered the pain had renewed vigorously and was surging through my limbs. That was the second time I was sent back home and the pain only got worse. Soon it came to this that every month at a particular time I had to lie in the school sick-bed because I could not sit with my head straight (I was diagnosed with dysmenorrhea in my late teens and the condition remains still).
Anyway, going back to the first time, worse was to follow. Hair sprouted in the weirdest of places in my body. I had seen such on men and was panic-stricken. For one brief time I wondered why was I starting to look like a man. Then I figured it could not be logical since “it happens to all women” and all women do not look like men. That was when my mother, who had by this time gotten used to playing the role of the all-knowing, introduced me to hair removing cream. I hated it. It seemed like a herculean task for me to adapt to the ritual of removing body hair. But if you think it was the hair that embarrassed me the most about myself, it was not. It was my boobs!!!!
Being the first to have her periods in the class meant the first to have tits. By the time I was ten years old, I had a well endowed pair of assets while other girls were still lean and flat. I was the epitome of curiosity among many in my class. These girls discussed in not-so-hushed tones that I was starting to resemble their mummies and laughed! One idiot actually asked straight on my face, how I managed to grow a rack and I was outraged. How could I have a hand in it? It felt like I scandalized them all by breaching a moral code meant for little girls! The most discomfiting thing to happen was when one of the other girls (the ones who had not yet realized that I had breasts) put her hand directly over my shirt pocket and asked me what I had underneath. “Did you put a hankie inside?” she asked. And I just kept wishing that she would stop pressing against me, wincing all the while.
Of course they realized in time what was really happening and by then I was dealing with more issues. By the time, many of the other girls had started having their periods, at twelve, I discovered that I was losing clumps of hair and had started to look pale, because of the excessive loss of blood, another trait in dad’s family. It took me years to recover from the severe anaemia yet not fully. It irritated me that my classmates did not undergo ‘as much shit’ as I went through and at times I wished I was a boy! I dreaded about the mood swings that I read about in a magazine. However that turned out to be the least of my concerns. Due to my Bipolar’s, the mood swings actually did not cut a distinct mark until two years back.
As a child it was pretty hard on me to deal with all of this alone. My friends had it easier. They knew what was going to happen from their mothers or from classmates. I wish I had the same kind of help.
However as an adult, I learnt to deal with the pain, the changes and the fact that I am as normal as any human can be. It is less embarrassing for me and someday I hope to be less awkward than my mum, when my turn arrives to teach someone about this delicate stage. My growing up was not smooth but I survived it. If anything, today I am proud of my womanhood. I only wish people, especially other women, stopped being embarrassed about it and came to terms with it.
I am not ashamed of my periods as no one should be.