Herstory: From Menarche to Menopause

Herstory: From Menarche to Menopause

By an elementary school teacher who doesn't want her students to know intimate facts about their teacher, so she asked to remain anonymous

It's 1956, I've just "graduated" from from the sixth grade, a February class. Junior high looms frighteningly ahead. It's worse than I thought! The "big" girls wear stockings with seams; a few of the ninth grade boys drive chopped and lowered Mercurys. Cool kids smoke and drink Pepsi from bottles at 7:30 AM in front of the candy store across the street from the school.

How will I fit in there? I still like to roller-skate and love to play with the cooking set I got for Christmas.

To make matters worse, I knew nothing of "The Facts of Life." Mom never mentioned anything. My girlfriends giggled vaguely about a few of the Facts, but dismissed my questions with, "YOU'RE too young." Indeed, I WAS too young. I did not need a bra, though hair was growing under my arms and on my legs and "down there." I asked my mom, "How old do you have to be to wear a bra?" She took me to a store and bought me one, one only: size 32AA.

I wore that bra every single day for seven straight days and Mom figured she'd better get me a spare. Unpleasant musky smells were coming from my armpits. That spring, when I'd raise my hand to speak in class, I'd cover the hair jutting from my sleeveless blouses with my other hand.

One day, my best friend offered to shave my legs. A beginning, only a beginning.

I was naive and ignorant of grooming procedures. I had acne and blackheads raging on every inch of my face. My oily hair hung in lanks - I had no idea how to style it. My clothes were a mish-mash of Early Teen and 10-year-old chic.

I remember one Monday morning especially. Mom had taken me shopping and I'd picked out a bunch of new stuff, stuff I was sure would be noticed at school. I was noticed for sure! As I walked into seventh grade homeroom that spring, everyone turned to me and laughed. I never wore one piece of that outfit again. It was a blouse like Desi Arnaz wore when he played the conga: ballooning sleeves with fuchia, purple and orange stripes, a full-circle felt black skirt with gold flecks, net crinolines, bobby socks rolled down, and saddle shoes. The pièce de résistance was a rhinestone heart on a chain around my neck.

What WAS the secret? How could I fit in? Then there was The Mystery. What WERE those advertisements in Seventeen and other magazines? Vague hints of "that certain time of the month." What did it all mean?

Summer came. At last! No more junior high for three wonderful months! I could be a kid again. No pressures from the dry, sour-faced teachers. No leaking fountain pens. No ridicule on the bus: "Eaaaauwwww! Your face!"

One particularly hot humid August day, my best friend and I went for a bike ride. We pedaled all over, sweating and laughing. Exhausted and overheated, we arrived home, threw down our bikes and ran upstairs to our bedrooms to put on bathing suits.

We spent the next hour or two cooling off with a hose in the yard. And then . . . .

Upstairs, I went to put my clothes back on. What was THIS? Blood stains in my yellow panties. A hot feeling rushed over me. Disease? Injury? What could it be? I ran downstairs to Mom; she would make it right.

I can still remember her words (avoiding my eyes): "It's perfectly natural. It'll happen to you every couple of weeks. Each time it will get to be a little more." She took me me upstairs to her bedroom and opened a drawer. There was a discreet open box of Modess. She dug deeper into the drawer and pulled out an envelope addressed to her. Inside was a booklet, "Very Personally Yours." She handed me a pad and a packed belt, and, taking my yellow panties, told me, "Put [stained] items like this down deep in the laundry so your father won't see them."

I was left in the room to sort it all out. What the hell? I put the belt on but did not open the safety pins. It remained there, not on my waist, but on my thighs. When I went back downstairs, Mom tugged on it and tried to get it higher, but never did explain it. I remember asking her if I had to wear a pad to bed.

I read that booklet several times that night and I remember thinking, "Just what I need on top of all the other Teen Problems." I was only 12. And what exactly did that booklet mean? Vague references to ovulation. Could I be PREGNANT? Is that what it meant? I knew that pregnancy without marriage was a real taboo, though I did not know how this could occur.

When I got up the courage to ask Mom if I was going to have a baby, she answered, "No, this means you are NOT going to have a baby. You only have a baby when you're married." End of subject.

The first period passed. I learned how to wrap the used pads in toilet paper and put them into my room's trash can. Somehow I got the message that I was not to bathe or shampoo my hair during a period. This idea was affirmed by my friends. Once in the Circle of Knowledge, they began sharing other "facts." Cold drinks would give you cramps. Hot drinks would make you flow more heavily. Don't water the house plants when menstruating! A permanent wave would not take when menstruating. No strenuous exercise. No swimming!

Then school started. September. No period. Good. Maybe that August period was my first and last. That was fine with me. I forgot about it. It returned, though, full-blown, in August. I was in a panic. What were these clots? What to do when I needed to change at school? The teachers would not let us use the lavatories except at lunch. Of course, you could grovel and beg permission in front of everyone and they MIGHT grant your wish.

One lunch time, I went into a stall and found the pad had leaked everywhere. I was a mess. I didn't have a spare nickel for the wall machine. I had no idea yet how to improvise a fresh pad out of toilet paper. I did not know how to clean up. I didn't dare ask the other girls. I didn't know to go to the school nurse. I had nowhere to turn and I was in a panic. Could I make it to the end of the day? I sat in a double class of English wondering what was happening underneath my skirt. In that hot, stuffy classroom, I KNEW that menstrual odors were coming from me. I walked stiff-legged to the bus stop. Three buses home.

The next morning I cried and begged Mom to let me stay home. She refused and that night gave me a pair of sanitary panties with a rubber lining. She also showed me how to take an extra pad in a brown paper bag, hidden at the bottom of my purse. Those Sani-Panties grew stiff and torn and crackly with age and so many washings. They scratched and cut me until, finally, Mom got me an extra pair.

I remember that it was just one giant pain in the ass. Sneaking into Mom's room to get a pad. So demeaning. Why couldn't I have my own box in my own room or in the bathroom like everyone else did? Why didn't Mom take inventory and buy several boxes at a time, or one of those 48-pad boxes? Why did I have to sneak downstairs with my trash can to empty it into the kitchen trash can when no one was looking?

Somehow I began to sort it all out. I shaved my underarms. I bought my own Secret deodorant cream in a blue jar. I started to bathe more often and shampooed every other day. My skin began clearing up. When I bathed twice daily my skin cleared up altogether. I bleached my hair with peroxide and learned to set it in pin curls all over my head. I bought myself an eyebrow pencil and learned to jitterbug. All the while, though, my friends and I hated our periods, dreaded our periods, cursed The Curse.

High school found me "caught up." I was popular, had dates, was a cheerleader, smoked Winstons, drank anything my friends and I could get our hands on, made out in cars with boys, and took a shopping bag of Modess to the senior prom for the all-night festivities. But I was a virgin!

All around me friends "got in trouble" and had hurried weddings. I saw where that got them: Nowhere.

I finally tried tampons the month before my wedding. The doctor insisted and gave me instructions for stretching my hymen. She also gave me birth control pills. Wow! They were great! Periods suddenly became predictable down to the exact day and were so much lighter. I was 24 years old.

I went off The Pill when my husband had a vasectomy - we'd decided not to have kids, a decision I've never for one second regretted. Again menstrual periods became a giant problem: leakage, cramps, flooding, unpredictability.

Then, in 1992, at the age of 48, one last sparse period arrived and then no more. How much have I spent on sanitary protection in my life? How many activities did I miss because "You should never swim while on your period!"?

To sum up: a lot of this angst could have been avoided with education. I'm glad to see that fifth grade girls now participate in a program at school. I wish I'd had that chance.

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