I don’t know how it was possible (I was a teeny-tiny, skinny-minny child), but I got my period when I was ten years old.
I was in fifth grade, which was the year of The Puberty Talk at my school. For The Talk, our whole class went on a field trip to this amazing children’s health museum that unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. We got to climb around in giant models of different body parts, maneuver our way through a spooky dark maze, learn about how gross cigarettes are, and at the end of the day — it happened. We were split up by gender and herded into small auditoriums to learn about the wonders of the reproductive system and how our private parts were involved.
Aunt Flo visited me a few months before The Talk and well before visiting any of my friends, so I sat in the back and kept my mouth shut. The presentation was incredible. Part of the video included an animation of a girl frolicking through the prairie saying, “Douches make me feel FRESH and FREEEEEE,” as part of a warning about advertisements that would tell us that douching was a key part of vagina maintenance. When the facilitator asked if any of us had gotten our period yet, only one girl raised her hand. She cried and talked about how much it hurt and how sad it made her. I just watched as all the other girls’ eyes widened with fear.
I wasn’t totally unaware of the phenomenon when it happened, so it wasn’t like the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but it also wasn’t something I was interested in asking for help with. My solution was to steal some menstrual pads from beneath my parents’ bathroom sink, brag a little to my friends, and move on with my life as a secret woman.
For whatever reason, I didn’t anticipate anybody noticing my used hygiene products in the bathroom garbage can, so the secret was short lived. My mom told me she knew, asked me if I needed help and I said no. That was about it until we went on vacation and I had to ask her to buy me my first box of tampons. Swimming is not optional in Texas, ya’ll.
After the first few times, I was a pro. The real trouble came with all the other puberty stuff. We got plenty of information about what periods are, why they happen, and what sex leads to (why we weren’t ready for it). We’d start growing hair and boobs and our body would generally change. I probably read the American Girl book, The Care & Keeping of You about a hundred times, but I was never sure that my body was changing in the right way.
Considering how great our sex-ed programming was compared to what I’ve heard about programming in other areas, I’m still blown away by how much I didn’t know or expect. I did my homework, but I still thought I was a freak. As far as I knew, there was no reasonable way for me to determine otherwise. No good could come from an I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours arrangement with a friend, and asking my mom to check out my lady business was out of the question.
The first weird incident was the ‘breast buds’ scare. This happened before I knew the puberty process had begun, but I need to include it because it still makes me laugh. I don’t know how I first came across them, but needless to say, I was feeling myself up for one reason or another. I noticed solid, skipping-stone-shaped objects underneath my nipples. I thought they were kind of fun, but I also thought they might be a future cause of death. I told my mom, made her feel them, and she brought me to my first super invasive and uncomfortable doctor visit. The doctor felt my chest pebbles as requested and explained to us that that’s just how boobs start out. I don’t think it was any of our proudest moments.
When puberty really started brewing, I thought I was dying again. This time, and this is something I really think we should get more of a detailed heads-up about, it was because my labia minora began taking their final, womanly form. They had already been there, but before they had pretty much blended right in with everything else. Now, they were growing and beginning to develop this bumpy texture that I was convinced was not normal. I thought they were some sort of cancerous growth and seriously considered taking scissors to them. Thankfully I didn’t follow through.
At one point, I was convinced that my discharge was a yeast infection. I asked my mom if I could use the Monistat she kept just in case. I was ten. I didn’t have a yeast infection. My body was cleaning itself, keeping things healthy. It sounds silly now, but really, how was I supposed to respond to this new goop my body was producing? It didn’t look the same or smell the same or feel the same from day to day. I had nothing to compare it to.
Around the same time as the goop confusion, I started developing body hair. Almost immediately thereafter, I started removing my body hair. All of it. Not that I needed to, I mean I have dark hair, but it was so thin I doubt it was noticeable. I just thought it was what I was supposed to do. And if I wasn’t a freak about it when I started, I really became one once my ‘friend’ told me I had hairy monkey arms (an actual direct quote) and I learned that boys wouldn’t touch a girl with pubic hair with a ten-foot pole. I was hairless below the nose until college.
Puberty sucked. For me, it was scary and uncomfortable and embarrassing, but I don’t think it needed to be. I really don’t know what would have made it easier. Maybe more detailed sex-ed lessons would have better prepared me. I don’t mean in inappropriate or graphic terms, maybe just lessons that were a little more true to life. I also don’t think peer-to-peer education is ideal, especially since older siblings love to taunt younger ones with wildly inaccurate information. Maybe we just need some broadening of the things girls feel like it’s ok to talk to each other about. There has to be some way to avoid such ridiculous calamities.
Thankfully, I have developed a much more open relationship with my body over the last fourteen years. I love my body hair, I’m at least moderately happy with my physique most of the time, and my vagina hasn’t given me a death scare since mid-college (a story for another time).