It was hot. We walked back from the beach midday to get out of the heat and sat in chairs just off the kitchen around nothing picking up the draft from the living room ceiling fan. This house had central A/C central to the bathroom off the main hall and the master bedroom. Other than that it blew warmish air through most of the vents until about midnight when the unit caught up with itself. Mornings were wonderful. But it was dark and cave like and out of the sun. It was July, 1977 and I was thirteen years and three months old, nineteen months from getting my period and my patience had already worn thin.
I was already the last of my friends who started in September of sixth grade and fell like dominos all that year and through the next summer until we were complete as a whole except for me. My father said, any day now. My mother said, your grandmother was nearly seventeen. I said my version of, that's not helpful. I waited for my body to change. My father said, it will, don't worry. My mother said, you will have a body that everyone wishes they had. You will be rail thin and built like a super model. It is best not to have breasts. My father said, more than a handful is wasted. I asked, where is my handful? They said, it is coming.
In July of 1977 I was prepared the way a tactical team is ready for a siege. In sixth grade, when I still had faith, I'd ransacked my mother's shelves and the shelves of the hall closet taking inventory of all things female. Since I didn't have ready access to a television I wasn't inundated with the commercials that plagued most of my generation but I'd seen enough to know what to look for. I found sanitary pads and I found tampons and I understood the difference. I distinctly remembered a commercial about a girl in a bathing suit with a towel wrapped around her waist. 'I can't go swimming today, euphemism, euphemism, euphemism...' In my mind I couldn't understand why sanitary pads hadn't been outlawed. My decision was already made. There were things my mother hadn't told me. If she had I might have been afraid.
I'd also noticed the sparsity of other things. My mother did not have any other feminine products on the shelf. I looked everywhere. These things were advertised the same way Enzyte Bob went to town with his drooping hose to illustrate the horrors of erectile dysfunction in 2007 and 2008 but I only saw the tip of the iceberg. I do remember the woman in the field of flowers looking particularly beautiful. I wasn't entirely sure what Massengill was selling but since my mother didn't stock it I chalked it up as a nice to have but entirely unnecessary. The tampons in the closet smelled funny though. I didn't like it, didn't understand why you would want or need it, and I didn't want it in my body. I hoped there was an alternative but I didn't ask. The idea of a perfumed vagina seemed vaguely horrifying but my mother wore perfume so maybe this was a grown woman sort of thing. I did not wear perfume.
It was hot. We were sitting in a circle around nothing. My brother was by himself on the couch peeling an early sunburn. My uncle who was really my father's cousin was talking about perfumed tampons. My head whipped around. I was on the periphery of the conversation because I was thirteen even though I'd been the focus of the conversation because someone had asked if my period had started or someone may have volunteered the information and my uncle who was, and still is, one of the most progressive men I know was having fits about the feminine products industry and what we were telling women, especially young girls. He asked me directly what I thought about deodorizing tampons. I said I didn't think I wanted to put that in my body and didn't mention what was in the hall closet. I said I didn't like the smell of them. He asked if I knew why they were scented and I said no.
It's to mask the smell of your body.
My body doesn't smell.
Every body smells like something.
Well my body doesn't smell bad.
The feminine products industry is trying to tell you it does.
And then he got red in the face because he was very angry and I wish I could remember what happened after that but I can't. I can only remember the first part because it was pivotal. He said at some point, don't ever let anyone tell you that.
Nineteen months later I was in the bathroom at my friend's house across town and there it was. Goddammit. Finally. I had some money so I went next door to the pharmacy and stood in front of the selection. Sure enough, half were pink and smelled terrible but half were blue and didn't smell like anything. There was a relatively new product on the market called o.b. which were small bullet shaped things without applicators. This seemed like a fine idea. I bought a small box, trotted back to my friend's house, and locked myself in the bathroom. I read the instructions very carefully. It took me exactly three tries to get it right. On the second try I thought I had it but walking proved challenging. Try three was perfect. It felt as if there wasn't anything there at all. The only evidence I left behind was a little clear cellophane in the trash.
I called my parents. Dad. I got my period. Finally. Do you need anything? No. I went next door and bought a box of tampons. Oh. OK, let me get your mother. Mom. I got my period. Finally. Dad said you bought a box of tampons. I did. What kind. o.b. o.b.?! How did you get it in?! With my fingers the way the instructions said. Can you walk? Yes. I can read instructions. Well OK. And that was it.
On Monday at lunch six or seven of us discussed the fact that Alecto was finally a woman because if you haven't gotten your period you are not a woman and we were all afraid I was going to be some sort of freak until I was twenty-five. This oddity was even more remarkable in that one or two of my friends were on the cusp of losing their virginity. I'd like to think this was a unique period of time when we started earlier but I don't know if that's necessarily true. I just know I was mostly last on both counts. At lunch someone leaned in and whispered, I know your mother doesn't tell you everything so you need to know that now you need to start douching.
At the end of your period you need to clean everything out.
Are you kidding?
Just ask your mom to buy Massengill or maybe she has some in her closet. It's really easy. If she doesn't have massengill she might use the old fashioned bags but you can't share bags and that's kind of gross. Get the disposables but you have to do it.
Because you smell if you don't.
OK, it's true. My mom did not tell me everything but to be fair, some of the stuff she didn't tell me didn't bear telling. Or some of the stuff she didn't tell me was girl stuff of the sort she just didn't focus on. I had a tremendous education on the reproductive system starting from about six with the basics with additional information coming maybe every other year until I was pretty clear how stuff worked. I didn't know, however, that I should wash my face every day to prevent blackheads. On the other hand, I had perfect skin until I was twenty-seven. I was not taught how to care for my nails but my mother was pretty rugged and kept hers short. It never occurred to my mother to tell me to brush my hair and so I never learned to do it more than once in the morning before I left the house. I wasn't one of those girls with a comb in a purse or back pocket. I still don't look in a mirror after I've left the house. My mom left out a shitload of information about my period. I didn't understand timing, irregularities, heavy flow, clotting, or cramps. I had no idea what was normal or what might be deadly. The first time I had a heavy period with clotting I thought I was dying. The first time I nearly bled out I thought maybe this might be normal and just kept going until my husband did something about it. The next time it happened she called my doctor all the way from Ohio because when she asked I said, why yes, my gums are turning blue now that you mention it. I note these things and try to fill in my girls because these data points aren't there.
But I did go home and ask about this Massengill business because I'd seen the commercials and I remembered what my uncle said.
My mother gave me a long, hard look.
Douching is not a good idea.
Your body cleans itself out.
But all that blood.
Your body will take care of that. What do you think women's bodies did before douching?
Your body will only smell bad if you haven't washed or if you have an infection.
How much should I wash?
Only the outside. Alecto. Do NOT put soap in your vagina. Ever.
OK. I already did that once. Is something bad going to happen?
No, but you shouldn't do that. Your vagina doesn't expect soap and you'll throw everything out of balance if you do that too much.
Looking back on it, this was a pretty revolutionary conversation. Sort of like using soap on your face in the fifties, it just wasn't done because the women's marketing industry said you used a different product to remove cosmetics at the end of the day because soap would age your skin prematurely and women bought into this shit.
Here's what o.b. says today directly from their website:
"Many women douche, but doctors do not recommend it. Douching changes the balance of natural chemicals in your vagina. This can make it easier for you to get dangerous infections. The vagina actually cleans itself on the inside with natural fluids. The best way to clean the outside of your vagina is to wash with warm water and gentle, scent-free soap during a bath or shower."
And it's only taken us thirty-eight years to get here.
So here's the question. Who said the vagina needed to be scented or have it's natural smell masked? Where did this come from? Because the thing is, women don't just douche or put bars of soap INSIDE their vaginas to wash out blood or semen (which is flushed naturally from the body in a really cool process which turns semen from a viscous teaspoon and a half to a few tablespoons of fluid closer to the consistency of water in a matter of seconds after being introduced to vaginal fluids); women do this on a regular basis. Stuff starts to smell like something if it isn't cleaned up once it's made its way out of the body and since that can take a while you can either stay on top of it or you can live with it. Is it something that smells bad or is it something you've been told is bad?
Who said do this? Who propagated this lie?
Well, it's easy enough to blame the old white men and the blame does lie at the feet of the old white men but it doesn't stay there. I picked the easiest target because it applies to every woman all the time for a good chunk of her life but there are so many things we don't talk about because we aren't supposed to talk about it or we're afraid of what will happen if we do reveal it. So many things which are discussed in hushed tones, kept from men and young children as if we were talking about disease or worse yet, a crime. The crime of being a woman.
You know what we absolutely don't talk about? We don't talk about menopause. You think we do. We think we do but we don't really. We talk about the parts which are socially safe to talk about but we don't get into the meat of it. We don't get into the parts that really scare us, the parts that change us indelibly, the parts that we fear (and we might be right) will have men turn away from us. And we do not talk about the parts that really hurt. Instead we talk about hot flashes and a little bit about mood swings. These things can start during the perimenopausal stage which begins for many women before menopause even starts. That can be ten years prior or in my case maybe even fifteen years. You know what we don't talk about? We don't talk about insomnia and not the insomnia caused by hot flashes, the insomnia caused by estrogen fluctuations which can leave you lying wide awake until 3 AM for no good reason even with your mind perfectly quiet. We don't talk about changes to our skin, our face, our necks, things we associate with aging in general but which are related to a dramatic drop in hormone level and suddenly you are changing and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. We don't talk about the waistline which was one thing three months ago and something else entirely today for apparently no good reason at all. We don't talk about what just happened to the change in shape and texture of our nipples. Do these sound like small things? Then why don't we talk about them? Because they aren't small things. It's like being a changling almost. You are still you but you are in a different body almost overnight.
When your period goes away there is a mixed feeling of relief because for many of us in the end our periods were becoming heavier and significantly more painful. But when they stop we panic because what defined us as women is suddenly gone. That half used box of tampons sits in the bathroom staring at us reproachfully. Maybe every four or six or eight months there is one period or some spotting or suddenly a vasovagal episode and we drop to the floor or the floor comes up to meet us and if we're lucky it ends there. If we aren't lucky we spend hours on the bathroom floor contending with pain so intense we would sell one of our children for morphine or we just pray for the a trough in the peaks, anything to breathe through until the cocktail of ibuprofen and naproxen that your doctor has suggested you start taking two days before your mostly non-existent period kicks in because most ob-gyns will no longer prescribe pain medication for women's problems. You lie on the bathroom floor and wonder why there isn't a damn thing you can do, remembering the nurse who told you after your car accident that you didn't have to suffer when your back and neck hurt, that they could give you something for that. There was no need for suffering anymore. You'd gladly slam your arm in the car door for one little pill if you could only walk as far as the driveway but you can't and you won't have another ride in the ambulance because the cost for one small pill would be $1800 for the ride and $2000 to cross the threshold and you'd rather just blackout and so you do.
When you open your eyes your daughter who was reading on your bed is on the floor again stroking your forehead. She says, you stopped crying so I came to see if you were OK but you were asleep. That's good, right? Yes, that's good, you tell her. You wonder what you will do when she goes away next year but you think it will be OK by then and also, you don't really need help lying on the bathroom floor.
No one talks about this and now is the time women most check their bank accounts and have that come to jesus conversation about what can be pulled up where and tucked and pinned and sanded down because what was of value once is suddenly gone. From the people who brought you the scented vagina we now have the worthless woman. She has gone from being worth nine cows to no cows nearly overnight and heads straight to the gym if she wasn't there already and doubles her efforts in an attempt to re-flatten that belly and maybe she can but there isn't a damn thing she can do about those nipples or what has really happened to the back of her thighs or the skin on her face or her neck which she thought was bad but which has now become something else entirely.
She stops eating and passes out at a traffic light one afternoon and ends up passing through ER threshold anyway.
Her grandmother ate diet pills disguised as caramel and when she was small she ate six of them once and her grandmother didn't know if she should take her to the hospital or just let her run it off in the backyard. In the end she ran it off like some feral child on a fifty foot leash and now wonders two things: 1. where did my grandmother get those things and 2. for how many years did my grandmother suffer?
One day her daughter sends a text just before she starts her shift at the market which reads: Please bring me Advil if you can today. My cramps are so bad I think I'm about to cry. I already took two Advil over an hour ago and it did nothing.
She is forty-five minutes away and tells her daughter to go to the pharmacy next door to buy naproxen to add to the mix but it is too late, she has not gotten in front of the pain. Later she finds out her daughter, who works in the bakery blacked out while taking a customers order and hit her head on the bakery counter on the way down. When she pulled her way back up she said her foot slipped out from under her but that she needed to go look at her head and asked someone else to finish the order while she staggered off to the bathroom.
How do you hide that?
She told no one. She only said she was very sick and had to go home and then waited in her car for me to pick her up.
Why do we have to hide that?
Why does she have to experience shame?
And this is only the beginning.
When adrenaline kicks in you can often fight your way through it and so I've been able to stay on my feet while teaching a class and I've been able to make it well focused through meetings and presentations and that is my answer to the male war cry of
NO WOMEN ON THE FRONT LINES!!!
But we won't discuss it more now then ever because god forbid we show a weakness.
I don't know that it's weakness, any of it. I think it takes something to get through much of any of this, to walk through it as if nothing was happening at all. I think it takes a great deal of courage to face it with very little information either from your doctor, your mother, or your friends, not that anyone is withholding intentionally, it's just that we don't talk about so many forbidden things - these women's matters.
Normally I would have started a post like this with a trigger warning which used to be a TMI warning but now we have to say trigger but it's really the same thing. It means what I have to say might upset you. I didn't do it for a reason. I'm sure you can work that out.
At the top of this post are twelve angry men. The twelve angry men do not want us to discuss our bodies. They don't want us to talk about it at home, in school, at lunch, at church, on the playground, not anywhere. Women are very powerful and the less we know about ourselves the better. But the thing is, they can't really stop us directly so they tell us a story. They tell us we smell bad, we look bad, we sound bad, that we are bad. They trade us in for newer models and pat each other on the backs. We in turn don't much trust them. Oddly enough, the newer models come to us but that's another thing entirely. Anyway, they can't stop us directly so they tell the story and the thing is, we listen. It was my uncle who raged against the fact of the deodorized tampon industry and told me don't you ever, and it was a girlfriend who told me I had to rinse that thang out. It wasn't until I was fifty that a man actually told me I needed to clean my vagina thoroughly and I expect that was probably because a woman told him that this was a very necessary thing to do. I'm pretty sure he didn't believe me when I explained that vaginas took care of themselves.
But ladies, we do this to ourselves. I don't really think we mean to but being unconscious about something doesn't change the truth of it. You know, I forgot to tell my daughter what she'd most likely experience when she lost her virginity. That was a big mistake on my part because some of us may need medical attention after the fact and she was out of the country. The good news is she called, we talked, she was with a friend and a some ice and packing did the job but there was no reason for her to have gone through that without some warning and there was no reason for me to have gone through it either but it wasn't something my mother would have thought to tell me except maybe after the fact when I talked about it years later. The sort of thing falls into column B which covers 'those things we talk about if they come up'. Column A covers 'those things we talk about because we must' and Column C covers 'those things we avoid at all costs'.
I wonder if any of you remember the post wherein I discuss the outcome of accidentally revealing my rape to my fourteen or fifteen year old daughter while idly discussing something in the kitchen.
That was something in Column C which needed to be in Column A with a date stamp.
Probably what we need to do is write down as many things as we can think of in Columns B and try to figure out why they aren't in Column A. Try to move them to Column A. Then look at Column C. Look again. What's missing? What things did you not write down? What things are so hard that they're in the Column marked D which is for what hides in the closet and carries more weight in shame and fear than anything else? Move it all to A immediately. To the top of the list. You don't actually have to talk about it but you do have to think about this:
How are you hurting yourself and the rest of the female species by keeping these female secrets?
How much of your power are you willing to give away?
In the mean time I found out that you are not in menopause until you have gone twelve months without a period. Well this effing sucks. I'm probably going to be sixty before I get there. I may chew my arm off first.
Post Script: These men, as much as they and a good many of we would like to think, were not doing us any favors either. Who do you think invented the deodorized tampon? It wasn't the twelve angry men. Shit, they didn't even want to know about it. Beware the male feminist for he is untouchable and cannot be accused easily of sexism. Hint: Go for an ally, they recognize that it's not their battle, tend to be much better listeners, and probably aren't the makers of feminine products.