I got my first period when I was 9 years old. Or that’s what I tell people. The truth is that it’s not a clear memory — I might have been a young 10.
If pushed, I would say I was bewildered, embarrassed, in shock. But in truth, none of those words ring true. It is just too hard to rummage back fifteen years and try to feel now the contours of emotions then. Whatever I felt was not solid and expressible. It was just a tiny illuminated edge of unknown unknowns, barely perceptible, but obvious once you know the landscape it is hinting at. Shame, for example. What is that for a child? What big and unknowable abstraction that nevertheless manages to squirm perceptibly in your stomach.
Back then, my sole reference points for periods were ads for tampons on television, things my friends whispered and what was written under the entry in the dictionary. Now, I can call upon endless works of art and literature, a whole web of information, interpretations and realities that tell me about periods, explain them to me. So not only has the memory of when I first discovered blood gone blank, so has my ability to guess at it.
But I do remember other things. I remember a friend asking “What’s that?” after school one day. I had run upstairs to change my pad and hidden the fresh one under my jumper on the journey from my bedroom to the bathroom. “Nothing”. Even now, I swell with gratitude towards her that she decided not to probe further.
I remember sitting in my primary school tracksuit bleeding, wadded toilet paper in knickers, waiting desperately for the end of the day when I could go home and finally explain to someone what was happening.
I remember acting as an altar server at a confirmation, sitting on the bench in front of the crowd and praying that no blood would seep through and stain my cream robe.
I remember a discussion at a sleepover for a friend’s 10th birthday where someone suggested that we should really make the most of our lives now, because soon have we’d have periods and wouldn’t be as free. I was already living in world my friends were squinting at in the distance.
And most of all I remember so clearly when I first told anyone.
It was my first week of secondary school and a group of us were headed to the bus stop. The conversation turned to periods and me, perhaps newly confident in this new teenage space, with a feigned nonchalance said:
Oh I’ve had mine for years.
When I think about the positive aspects of periods, there’s really only one: solidarity. Strangers tend not to care if you have the flu or a migraine, but mention you are on your period and women’s bathrooms the world over will rustle with the sound of supplies emerging from handbags — the Holy Trinity of pads, tampons and paracetamol. Recently, a friend was suffering some particularly painful cramps and our WhatsApp group buzzed all day with messages of concern and encouragement. It’s no fun to feel like your stomach is on fire or to writhe with exhausting pain, but it helps to know that other people care, that other people get it.
I try never to take for granted the great but simple privilege of speaking aloud about my period. I know I can do so only because of the work of others and the lucky coincidence of being born in this time and place. For the first four years of menstruating, I never spoke to anyone apart from my Mum about it. So it still feels liberating, almost miraculous, when I hear myself explain to someone in straight and unambiguous language, that my womb is bleeding right now. But despite being grateful for this new culture of honestly and openness, I have always held with me some resentment on behalf of little me. For by the time I felt the strength of the common struggle, the message had deflated from the delay. Where was the sisterhood when I was small? When I was embarrassed and alone?
Try and think if you’ve ever seen a child in an advert for sanitary products. When I was growing up in the early 00s, the women in these ads were fully grown, slim and beautiful. They were playing tennis (literally always), typing furiously in busy office, swimming, climbing, dancing and roller-blading through life. I remember one ad in particular, in which a man waiting for his date to get ready, spots a tampon, thinks it’s a sweet and screams when he opens the wrapper and realises. ‘Wow’ I wondered ‘What on earth was it?’ These adverts have been rightly critiqued by contemporary feminist activists. A ubiquitous blue liquid is used to suggest menstrual blood and even basic words like ‘period’ or ‘vagina’ or ‘blood’ are reduced to suggestion and euphemism. Recently, companies producing innovative period products, such as period pants or period cups, have bucked this a trend and produced similarly innovative advertising — bold, honest and self-assured. But again, where are the children? These cool, confident, arty women would have been no more relatable to little me than their sporty and homogenous 00s counterparts were. Nor are these companies likely to advertise where children might see them. UK advertising guidelines require that sanitary products not be advertised too close to children’s programming.
I care about this because it was normalisation and representation that lifted the isolation and stigma for me. The reason I mentioned my period to my friends when I was 13 was that by that point, it was normal and even desirable to have one. Yes, you were still scared a boy would spot a tampon in your bag or worried about bleeding on your school skirt, but all the same, no one ever wants to be left behind in the heady tumble towards adulthood.
Brands which do provide sanitary products for children, tend to shy away from the word ‘children’. THINX’s BTWN range uses the phrase “teens and tweens”. Knixteen also describe themselves as a “a brand built for teens”, shyly including ‘tweens’ every now and then in their website copy. Would you consider a 9 year old a tween? A 7 year old? I don’t know whether this cautious language is a result of advertising restrictions or whether it simply reflects a general societal squeamishness about the reality that little girls have wombs that bleed.
And more and more little girls do. The average age for first period has been steadily falling for decades. Knixteen published this helpful blog, which notes that 15% of girls today will get their first period at 7 or 8. No one really seems to have a clear explanation for this trend. A modern diet, heavy in fat and preservatives, might play a role, but so might stress, exposure to certain chemicals, sleep deprivation and other environmental factors. After reading over a dozen articles on the subject, what do know for sure is that all of these explanations fit neatly into the framework of modern parental panic: Obesity epidemic! Hormones in our food! Chemicals in our water! and the perennial: Children growing up too soon!
Any small child searching the internet for answers would find themselves confronted with alarmist headlines and grim prognoses. One commenter on a piece in The New York Times writes:
I do worry that the numbers of girls experiencing precocious puberty today are our canaries in the coal mine. Are their bodies telling us about all the additives in our food or “stuff”?
Another theorises that:
Has anyone investigated the possibility that a major contributing factor may be the entertainment industry’s obsession with explicit sexuality?
No wonder my friend at the sleepover felt that a period would threaten her current carefree existence when the consensus seems to be that young menstruaters are some sort of biological aberration.
Looming above this topic is, of course, the spectre of pregnancy. No one wants to imagine that a 9 year old can biologically conceive. It’s easier to simply avoid that fact: hesitantly refer to ‘tweens’, keep sanitary products away from children’s cartoons and not provide sanitary bins in primary school bathrooms. That way, children stay children. We don’t think about little me, forced to stash dirty pads wrapped in plastic bags in my school bag. Her biological reality is too painful and complicated to dwell on.
But as much as we would like to draw a clear line between child and adolescent and adult, our bodies just don’t conform to these categories. We don’t hop over a line one day and become sexual creatures and viable parents. Sexuality and reproduction are facets of human existence from the moment we are born. Before we are born even.
Radiolab’s wonderful series ‘Gonads’ explains how by the time that the ovaries of embryos are five months developed they have all the eggs they will ever have:
JAD: You’ve got this little organism forming, probably the mother doesn’t even know it’s there yet. But already there are these cells in existence that will be the kid of the kid she doesn’t even know she has yet. So her grandkids are in there already.
MOLLY: It’s the same material that not only make the body, they make more eggs and sperm. They make the next generation of egg and sperm. So they’re both making a generation, but then making the ability for that generation to make another generation.
JAD: Oh, my God! This is like — this is like humanity.
MOLLY: It’s mirrors. You’re not only cradling your child, you’re cradling infinite future Homo sapiens.
I realise that this all a little abstract. I mention it, not just because I find it cool, although I do, but because it reveals a larger biological galaxy. If since birth I have held within me the infinite future of Homo sapiens, my first period was not an indication that here I was, ready now to fulfil my reproductive destiny. It was not a hop across into a new adult existence. It was just the first images from the probe arriving, revealing what had been out there all along. Yes, VOYAGER MENARCHE 1 could have chosen a more convenient time to pummel my tummy, but at 9 or 12 it would have held the same message: someday, you might be a mother.
Early masturbation is another topic that often causes consternation because it challenges our carefully protected life categories. Children, even babies, will touch their genitals because they find it pleasurable. One episode of Netflix’s Big Mouth shows how the character of Missy began rubbing herself on her toy Wiggle as a toddler and carried the behaviour over into early adolescence. This is considered completely normal by doctors and psychologists. It’s only a problem if it becomes obsessive or leads to injury.
The fact that children masturbate does not, of course, mean that they are capable of sexual relationships, no more than some womb bleeding means you are ready for children. But early masturbation is evidence that our sexuality is not a part of some distant future self. It’s not just hanging around out there waiting to pop its head up out of nowhere when we turn 13. It is built into our biology from the beginning. It’s part of who we are, even when we are only little.
I am not a scientist or a doctor and so I can’t comment on whether the rise in early periods really is a “canary in the coal mine” of the chemical-infused microplastic-ridden future of the human body. All I know is that little girls have wombs that bleed. The prevalence is new but experience is not. Women of all generations will have stories of a friend or relative who started theirs ‘too young’. Stories which illicit a lot of head-shaking and sighing and sympathy.
Several years ago, I noted a comment that a woman had written on the Knixteen blog I mentioned above. The comment feature has since been removed but I had copied and kept it in a word document. She wrote:
I started mine at 6 and sucky is not the word for it. Horrible, intolerable and frightening nightmare that follows you into the daylight is a better way of expressing the feeling. I wish this information was around when I was a kid.
Her experience was so tough, but her solution is so simple: Information. That’s what I needed too. I needed ads for sanitary products with little kids in them, broadcast after Recess and Arthur on Saturday mornings. I needed children’s books with menstruating characters. I don’t mean the trope of ‘tweens and teens’ who hang around shopping centres, longing to be grown up and envying whoever gets their period first. I mean little 8 and 9 year olds who run off to change their pads before the school trip to the zoo.
Periods are a part of childhood and that should be reflected in representations of childhood. I want little girls to feel the warmth of solidarity that women carefully kindle for each other. I want them to speak aloud about their bleeding wombs, to freely seek guidance, comfort and information.
Shame: I know what it means now. I know how to de-tangle myself from it, how to interrogate why I feel compelled to conceal parts of my life and myself. But all that came to me much later, when I had already been through the trenches. These feminist voices were revelations from distant stars, whose light hit earth long after it was needed.
Note: Trans boys and men also have wombs that bleed and for them, early periods bring a whole host of other difficulties and stresses. This is not something I have experience of, so I can’t provide comment on what it is like. But I just wanted to acknowledge that this is not an experience which solely affects girls and women.