When I was fourteen, I got my period and didn’t tell my mum because I didn’t want to have The Period Conversation with her. I’m 99% sure I was fourteen, but I could have been fifteen, I actually don’t remember the details at all besides an early encounter with a sanitary pad and my futile attempts to flush it down the toilet.
This was the first of many lessons my menstrual cycle would have to teach me, and thankfully they’ve become a little less awkward as I’ve grown older and (hopefully) wiser. It saddens me that I can’t recall the moment that my body began to bleed for the first time (well, out of my vagina), but I’ve come to realise that this isn’t at all uncommon; plenty of women tell me they don’t remember their first period or details from their developing years. That’s okay, the human brain is a mysterious thing. But it feels important to me that we attempt to unravel this chapter of our lives and share stories that we can connect with our sisters on. Women also tell me how isolated and weird they feel in their menstrual cycle experience, and this is where the power of storytelling comes in. I’m all about The Period Conversation these days (even with my mum!) because these memories have the power to influence the way that we feel about our cycle and our body today. Being willing to adore our cycle means being willing to acknowledge each step we’ve taken in our journey thus far. It’s useful to look back to where the beliefs we have about ourselves began, and start to rewrite these stories so that we can feel empowered and positive in our own skin.
So, here’s mine.
I grew up in a regional area of Australia in a town on a river that’s not quite a city, but not quite the countryside. My parents had five kids and although our loving, loud and messy home had an ‘open door policy’, full-to-the-brim with friends and family, I was a private kid. Being the eldest meant that I became used to having my own space early on—like, I had a Queen size bed in my own room at the age of three—and so the cubby house in our backyard became my happy place where I could be on my own, content to draw and write and listen to tapes on my Sony walkman. For a long time I thought that there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t as fun or outgoing as my sister, Kate, or as daring as my friends who’d leap off trees into the river over the summer and kiss boys behind A Block after school.
All through childhood I fiercely guarded my space, secrets, thoughts and feelings and I’ve kept a diary since I was eight years old; my journal has always been a safe space where I can express myself fully, particularly during that awkward chapter known as puberty. I started growing boobs before anyone else in my group of friends and I both loved and hated that fact. One spring afternoon I’d asked my brother, Sam, to do a pretend photo shoot with me in our backyard where I paraded around in my patterned crop-tops and posed seductively for the ‘camera’, but when Mum called us to come inside I was overcome with shame, like we’d been doing something really naughty and wrong. Once those hard little lumps appeared on my chest, I began to feel uncomfortable being naked in front of him and my sisters. For years we’d had a roster where one of my siblings would sleep in my room for a night (I have no idea how I managed to wrangle my own room and they all shared one?!), but this family ritual just began to feel strange as my body started her slow transition to womanhood.
I’m not sure where my prudish nature came from, because my parents were always open about our bodies growing up. Nudity was normal in our household, condom packets were never hidden in the weekly supermarket shop and my dad would laugh and gently tease my mum by pretending our neighbour Paul was at the door every time she’d casually stroll through the kitchen in her white cotton underwear. I remember the shock on my grade one teacher’s face when I was comfortable using the words ‘scrotum’ and ‘stool’ in conversation and happily articulated the difference between a vulva and a vagina for the class. Of course, my mother, a nurse, wanted to know about these bodily changes her first born daughter was experiencing and though I was an introverted kid, ‘privacy’ isn’t her strongpoint.
I remember the day she accidentally walked in on me in the shower when I was eleven and upon seeing my naked, developing body said, “Claire, you’ll definitely be getting your period soon,” as I screamed and carried on about the wild concept of knocking before entering a room. I was horrified. The only person I knew who had their period was a girl in my class who had started to bleed when we were ten. The boys in our year had been sent out for sport and us girls were sat down in a classroom and briefly shown the world of pads and tampons, and that’s really all I remember learning at school about the menstrual cycle. In the lead up to my twelfth birthday, my pal Nina prompted my mum for present ideas to which she responded that I needed a bra. And look, I totally did (my unsupported boobs were glaringly obvious under the unflattering yellow gold polo shirt that was our school uniform) but a birthday present? To be unwrapped in front of all my friends? What a nightmare. There I am on my birthday, eagerly unwrapping this gift (is it going to be a scented candle or a bath bomb? Grow-your-own crystals? Glitter hair mascara? A subscription to Girlfriend magazine?) to discover… a plain white sports bra.
A. Plain. White. Sports. Bra.
I felt ill. What followed next is both embarrassing and telling: I grabbed the bra, ran to my room and stuffed it into the top drawer of my dressing table, before returning to the party as if nothing had happened. Smooth. I’d like to tell you that I at least mumbled a “Thanks so much,” to Nina but I’m not sure that I did. I didn’t want to be different to my friends! I didn’t want people to talk about me needing to wear a bra. Rebelling against this whole ‘feminine’ thing was my next move; I kept my hair short in a bob and refused to buy a dress for the first day of high school. I wanted to wear skate shoes and shorts and t-shirts and so I did.
In the end, I started my period later than most of my friends.
When I was fourteen (or was it fifteen?) my friend Kosh showed me how to insert a tampon after unsuccessfully and painfully attempting a mini-triathlon with my friend Sally whilst a tampon basically hung out of my vagina, and that was that. It felt like an anti-climax in the end; not much changed, nothing to celebrate. I used to mark a star on my wall calendar when I expected it to arrive (every 28 days) and I had no issues, no cramping, it was all fine. Once I figured out how to actually use a tampon I never went back to pads (they were “gross”, everyone knew that) and I’d sleep with “supers” in, sometimes keeping them in for whole days at a time. The thought of bleeding through your school uniform was an actual nightmare and I was always checking my underwear or the back of my dress for leaks. I knew that some of my girlfriends experienced quite painful periods, but it wasn’t something that we ever spoke about.
One spring afternoon after P.E, my friend Erin quietly called out in the girl’s toilets to see if anyone had “a little white mouse” (because saying TAMPON was such a taboo) and we all giggled and avoided making eye contact with each other, as someone passed a tampon under the cubicle door to her. We just didn’t really talk about periods. We talked about how fat we all thought we were getting and how to walk in a bikini without your thighs wobbling and who was putting their hands down who’s pants. One night, two of my friends and I used hair removal cream to take off all of our pubes and stared at our teenage pussies in the mirror, using pens to poke them and figure out what was what (THAT’S the clitoris?!), and I’m so glad that we did that. Because other than our end of high school Schoolies’ trip to the Central Coast where we were so stupidly sunburnt we physically couldn’t wear clothes (it was as awful as it sounds), I barely saw my high school friends naked.
I knew my own body though. I’d learned how to make myself orgasm before finishing primary school. My poor teddy bear Carrington was often recruited in my pursuit of pleasure and I felt that same naughty, shameful feeling every time my hands would wander under my pyjama pants. At after-school church we’d learn how sinful it was to masturbate and have sex before marriage. It felt like desire and libido and sexual pleasure were never spoken about in my world and it wasn’t until I was in university that I even admitted to my girlfriends that masturbation was something I even did, let alone enjoyed. “You’re just so sexual,” I’d often hear from them which made me feel even more weird — why did I have this urge to explore and satisfy this part of me that others didn’t (seem to) have? The funny thing was that I didn’t start shagging dudes until much later than my girlfriends and I wouldn’t say I had ‘good sex’ until I came off the pill (more on that soon) and discovered what having a libido really meant.
…to be continued.
I’m excited to be sharing more of my ‘backstory’ when it comes to the menstrual cycle and how much learning to adore my cycle has shaped who I am today. Pop your email in below to stay updated on the rest of the series, give it a ‘share’, and tell me in the comments: did part one resonate with you? What were your early years of discovering your body, your sexuality and your cycle like?
Also, my online course FLOW: Your Guide to Journaling Your Menstrual Cycle is now enrolling, and the Adore Your Cycle audiobook is available too. Hurrah! #cyclemagic