In the film 20th Century Women, Elle Fanning's character, Abbie, shares her first-period story at a dinner party, as one does if you're a precocious 70s teen in an independent film. She got it while watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with "some guy," an anecdote apparently lifted from the life of a friend of the movie's writer and director, Mike Mills.
"I told him I had to go, went to the market, got a box of tampons, went home, read the instructions on the box in my bathroom, figured out how to put them in," Abbie says. "I never told my mom, she never asked, I never saw the end of Cuckoo's Nest."
For the woman who has periods, the first time looms large in her personal lore—she can never forget the moment she first felt confused, maybe betrayed, by the mechanics of her body, nor will she ever forget how people responded to it, if she even tells anyone at all. Because it's insane: Blood leaks out of your vagina, and unlike many bodily fluids, there is nothing you can do to stop it! We're told this marks an irreversible transition to womanhood. But it's kind of a shocking one: This version of womanhood—which excludes trans women—doesn't care if you don't feel like making out yet, or if your mom still packs Pokemon fruit snacks in your lunch. While some girls might think, Finally!, because anyone cool who actually needed to wear a bra was also toting tampons in her Capri Sun pouch-purse, the lived reality of surprise bleeding can be horrific. It haunts you.
Which is why, upon finding blood in their underwear, the first instinct for many girls is to tell their mothers immediately. But there's risk in going public. While working through their own personal shame or disgust or confusion, girls are also up against the disbelief of others. (From ages 10 to 13—typically the range within which girls will get their first—the ways women feel shame multiply at an unjust pace.) While most women tend to avoid recounting their first periods at a dinner party, many who spoke with me for this article remembered the moment vividly. In their retellings, first period stories are precise in a way that most memories are not.
A woman named Jessica remembers the moment she told her mother there was blood in the toilet, but her mom didn't believe it was her first period. Instead, she insisted that Jessica had a hemorrhoid.
"You might have pooped too hard," Jessica recalls her mother saying. "There can be blood when you poop too hard."
While it's expected that a young girl tell her mother, and it's come to be a bonding rite of passage, some choose not to. Natalia was 13 when she got her first period and grappled with her own disbelief at what was coming out of her body, so she kept it a secret. Her mother was pissed when she eventually found out.
I realized during the second-to-last period of the school day that I had blood all over the butt of my white Juicy Couture velour tracksuit.
"I didn't initially realize that I'd gotten my period, since I thought that periods came in vibrant hues and not in brown, sad colors," Natalia says. "So I ignored it until my mother confronted me about a week later, asking me why I hadn't told her I'd gotten my period. She gave me a long lecture about how pads are great and tampons are an abomination and threw some tidbits in about how it's wrong to insert things inside yourself, how virginity is important before marriage, and how some people nowadays shouldn't really wear white at their weddings. I tried using pads the next month and, because they are horrible, I found them to be horrible. So for several months after that, I'd steal money from my mama, bike to the grocery store, buy tampons, and hide them in my room. In what I now realize is a horribly unneighborly act, I'd throw all my little tampon cartridges over the backyard fence after they were used."
Eventually Natalia got tired of the secrecy and biking, so she put together an "extremely embarrassing pro-tampons PowerPoint" for her parents. Her father talked her mom into funding her tampon purchases, and that was the last time menstruation was ever discussed in her family.
But even if your family is totally accepting, you still have to deal with PMS. Side effects of menstruation always suck, but they are often particularly bad during a girl's first period—especially because you don't know why your body is treating you this way until, often, it's too late. "I got really bad cramps and diarrhea, and I didn't know what it was until I realized during the second-to-last period of the school day that I had blood all over the butt of my white Juicy Couture velour tracksuit," a woman named Sara told me of her first time. "I had sat down, and when I got up there was blood all over the seat. I cried in the bathroom stall for two hours until the principal drove me home with a garbage bag covering my butt."
For centuries, literary representations of uterine shedding, from Carrie to Ulysses, have shaped the way we think about, and fear, menstruation. Like baptism-resembling swims in a river or women breaking eggs in an arthouse film, first periods are rife with symbolism. No other somewhat cyclical bodily function, not pooping or sneezing, attracts this level of artistic attention. In fact, the 1970s saw a whole movement of "period art"—women painting with their menstrual fluid, an extreme reaction to the even more extreme societal demand that we hide it. (And menstruation has seen an artistic revival in recent years.)
In Angela Carter's heavy-handed short story "Wolf-Alice," menstruation serves as a humanizing force for a young girl literally raised by wolves. Unlike her wolf cohort, Alice feels a desire to clean up after herself; she looks for a rag during her period because she is civilized. (Less civilized is her initial thought as to what was happening—that a wolf "must have nibbled her cunt while she was sleeping, had subjected her to a series of affectionate nips too gentle to wake her yet sharp enough to break the skin.")
While many of these representations consider the period powerful, the truth is that menstruation is messy and uncomfortable, and depictions that don't treat them as such are leaving out something fundamental. In Marie Darrieussecq's wonderfully obscene 2011 coming-of-age story Clèves, the protagonist Solange—who had recently been fingered by a fireman—has a friend, Nathalie, help guide her through her first tampon-insertion experience with the sort of authority only an adolescent girl can claim.
[Nathalie] lent her a tampon to try. But it hurts like a bitch, even after dipping it in oil as she had advised her to do. Still, the fireman had put in an entire finger, and a finger isn't nothing (and when one thinks of the rest, the size of the rest—it's better not to think about it.) "But you were wet," Nathalie explained to [Solange]. "That makes it slide in." She tried while masturbating but however much she breathed like her-mother-in-lotus-position, there was nothing to be done. And Nathalie had warned her about tampons: a girl had forgotten and the guy had pushed the tampon up so far that it pierced her insides and she died in a flood of blood. (Translation: Annabel Kim.)
While I experienced no trauma, public embarrassment, or misinformation from friends when I got my first period at age 10—my mom simply shook my hand and we got to the business of blocking up my vag—I remember feeling a profound sense of dread and nausée when it registered that this would happen every month for the rest of my life. Even worse was the realization that I'd be expected to keep it secret. Now even I, a frequent bleeder, forget that women around me are secretly bleeding all the time. In 1996, Florida artist Charon Luebbers created an isolation booth meant to represent the alienation women can feel while menstruating. Decorating the the inside of "Menstrual Hut" are 28 canvases printed with her face, which she created with her own period blood.
Ignoring the existential dread that dawns with menarche, there are also logistical concerns: Location can be a blessing or a burden. Writer Lily Puckett got her first period at the January 2003 protest against the Iraq War, in Washington, DC, a neat tie-in with all sorts of points I could make about the politics of bleeding.
"My family was just going to support from a distance, but then John Ashcroft went on I assume Fox News and said he was putting cameras in the trees on the Mall to intimidate protesters, so my mom packed us all up after school and we drove overnight from Alabama to make it," Puckett says. "I realized [I had gotten my period] when we got to the friend's house we were staying in. I told my mom and she said, 'Well, congratulations.' I couldn't actually make it to the Women's March on Washington [this year], but I wanted every woman there to know that my very first bloodshed is with them."
Unfortunately, you can't choose for your first period to come on a symbolic day, or with supportive family members. On one of the cringier episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, a Girl Scout is selling Larry David cookies at his home when she gets her first period; she knows what has happened almost immediately, which was the only part of the exchange that didn't ring true. (I cannot think of a single place more horrifying place to start menstruating than at the door step of Larry David, fictional or actual.) Surprisingly and almost sweetly, Larry retrieves a box of tampons and helps her work through the instructions from the other side of a bathroom door.
What makes the first-period story so potent is that we have no control over where and when it happens; the place we're in and the people we're with cement a lifetime of associations. Though potentially embarrassing at the time, the first period anecdote becomes a silver lining to the pain and confusion and ruined underwear, a handy way to commiserate about the cramps and Fruit Roll-Up binges.
"I was 13 years old and visiting Disney World with my family," a woman named Laura told me. "We were going to the Magic Kingdom and I went to the bathroom and noticed something on my underwear. I didn't realize that it was my period (despite the fact that pretty much all my friends already had it and I was definitely anticipating its arrival) until about an hour later, right in the middle of the Haunted Mansion ride. I then proceeded to get horrible cramps while waiting in line for the Lilo & Stitch [show]. It was an odd place to say goodbye to my childhood. I was mad! I was like, 'Fuck this! I'm in pain!'"
Personally, I'm still mad, but at least now I know to buy Fruit Roll-Ups in advance.