This picture was taken of Liza (left) and Nikki the next year, when they were 13.
OK, so after I posted the blog about “Hello Flo” and the summer camp commercial, my younger daughter, Eliza, wrote me to say I had remembered her first period story wrong. All I could recall was standing in her bathroom, just as I had with her sister, and talking about pads while she rolled her eyes. But the full context had escaped the sieve my memory has become. So here is Liza’s story, which has its own funny poignancy and its own object lesson in the age politics of sanitary care.
“I was running out at recess in 6th grade, laughing and playing soccer with the boys. I felt an almost pop and I felt like something wasn’t right. So [my best friend] Nikki and I ran into the girls bathroom. Luckily, no one ever knew but us, but explaining to my student teacher was really embarrassing. (She wasn’t my biggest fan, but under the sensitive circumstances, Nikki got her because she was the youngest adult we knew at school. And she had a tattoo on her ankle, so she’d probably be cool about it and not send me to the nurse’s office. You know, 12 year old logic.)
So she was cool, didn’t send me too the nurse where everyone would see me, and explained through the stall how to use the tampon she’d had in her purse. I’ve never been a fan of pads and maybe that’s because I started on tampons.”
Anyway, in the course of this through-the-stall-door conversation, Liza communicated her surprise that the liquid coming out of her was red, not blue. The teacher told her she shouldn’t watch so many commercials.
Now, I don’t remember this business about the blue liquid and cannot believe my own child thought that. I am sure I told her it would be blood that came out. But I guess that is the power of television. Even after all this time, I wrote her back and said, “Liza! You thought it was blue!?!?!?!?!”
Thanks to Liza’s nudge, I do now remember more fully what happened later. Apparently, I was traveling when this happened, so I am sure I was consumed with single working mother guilt (that same ridiculous fear of not being present when the child speaks, smiles, or walks the first time). On my return, I probably needed to reassert my motherliness and “had a talk” with her–in the bathroom, which is where my memory kicks in.
“But when you came back from your trip and I told you the story, you went all mom-ish on me (the pad talk, worried about me using tampons, oh my god those stupid commercials-Yadda-Yadda) and you said you were glad some one was there to help me and you were proud that I kept my head like a big girl (I rolled my eyes like a disaffected teen but still felt the pride of being a grown up girl that can handle grown up girl things. I was glad I was grown up now and my mother was proud of me).”
Now, the funny thing about this is the tampon issue. I was horrified that a student teacher had given my twelve-year-old daughter a tampon. Because, when I was young, young girls, nice girls, did not use tampons. (Obviously, there is some weirdness here about tampons being a stand-in for penises.) By the time I got to college, we were all converted to tampons, of course, but I swear I used pads all through high school.
Liza doing the disaffected teen thing, same year.
Fast forward to 2008. I am sitting in a health centre in southwest Ghana, talking to a public health nurse who is helping me with the sanitary pad study. We are talking about the local mothers’ attitudes toward their daughters using disposable sanitary pads. Cost is not really the issue. It is more that they don’t see the necessity. Most of the mothers did not go to school long enough for sanitary care to become a problem, so they just don’t get it that their daughters need something more reliable than a rag between their legs for a public, distant, mixed-sex environment. But it is also because they see disposable sanitary pads as a sign of a modern society–and they don’t trust that. This gets translated into a vague idea that their daughters will become “bad girls” or something if they use sanitary pads.
The words came out too fast. I wasn’t thinking it through. I said to this nurse that I could understand the way the mothers felt because it was similar to how I felt that my daughter, at her first menstruation, had used tampons. Honest to God, that revelation took her breath away. The nurse couldn’t speak for a few moments and stared at me like I had horns. The idea that a respectable person like me would allow her unmarried, barely grown daughter to use tampons was morally reprehensible. I knew that was the local feeling, but I was just spilling this shared experience about motherhood, without thinking about the major disconnect in cultural mores about something like a tampon. I never won that woman’s respect back.
I think of this whenever some well-meaning Western person wants to teach all the schoolgirls in Africa to use menstrual cups. Not only do cups pose health problems in environments where there is no soap and water, their use usually will violate local ideas about what is ok for young girls to have/do/put in their bodies.
When our group was first designing the sanitary pad work, we considered trying menstrual cups. Among several very good reasons (health issues, local mores) not to do it, we feared that we could not get the ethical clearance from the university’s committee that protects human subjects of research. Basically, we would be asking them to OK our teaching 12-year-old-girls in Africa to stick rubber things up their vaginas. No way. We couldn’t even imagine how we would argue it. I have never understood how the Emily Oster and Rebecca Thornton study of menstrual cups got past the committees at their universities. It worries me that there continues to be so much emphasis on this type of product among Western charities and other well-intentioned people. The potential to do harm with them, whether medical or cultural, is real.
One thing that has been the same everywhere is the way women like to tell stories about their moments of menstruation. Though the schoolgirls were often shy to talk to us about anything, their mothers would warm to the topic immediately, each one wanting to one-up the other’s story of mortification. Once they get going, everyone is laughing and talking. I have never had an easier time making friends.
So, when I asked Liza if I could post her story on the blog, it was not surprising what she wrote back:
Liza now. She now works on the West Coast, doing fabrications of everything from costumes to puppets for television, movies--even the San Francisco Opera!
“Sure, you can put it on the blog. I’m pretty sure all my friends know that story. Chicks, we swap period stories. It’s a thing.
That’s probably why our friendships become intimate more quickly than men. We all have to experience that. There’s a camaraderie in being fully horribly (sometimes really publicly) embarrassed by your natural biology at a really sensitive age. We all get that at some point before we get the hang of the whole womanhood thing. Or that’s what Callie and I think anyway.”