Blood on the Tracks

I got my period when I was 12, and all these years later, talking about it still kinda freaks me out

Did you hear about the artist who used her menstrual blood to draw an amazing rendition of Donald Trump? Or the woman who ran the London Marathon without a tampon while menstruating, blood flowing freely down her pink Lycra pants? How about the illustrator who added period blood stains to the dresses of Disney princesses? And the photographer who depicted herself lying on a bed with a period stain on her sweatpants and the mattress. (Instagram took it down.)

These are empowered responses to "period-shaming," the simple idea that menstruating is an ordinary part of being a woman and should not be shrouded in euphemisms, mysterious dots on your calendar and hidden Tampax boxes.

But then, I wondered, who is the target of period-shaming? It doesn't seem to be the usual suspects of female oppression — men — but rather, if you look up "period-shaming" there is an awful lot about mothers. Women who've taught their daughters that they should go to great lengths to hide the fact that it's "that time of the month." The unspoken reason? So men and boys won't be disgusted.

Judging by the girls in the junior high bathroom of the '60s, it seemed normal that period-talk was a female-only issue. Some girls even bragged about what an inconvenience it was, and we all envied the girls who hit puberty first. Did anyone think twice about it? Did anyone want their boyfriend in on it (other than a sign they weren't pregnant)?

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When I got my period at 12, in white shorts, there was nothing cool about it. I was walking across the mall parking lot with a friend to flirt with Lenny, a groovy salesman at a mall-style head shop, and I doubled over with cramps. In the bathroom, I shoved wads of toilet paper in my underwear against the pale pink stain. I was sure everyone knew I was bleeding, or maybe I was dying.

With great embarrassment, I told my mother that I "think" I got my period. She slapped me across the face! She did it lightly, but enough to bring tears to my eyes. She explained to me that it was a Jewish custom. Why? She didn't know.

To add insult to injury, she told me sotto voce to rinse out my underwear and quickly put them in the washing machine (in the garage) before Dad saw. It was that way for the next 3 years until I left home: "Get your underwear out of the sink before Dad gets home!"

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It was also years before a girlfriend showed me how to use a Tampax. I was deathly afraid of them. I didn't understand how they stayed in, so I wore a Kotex which was like wearing rolled-up socks in your underpants. This was way before the time pads stuck to your underwear with adhesive strips, so I wore it like my mother, with a "Kotex belt," which was like a cross between a garter belt and a dog harness. It was way too flimsy and way too high, especially if you wore low-rider jeans.

Over the years I eased up some. I might mention I had my period to my husband, boyfriend or girlfriend but I was always discreet about it.

Recently, I took my son Theo and his new girlfriend Catherine out to lunch. We got on the subject of proms. Theo had mono and missed his. Catherine told a story, in an exaggeratedly funny way, about going to the bathroom at her prom and other girls told her, with the kind of horror reserved for any number of teen movies, that she had period blood on the back of her pastel satin gown. They went to work—scrubbing and blotting the stain, and drying it with the hand dryer. She said even a teacher got in on it. The story was about the kindness of strangers.

I looked around at the other 20somethings in the crowded café. No one reacted even though she told her story in a regular voice at a regular volume in the small café. I looked at my son, he didn't flinch, blush, or use that moment to excuse himself from the table, but was right there with the story as if it were perfectly natural.

I checked my response as I often do when young people are acting normal about something that freaks me out. It actually makes me feel old when that happens.

People would think I was nuts if 35 years ago I told a story in mixed company, in a restaurant about getting my period at the prom. If such a thing happened it would be a story for women friends, told under my breath, and always in a bathroom.

Time to get over it.