found the pamphlets on my bed. They were square, illustrated in soft pastels, and faded by the years. The one on top announced: “Now you are 10”!
As I had turned ten years old a few months earlier, I found its accuracy encouraging. Moving it aside, I glanced at the next one. “You’re a young lady now,” it declared.
“When I was your age my mother gave them to me,” my mom had said earlier, as we were making dinner, to prepare me for these gifts. She had produced these 1958 and 1961 pamphlets in response to my news that the school nurse had given the fifth-grade girls the menstruation talk that day. I was grateful for the further guidance because the nurse’s speech had not been very informative. My biggest takeaway was that the school had some kind of deal with Always brand maxi pads so they could give them out promotionally to the girls while our brains were malleable. We would be Always girls for life.
Now I stuck my No Doubt cassette into my boom box — Tragic Kingdom, the first cassette I had purchased with my own money — pressed play, and flopped on my bed to examine the pamphlets.
Each cover featured a brunette girl with a ribbon in her hair.
Ribbons, I thought, are essential to menstruation and young lady-hood.
The girls looked a bit like my mother in the pictures I had seen of her as a child. The well-dressed pamphlet girls had large dark eyes and feminine beauty. My mom was always elegant and correct, something to which I greatly aspired but at which I was currently failing.
I was going through a grunge phase heavily influenced by my older brother, and the gang of neighborhood boys I hung out with. This style involved lots of oversized t-shirts. Bonus points if your t-shirt advertised the scariest roller coaster you had been on. My most badass t-shirt advertised a river canyon ride. I was working my way up to Steel Force, the newest and scariest roller coaster at Dorney Park, with a plunge of 200 feet. So far I had only gaped at it in awe.
I flipped through “Now you are 10” first. The booklet contained illustrations of a perky, ponytailed girl wearing a poodle skirt. It told me that at my current age I would have the urge to start wearing my hair differently (I had been considering curly bangs recently to complement my glasses), notice “pretty” curves emerging (definitely in my thighs), and look forward to co-ed parties.
My neighborhood life pretty much was a co-ed party, with me as the only co-ed. Our gang played street hockey, touch football, and capture-the-flag games that often went past dusk. The parties depicted in the pamphlet, however, featured girls in dresses drinking egg creams and listening to records, staring adoringly at boys in sweater vests.
Hm. Was I doing this wrong?
With the approaching dawn of menstruation in my body I might need to make some changes. How else would I turn into a girl like this — a girl like my own mother?
I turned to the other pamphlet. This one was wordier. I learned a great deal about the care and keeping of sanitary belts, which the school nurse had failed to mention.
The text declared menstruation “right and normal,” but indicated that you should not discuss it. This seemed a contradiction, but the author was very authoritative. I had whispered and giggled with my friends at school about periods just that day, so already I had made a faux pas. If you must discuss it, the pamphlet said, you could have a conversation with your mother.
I guess if you don’t have a mother you’re out of luck, I thought. I had a mom, and even I had just found the booklets on my bed.
Reading on, I learned that I must keep my appearance pretty and neat when I had my period. I should not use it as an excuse, like some girls, to appear slovenly, but instead that I should comb my hair, clean my nails, and appear “fresh.”
Noted. My mom always turned herself out well, no matter the time of the month, so she must have followed this advice.
“Some girls imagine they feel worse than they actually do,” I read.
So those rumors I had heard about cramps must be a myth!
Finally, there was a Disney movie called “The Story of Menstruation” that I was supposed to seek out, but I thought I was unlikely to locate it over thirty years past publication.
I had my period playbook: appear feminine and polished, don’t discuss menstruation, and ignore any negative feelings associated with it because they are not real.
Now I just had to wait for the period to actually arrive and I would be a poised, beribboned “young lady”! I would be just like my mom had been at my age. Over the next few months I poured over the booklets whenever I could and thought about the new me that was coming.
That summer, when I turned 11, I did become a “young lady,” but it did not happen the way the pamphlets had led me to believe.
I was not at a sock hop, discreetly menstruating in my starched dress while sipping soda daintily through a straw. I was on vacation in August and my family was sharing a single motel room near Old Sturbridge Village, “New England’s largest outdoor living history museum,” in Massachusetts.
In the afternoon I went to the bathroom and found blood in my underwear and shorts. With my parents and brother just on the other side of the door, I stared at it.
This was not how it was supposed to happen.
How was I supposed to tell my mom when my dad and brother were right outside? I would be breaking a pamphlet rule.
“Mom,” I called softly.
“Mom!” I said again, louder.
Finally, I opened the bathroom door and stuck just my head out, my face scarlet with embarrassment.
“Can you come in here, Mom?”
Looking up from his Gameboy my brother gave me a questioning look, but I quickly slammed the bathroom door shut again.
My mom came in and I explained what had happened. She spoke to me in a quiet voice. This was okay. It was natural. She would help me.
I worried about the lack of sanitary belts in the vicinity.
My mom laughed. “I’ll run out and get you some pads,” she said.
“No, don’t leave me!” I begged her.
“Let me just talk to your dad,” she said. “Hang on. I’ll be right back.” She stepped outside the bathroom and I heard her whispering.
Oh no, now my dad knew.
“What’s going on?” My brother said, but my mom shushed him.
While I waited for her to return to the bathroom, I looked in the mirror. My skin was ruddy with humiliation. My round glasses slid down my nose and frizz from the August humidity escaped my pigtails, which were sadly lacking in ribbons. My oversized t-shirt didn’t quite cover the scratchy motel towel I had wrapped around my lower half.
I waited for the rush of excitement and fulfillment I should be experiencing. This was how I got to be a pretty, elegant, poised woman like the pamphlet girls, like my mom. I was supposed to be grown-up and pulled-together, any discomfort inconspicuous. Where was my poodle skirt?
Instead of rejoicing I sank down on the bathroom floor and began to cry. I didn’t want any of this.
“You’re a young lady now,” the pamphlet had declared.
Maybe I didn’t want to be a “young lady” anymore.
I liked being a kid. I wanted to keep playing tag in the neighborhood and wearing t-shirts featuring aspirational roller coasters. Instead, I was supposed to desire this: menstruation and all that went with it. I was supposed to look forward to high school and boys and budding femininity. But the pamphlets failed to mention what I would be giving up for these things — the carefree pleasures of childhood, when I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else.
I heard the hotel room door close. My mom returned to the bathroom and found me collapsed.
“Your dad is going out to get supplies,” she told me.
As she looked down on my crumpled figure, I realized I had broken one final pamphlet rule. If you experience negative feelings or sensations while you have your period, you are just imagining it. Put on a good face and ignore it. But it didn’t feel like I was imagining this unhappiness.
After my dad came back, my mom showed me how to wear the maxi pads and brought me clean clothes. I pulled myself together, got dressed, and pretended to move on. I couldn’t drag down the family vacation with my feelings — that’s not what a “young lady” would do.
When we returned from an afternoon of colonial butter churning, my brother and dad jumped in the motel pool to escape the oppressive heat. I sat on the pool’s edge, dangling just my feet in the water and watching as they horsed around. My mom read in a deck chair nearby. She appeared cool and lovely even as the rest of us sweated, and she wore a sophisticated wide-brimmed hat. It looked like the sort of thing one of the pamphlet girls would have donned.
After we returned from vacation, I tucked the pamphlets into the back of my underwear drawer, next to some of my new Always maxi pads. Looking at the pamphlets brought a deep sadness now. Those girls were not naturally perfect — they were molded and made to shed their natural inclinations, to distance themselves from their bodies and emotions. They sat on the side of the pool. They didn’t jump in and swim, messing up their hair and blowing bubbles with their noses. I grieved for the pamphlet girls. I grieved for my mom. And I grieved for myself, too.
As much as I didn’t want it to happen, my “young lady-hood” solidified over the next few years. Like the pamphlet girls, my mother, and girls today, I felt the pressure to wear makeup, shave my legs, and wear more figure-flattering clothes — goodbye Steel Force XL tee.
More and more of my clever girlfriends stopped speaking up in class, and deferred to the boys. The girls who were pleasant and quiet were rewarded by our teachers. Over and over again I received the message to be decorative and not show unpleasant emotions. When I dressed “properly” and wore my hair the right way and fixed my face just right, people told me I was pretty as if it was the best compliment they could give. And though I fought that message (I continued to raise my hand in class, and for a while I stubbornly wore the boys pants uniform at school), time wore me down. It was just easier to give in, to not get in trouble at school for being angry, or get ridiculed by peers for my hairy armpits.
I wished I could cling to childhood, but menstruation brought changes I couldn’t stop. Morphing into a “young lady” became a way of surviving.