Volume 24: On “Becoming” a Woman

Welcome to the twenty-fourth installment of Open Book. If it’s your first time here, click here for a little background.

This entry in my blog will address menstruation, blood, pads, tampons, cramps, and related uterine topics. If the thought of broaching such material makes you uncomfortable, kindly get over yourself (#SorryNotSorry; #EndPeriodStigma) and read on.

I got my period for the first time on December 1, 2004, just a few weeks before I turned 14.

I had been getting ready for ballet class when I peered into my underwear and discovered a dark brown spot inside, like an uncapped marker had been left there to leak. I kicked the panties off of my ankles the way I might have shooed off a fly that landed on my leg. I trembled through ballet, hoping no one would notice the stack of toilet paper squares I’d layered into the crotch of my leotard.

That day, I wrote in my diary. At the time its front cover featured a photo of two polar bears nuzzling, as well as the words “Very Special Memories.” And oh, what special memories it contained. “Oh no,” I started off the entry. “I got my period.” I continued:

The “her” mentioned here is my mother.

And so on and so forth. Suffice it to say that I was not taking things well.

The following day, I penned a list of 20 reasons why having your period is “the WORST thing ever” (because no one does melodrama quite like privileged 13-year-olds). Here’s just a taste of what I wrote:

Excuse the crooked scan. Also, apparently I’d not yet heard of menopause.

Two things immediately strike me when I revisit these entries.

First, I notice how naïve I was to think that a little blood was the grossest thing womanhood might entail. At 14 I was still years away from encountering some of the truly gross stuff, like old men who slap you on the butt with a rolled up newspaper while you’re minding your own business shopping at Walgreen’s, which is an actual thing that happened to me last weekend.

Second: I truly believed that getting your period was what capital-M Made you a woman

You pull off your panties to find an unfamiliar stain that’s leaked out of an unfamiliar hole, and boom—you’re a woman, Caroline. (Kind of like Harry Potter finding out he was a wizard, but a whole lot more traumatic. Also, no pink frosted cake. )

In recent years I’ve realized how reductive that thinking is. Obviously menstruation and pregnancy and childbearing are large parts of many women’s lives. But womanhood doesn’t equal the capacity to bear children.

What I mean is that women are everything. Women do everything. We’re not all mothers, just as we’re not all astronauts. We aren’t all attracted to men. We don’t all menstruate or even have uteruses, for that matter. And we don’t all look at the world in the same way. We may face similar varieties of  gender discrimination, but there just isn’t a singular, universal experience of womanhood. You can’t describe women in broad terms because we compose literally half of human race.

This is what Hillary Clinton was driving at when she said, in 1995, that women’s rights are human rights. This is the idea behind those t-shirts that say, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

Women aren’t a fringe group—women are people. All kinds of people.

It follows, then, that one of the primary goals of the women’s rights movement is for the world’s populations and governments to treat women like full people. Don’t treat us like we’re vessels for creating babies and nothing else. Don’t treat us like sexual objects or ask us to smile when you see us walking on the street. And don’t treat us like delicate unicorns who need all doors held open for them at all goddamn times. (Chivalry is thinly veiled sexism, peeps.) Also, pay women and men the same wages for the same work. Just treat us like we matter equally. Failing to do so is dehumanizing half the global population.

There is much work to do in this arena, especially because many women face oppression beyond gender discrimination: Women of color fight racism on top of sexism (for example, the gender wage gap in the US is even larger for women of color than it is for white women). Women of certain faiths are subject to vicious threats and attacks. Trans women experience alarming rates of violence and abuse. And it’s up to women (and men) with more privilege to stand up for the rights of others. (If you’re interested in fighting the good fight, I’d suggest checking out your local NOW chapter.)

This is all my roundabout way of saying that if I could go back in time and talk to 14-year-old me, I would tell her to chill the fuck out about a lot of things, including black nail polish, roughly 100% of boys, and her dogged attempt to run a 7-minute mile (girl, you will never become a runner).

But I would also tell 14-year-old me to chill the fuck out about getting her period.

Sure, it hurt, and it was tough to get used to walking around with bloodied wads of cotton stuck between your legs. But it was far less laden with capital-M Meaning than 14-year-old me supposed. It certainly isn’t the thing that transforms you into a woman. As feminist writer Laurie Penny once put it:

“The really scary truth about the universal girl experience is that there isn’t one. The truth about young women that nobody wants to acknowledge is that we are all unique, and the number of stories that haven’t been told about our lives is vast.”

Young Caroline would never believe it, but I quickly came to accept menstruation without much drama. These days I think of periods as a friendly, familiar aches, like good-natured handshakes so firm they crush your knuckles a little by accident. They exist. Their arrival signals the biological ability to bear children. But periods are not where womanhood begins or ends. It’s a whole lot bigger than that.