No Shame, Period: On Menstrual Shame(lessness)
I’m 11 and I’m sitting on the toilet. My mom has commandeered my underwear to wash the stain of menarche from them. She asks why I’m not in the shower. After a minute, she sits down on the bathtub rim, to discuss the changing nature of my half-naked self. I’m terrified, frustrated, ashamed. I tell her that I just want it to stop and she says, with the half-smile of a joke, “Well, there’s one way to make that happen.”
“Shoot me?” I ask. It’s a serious guess. Take me out back and shoot me is not a rare phrase in our household.
“Nooo,” she laughs, equal parts amused and appalled. “I was going to say, ‘get pregnant.’ You don’t get your period when you’re pregnant.”
I’m 11. I’ve already sat through the 90s-era incarnation of the Welcome to Puberty filmstrip. But I don’t know, until now, that pregnant women don’t menstruate. When my mom mentions the importance of tracking your period when you’re sexually active, I don’t understand that ovulation is connected to menstruation, and thus, that clarity can help facilitate pregnancy. (As for preventing pregnancy? I don’t know about that either). Instead, I assume — with the deep certainty of the 11-year-old – that this kind of heads-up helps you stay away from sex until you’re clean again. So, y’know, you don’t disgust your boyfriend* with the nasty bleeding parts you hide Down There.
How I developed such intense shame around my period, by the age of 11, in a household where the Big Event was marked with celebration, is not something I’m interested in unpacking here. Suffice it to say that I did. And that – for many years afterward – I carried that shame around with me. As with most things that that provoked intense anxiety, I responded to my period with avoidance. I did my best to avoid thinking about – or dealing with – menstruation, and as a result, it became a Much Bigger Deal. The more I tried to hide the Mark of My Shame, the more visible it became. I stained shorts and classroom chairs. I bled on myself, publically, month after month. The last thing I wanted was to amplify my sense that something was visibly, bodily wrong with me. And yet, that was the message I rebroadcast — and re-internalized – with each new month.
A few days ago, while enjoying coffee with a friend, I started my period. My first day is always incredibly light, so I wasn’t particularly concerned. Plus, I know from past experience that this friend carries tampons but not pads, I’m not able to use tampons, and we weren’t near a store. So I let the matter pass, figuring I could easily accommodate my period when I reached home, hours ahead of its second — much heavier — day.
Later that night, I returned home, to a cabinet empty of pads. Realized I never thought to restock after last month. Facepalmed.
By this time, it was late, and I was tired. I knew I could easily go retrieve pads the next morning. And really, is it that big a deal to have to clean sheets or shorts or underwear? I decided to sleep the night away and not worry about it much.
Morning came. And it occurred to me that I could use the situation to my advantage. I put on a pair of shorts, didn’t bother to fashion a makeshift pad from household materials, and spent the morning as I normally would — computing, drinking coffee, listening to the radio. Padless, I walked to the store to buy lightbulbs and cereal (and pads). I walked home in the rain. I didn’t put on a “sanitary napkin.” I continued to bleed.
By now, the crotch of my shorts was stained. It was so familiar, that stain. It was the fuckshitfuck of the high school bathroom. The crap, it is what I thought it was, crap, what a mess, crap I still have three more classes to go, I wonder how many people have seen.
Except it wasn’t. It was a stain, on my shorts. And the rest of that was meaning, projected on that stain.
As I walked to the store that morning, I remembered Mary Douglas’ theory that dirt is matter out of place. If this is true, I realized, anything we seek to contain runs the risk of becoming dirty. Just as taboos breed shame — by shoving a topic into silence — trying to contain a process, or its effects, creates danger. It creates the danger of that process transgressing those bounds. My period becomes ok on the condition that it remains contained. Contained to the 2×8 space of the Maxi pad, to the fully figurative existence of The Innocuous Blue Liquid. In trying to contain my period, I exacerbate its ability to feel impure, dirty, shameful. I invite my embarrassment when I agree to hide.
I throw my used pads in the trash and learn that my body is creating garbage. I pour detergent on stained pairs of underwear and learn my body must be purified mechanically and from a distance.
Little things can challenge this. Hand-washing stained underwear reminds me I will not be marked or undone by my own blood. Discussing my period teaches me that no ceilings fall in when I do. And letting myself bleed, without attempting to contain it, reminds me — again — that the shame I learned to carry can be unlearned.
When I shed eyelashes, I respond with a wish. My attempt to make new meaning of my period – and the stains it sometimes leaves – is a sort of wish as well. It’s an investment in an experience of the shed uterine lining that carries no emotion more intense than the shed eyelash
or the shed strand of hair.
It’s an investment, finally, in being bloody shameless.
*There’s no such thing as girls who like girls. Yet.