Monday, September 21, 2009

Periods and Purification

Last week, I read an essay called “Purification” by Grace Poore, an autobiographical account and analysis of the Tamil traditions associated with a young girl’s first menstrual period. In the essay, which you can find in this anthology, Poore describes the alienation and purification rituals young girls go through when they start menstruating. Poore had to follow a specific diet, submit to superstitious rules (don’t wash your hair during the first three days or you’ll get dark circles under your eyes), stay home from school, wash and hang her clothes separately from her family's, keep her distance from her brother and finally submit to a humiliating purification ceremony where she was washed with milk to cleanse herself and her house.

I’m always interested in menstruation stories, because there’s so much shame surrounding this biological function that girls can’t control. One of my first rebellious streaks as a teenager involved talking openly about my period to show I wasn’t ashamed of it, inspired by my dad yelling at me to “put that thing away” when he spotted a tampon in my truck, because “that’s embarrassing.” I thought at the time, “Is it really that embarrassing, dad? The biological process that makes it possible for me to have children, and for you to have grandchildren, is something embarrassing?” I mean, later on in life, there will be social expectations that I’ll have children, and my dad will presumably be asking when he can expect to hear the pitter patter of feet kicking to get out of my insides.

But that physical fact of menstruating—that it’s a part of the biology that makes babies possible—is only acceptable and unthreatening later in women’s lives, when they’re settled down with the menfolk within the legal and spiritual bounds of marriage that make everyone more comfortable with women having sex and being knocked up in a controlled way. (Controlled by who? Anyone but them.)

When you’re a teenager, periods are something to be ashamed of, because your body is sending the shameful message: Grand opening of sexual maturity, come on down! Meanwhile, society is trying to keep you and your ladyparts chaste.

“But wait,” you think. “When I started my period at 12-years-old, I wasn’t out looking for sex any more than I had been the days and weeks before I started my period.” Well, that doesn’t matter. Consider the angry way Grace Poore’s mother reacts to her daughter’s total bewilderment at finding blood on her skirt: She snaps at her daughter for not knowing what to do with a pad that involves loops and a belt, enforces a strict diet, keeps her daughter home from school for a week, forbids Poore to speak about the situation and refuses to explain any of it to Poore, who is left wondering what she did wrong. It’s almost as if one day, Poore was an innocent young girl and the next day, she started menstruating and became someone to tame and suspect. At Poore’s purification ceremony, during which she was bathed in milk by a stranger to cleanse her and even the air in the house of her monthly condition, she describes being scrutinized by her family and friends:

Then, all eyes fell on me. They studied my face, my hair, the color of my skin. They looked carefully to see if I would make a suitable daughter-in-law someday. Finally, done with their scrutiny , they came over and shook my hand…they swarmed over to the feast Mother had laid out for them and forgot my presence. I sat in my chair and watched them. Amidst the smells of ladhus and gulab jamuns, chicken curry and spiced rice, I became invisible.

Thus, after this tradition that supposedly celebrates a young woman's entrance into the adult club, she realizes that women in her culture (and she's not alone, it's true in most cultures) are invisible in their daily routines and accomplishments. From the moment her ceremony is over, she'll be expected to take her place in a daily domestic routine, where her work will be expected and unnoticed unless she deviates from the norm.

I was struck by how coldly Poore's mother treated her, as if Poore somehow turned sinister slut overnight. One would think that Poore’s mother would have felt sympathy for her daughter, who was about to go through a humiliating and isolating process. Instead of sympathy and communication as someone who had been through it, Poore’s mother angrily refuses to explain the situation, leaving the young Poore utterly bewildered about what is happening to her and why. At least Poore seems determined not to pass on this humiliating treatment of girls to the next generation in her family. Poore writes that in adulthood, she doesn't want to follow in her mother's footsteps and be complicit in these rituals that humiliate young girls for having the audacity to be born female.

I think a lot of women find it really therapeutic to share your-first-period stories because they’re always memorable, although taboo. It’s an experience all women have and can share, but we’re encouraged to keep it to quiet and isolate ourselves from the comfort we could take in solidarity with other women. It is in that spirit that books like My Little Red Book are compiled, along with losing-your-virginity anthologies.

For my part, compared to Poore, my first-period experience was downright PC. The Friday of my first week of seventh grade, I looked down and noticed I was bleeding on the couch while watching The Tonight Show with my mom. I knew vaguely what periods were, and that I wasn't keen to start mine soon, but the suddeness of it left me very sincerely bewildered.


She followed my eyes and saw what I saw. She rushed up and said, "Wait here, I'll be right back." She walked out the front door with her keys, and returned a short time later with pads from the corner grocery store. She took me to the bathroom and explained, "You wear these in your panties. If you want to learn how to use tampons, just let me know."

When I went to bed a few minutes later, she came to tuck me in. A wave of pessimism had come over me that I couldn't explain. I didn't want to tell her that I wasn't excited, that I dreaded this next phase of my life. I wasn't eager to grow up. I felt a weight on my shoulders that I couldn't quite describe, but I've had the feeling many times since then. I just find it amazing that I was capable of feeling that downtrodden at age 12. I could tell that my mom was excited for me, that she wanted this to be a mother-daughter moment. But she could tell that something was wrong, and that I just wanted this moment to pass as soon as possible. She asked if I was okay, and was anything wrong. I said no, I'm just tired (a response I've used countless times since then, also to avoid explaining what is wrong). I cried and went to sleep. That was 12 years ago.

I never asked my mom how to use tampons. My older friends told me horror stories about how much they hurt, and I read those vapid stories in teen magazines about tampons getting stuck inside you while cliff diving with your crush, how embarassing. My horrible sex education (I'll save that for another post) also left me utterly clueless about where you would even put a tampon. After years of virtual diaper rash (I especially remember horrible discomfort during basketball and volleyball practices) and fear of swimming, Tampax sent some sample tampons with very thorough diagrams and directions for how to use tampons. Thus, sometime during my freshman year of high school, I spent a few hours in my closet, with my door locked, painfully and secretly teaching myself how to insert and take out tampons. When my next period rolled around, I felt like a real woman, a grownup. I walked with a swagger for that one day. Tampons without applicators still thwart me, but I kept that Tampax diagram for years, and I've never looked back.

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