In honour of the soon-to-end International Women’s Month, and in appreciation of the recent Disney Pixar movie Turning Red, I’d like to share the memorable and also a bit scary experience I had when I got my first period.
By the way, I got mine when I was in Grade 5, at 10 years old. So for those who argue that getting periods is not a topic for children, this is something that kids experience all the time!
As a storekeeper of a sari-sari store, I’m familiar with menstrual projects, which we nickname “napkins” in the Philippines. I noticed though that when kids come to our store to buy them, they always asked that it be wrapped in newspaper, or in an opaque plastic bag that conceals what is inside. When I ran out of newspaper, I’d use the cardboard from a 10-pack of cigarettes, or a bag from a wholesale pack of candy or bubble gum – those things are thick and brightly colored. During the movie, when Mei’s mother was putting different types of pads on the bathroom counter while describing them “regular, overnight, scented, wings…” it make me chuckle.
Just like most of my weekends, I was left alone watching over our little store in the mining village where I used to live at the time. Grandma (Lola Aleg) left for the day, to go to the city to get products for the store. Or is it for a while weekend or week? She’s gone so often I can’t keep track.
It was early in the weekend, when my mischievous self was tempted to sneak a chip bag from the store inventory as a snack for myself. It was 10 AM so the electricity for the whole village was shut off for a few hours already, an austerity measure that the mining company introduced a year ago. If I needed to go to the bathroom which is in the basement of our little store, I have to very carefully head down the ladder and do my business in a tiny room that is almost pitch black.
I went to the bathroom and in the faint light coming from the window, I saw something very wrong in my panties. I thought to myself, OMG! I can’t believed I pooped my pants without even knowing! This is what I get from sneaking too many snacks from the store display. It was sticky and brown, but surprisingly not as smelly as poop normally would. I hurriedly changed into clean underwear, fumbling in the dark where my underwear bag would be, worried that a customer would be calling from the storefront upstairs.
Then 4 PM comes around and electricity is back in the village. I went to the bathroom again to checked if there’s anything unusual in my underwear. This time around, there’s no mistaking it. It’s liquid, it’s sticky, it’s red – it’s a period! I hurried to try to wash both panties with water and bath soap, as I didn’t know how to clean blood off of fabric then. We learned that later in the school year.
I honestly can’t remember whether I told my grandma that weekend or sometime later. It wasn’t until six months later that I had my second menstrual cycle. This I wasn’t surprised about, as we learned about this in health class earlier in the school year. We also had a school assembly shortly before my first period, from one of the multinational companies that sell household items, including menstrual products.
What I do remember thought is that once I started having acne, lola told me many times on how I missed out on one of the most effective ways to combat acne. She said, I could have used the underwear when I had my first period, lightly wash off the blood but not completely clean if off with laundry soap, and with the part of the panty that had some light menstruation blood residue, to dab it off my face where pimples are popping up. The things was, she said, is that it needed to be from my first menstrual cycle. Looking back now, it sounds kinda nasty, but I understand that she grew up in a rural area in the 1930’s – 50’s. My brother and I weren’t spared from other old-fashioned methods to address various illnesses growing up.
Thinking back now, there were so many things that I wish I learned about how menstruation works. Dealing with cramps every month was a common experience, but I learned later on about how it can be debilitating for other people – as in blacking out or being nauseated in pain. I wished I learned earlier on how having sexual intercourse works during someone’s menstrual cycle. Turns out, it is messy, but doable and pretty satisfying – as long as you and your partner have prepared to clean up afterwards. I wished I got adequate information when I was exploring birth control methods, so I can better differentiate what is “expected spotting”, “usual menstrual cycle discharge” or “excessive bleeding” when I adjusted to having an IUD implanted in my uterus. It took one year for my frequent bleeding to stop and I’ve had an IUD in me for 11 years, that I might have a learning curve on how to put on pads again. Maybe I’ll just skip those altogether and go with a Diva Cup or those fancy new period panties.
Compared to years past, I think that available information about puberty life and other life milestones is getting better now, thanks to access to online information, being referenced in mainstream media, and professional content creators. I hope that for kids, teens and their families, that such experiences are something that is anticipated and informed about ahead of time.