Welcome to menstruation nation
How getting your period for the first time can feel like a death sentence as an uneducated pre-teen
On a random Saturday in 2007, I was convinced it was going to be the last day of my life.
Seemingly out of nowhere, my jeans were soaked in blood. I was terrified as I frantically tried to figure out what was wrong. My initial reaction was to examine myself for cuts, which left me searching for a wound that didn’t exist. Then I ran through a mental checklist of my symptoms: bleeding, abdominal pain, dizziness, loss of appetite and sudden nausea. I had just seen something about this on Discovery Channel. ‘It must be tapeworms,’ my 10-year-old brain decided. And, just like the Alaskan timber wolf I saw on TV, I was going to die.
Spoiler alert: it was not tapeworms. Not only did my mother assure me that the odds of contracting a parasite in suburban Ottawa were basically zero, but she also said bleeding from your private parts is actually normal for those of us born with the XX chromosome.
I’m not the first girl to think my first period was a deathly omen. According to Plan International, a non-governmental humanitarian organization working to advance the rights of young girls, one in seven girls in the U.K. didn’t know what menstruation was by the time they got their first period. This number was even higher for girls in Afghanistan, with around 50 per cent being unaware. Period education needs to start earlier if we want kids to know that it’s normal for your body to have these kinds of changes. In my case, even knowing what a period was would’ve saved me an embarrassing amount of panic, allowing me to better prepare myself every month.
In November 2022, writer and comedian Tiffany Springle started a TikTok show called Roe v. Bros. The concept is simple: they ask random men what they know about reproductive health. With over 12 million views on a single episode, I wasn’t shocked to see that men in their 20s and 30s could not accurately explain what a period is. When a man on the show said he thinks women only use “one tampon per day on their period,” it brought me back to my prepubescent self frantically searching Google for answers.
A 2018 press release from UNICEF reported that “educating girls before their first period—and, importantly, boys—on menstruation, builds their confidence, contributes to social solidarity and encourages healthy habits.” The report also mentions the importance of having support and resources in place for girls who are menstruating. “Inadequate facilities can affect girls’ experience at school, causing them to miss school during their period,” further stigmatizing the overall experience of menstruation, the report reads.
I wouldn’t learn what a period was in an academic setting for another two years after first getting my own. The main lesson I got from my mom? Write down the dates when you bleed on a piece of paper and shove it to the back of your underwear drawer.
Tracking your period on a piece of paper and then hiding it isn’t exactly what I would recommend to my future kids. It reinforces the idea that this is a secret, a shame that should not be talked about and should never be seen. These days I track my period on my phone– something that is now unsafe since that data can be used to target women after the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the U.S. But during those first few years, I filled countless little scraps of paper and shyly asked my mom to buy more pads every month.
Not only was I the first of my friends to get my period, I also had the longest period out of anyone I knew. While Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization providing sexual health and reproductive resources, describes a normal period as lasting between five to seven days– mine were often around seven to nine. Like clockwork, I skipped school for the first two days of my period every month, doubled over the toilet as I was overcome with nausea.
As the years went on, I just got used to bringing ibuprofen with me everywhere. Even though my grades were slipping, I felt too embarrassed to ask for extensions on assignments. ‘If half the population gets their period, then I should just suck it up, right?’ I thought.
It wasn’t until I stepped foot in a sexual health clinic in Oakville, Ont. as a 20-year-old that I learned my experience was abnormal. A nurse sat me down and explained that regardless of whether or not I was sexually active, no one should feel ashamed of their body. Her tone was conversational and non-judgemental as she told me how exactly different forms of birth control can either stop your period altogether or decrease the bleeding. Having access to hormonal birth control as an adult brought my period down to five days with minimal cramping. Taking that little white pill every day was like magic, though the list of its potential side effects are as long as my arm. Though there was a risk of blood clots, bloating, weight gain and vomiting, it was worth it to lessen my period. And this experience can be even more emotionally jarring for transgender and non-binary people, who, according to a Teen Vogue article titled 7 Transgender and Nonbinary People Open Up About Having Their Period, feel uncomfortable with the fact that period marketing is surrounded with the notion that “if you have a period you’re a woman or not having a period makes you not a woman.”
Looking back on my first period, I don’t think I could have handled it any differently. What was a ten-year-old with unfiltered access to Discovery Channel supposed to do? My sex education class, which wouldn’t really help until Grade 9, pretty much only consisted of watching my gym teacher put a condom on a banana. Don’t get me wrong: it’s important to learn about safe sex, but I wish there had been lessons about things like how to use a tampon, what to do when you think your period pains are abnormally bad or where you can go to get confidential help if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your family about your period.
There is no general consensus as to when parents and schools should begin teaching youth about periods, though most of them align it with the sex-ed curriculum. But one thing’s for sure: education is not keeping up with the rate that people are starting their periods. Over the last two hundred years, people have been getting their period earlier and earlier, but scientists aren’t exactly sure as to why. In the 1800s, the average age was 15. By 1950, you were expected to begin menstruating before turning 13. As of 2022, any time between ages 11 and 14 is the new normal for learning about periods, according to Medline .
The lack of earlier education surrounding menstruation can be harmful. When we don’t have knowledge of what’s happening to our body, we can’t advocate for ourselves when something is wrong: at least, that was the case for me. Kids—regardless of gender—need to know what they’re in for.
If they don’t know what’s normal, they won’t know what’s abnormal. No one should think they’re dying of tapeworms during puberty.
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