The day I got my first period holds the distinction of being one of my most humiliating memories. I was totally unprepared and felt terrified that the presence of blood signaled my impending death.
Looking back, my lack of awareness is hard to fathom. I was the third of four girls in my family, so how is it that I hadn’t been part of any conversations preparing me for this reality? My mom wasn’t particularly helpful with instructions. She handed me a box of giant pads, assured me I wasn’t dying, and said what a wonderful thing this was for me.
That night at the family dinner table, she could barely contain her enthusiasm as she announced to everyone, “Janet became a woman today!” The awkward silence that followed was painful. I wanted to disappear. I left the table determined never to ask more questions about this subject, for fear that my mom would broadcast those as well.
The humiliation I felt carried with it a powerful message: you’re on your own to figure out what it means to be a woman.
My naiveté led to some rather humorous experiences. I remember going with my youth group on an outing to the pool at our local college. The chance to jump off the high dive and swim in such a huge pool was exciting, and I couldn’t believe my leader wasn’t joining us in the water. My requests were persistent, and she finally replied, “I would like to, but I can’t because my Aunt Flo is visiting.” I looked around, expecting to see a literal Aunt Flo, confused as to how her presence would translate to an inability to swim. Thankfully, my leader saw my confusion and explained that Aunt Flo was just a nice way to say you had your period.
I was familiar with this practice of speaking in code, finding “nice” ways to talk about things that it wasn’t proper to speak openly about because they were shameful.
“It’s that time” became my euphemism of choice. I wasn’t at all grateful for what the beginning of that time meant for me as a twelve-year-old girl, and I’m frustrated that I still have not reached the end of that time as a fifty-one-year-old woman. Following a breast cancer scare in 2014, my doctor put me on Tamoxifen, saying it would likely push me out of the perimenopause stage I’d been lingering in for years, straight into menopause. I was thrilled, reasoning there might be something good to come out of all this mess.
I’ve waited for the past four years with increasing aggravation, more than once going long enough to hope I was finally out of the woods, only to face that time once again. In those moments, “the curse” seemed a more fitting expression than “that time.”
Lately, I’ve begun to wonder what my body is telling me. Is it possible something is unfinished, unresolved, even unhealed? I’ve known for years that the narrative about my female body is one filled with shame, humiliation, and trauma. I’ve wanted to distance myself from my body. The fact that I refer to it as “my body,” rather than simply “me,” is significant. I know there will be no more children born from this body, and yet my body is still going through the motions of preparing for that possibility.
What if this unending rhythm is not a curse, but a regular reminder to marvel at the stunningly intricate design of my body?
This body that I struggle to fully inhabit has birthed new life, strengthened muscles, remained freakishly flexible, fused broken bones and torn ligaments, grown new hair, nails and skin, inhaled and exhaled countless breaths, and yes, carried out an amazingly complex cycle of ovulation and menstruation every month for decades. My body holds stories of every single one of these functions, and the hundreds of others I haven’t named. So does yours.
Maybe I’ve needed an extra-long time to learn the wisdom of my body’s rhythms, to listen to the stories it is revealing about life and death, possibility and renewal, frustration and hope. Those stories are worth telling without any nice words that minimize their honesty. It’s that time – time we all start telling our daughters, sisters, nieces, and neighbors our stories of what it means to be a woman.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris, and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.