Puberty, Ready or Not | Part 1 of 2
It’s spring 1953. I’m 9 years old and in the 5th grade at a Christian grade school. Because I did 3rd and 4th grades in one year, my classmates are a year older than I am. Right now my teacher, Mrs. Wilson, is making an announcement to the girls. “Be sure you bring your signed permission slips with you tomorrow.”
What permission slips? What’s she talking about? My classmate tells me it’s for the film. What film? The film about what happens when girls start….you know! No, I don’t know. Why didn’t I get a permission slip too?
I find out from my teacher it’s because I’m too young. The film is for girls who are at least 10 years old. I’m not at all happy about this. When I get home I tell Mother about it.
Mother calls the school and finds out the film is about what happens when girls start menstruating—whatever that means. She tries to explain a bit to me, but I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about it.
Still, I think it’s unfair not to let me see the film. I don’t like feeling left out and I am a girl after all! Besides, it’s spring, and I’m going to be 10 in less than a year! The last thing I want is to be sent outside with the boys for a special recess while all the girls are inside, watching the ‘film about females.’
In the end, they decide to let me see the film. They also invite my Mother to come, along with other mothers. I’m pretty sure she came, but I don’t remember talking to her about the film when I got home.
The Film–a Review by Me, with Comments by Me
I think the film is pretty boring. Just cutesy animated pictures and graphs about what happens, why it happens, and how glorious it will be when my body becomes old enough to start bleeding once a month.
Oh—and how it might be a little uncomfortable sometimes, and I might not be able to go swimming, but most of the time I will hardly notice it’s happening.
No way! Liars!
The film is made by the very same company that sells all those pads they talk about in the film. They have a terrible name for them—‘napkins.’
Are they afraid to call them rags?
Anyway, not to be rude or anything, but it seems these ‘napkins’ are supposed to remind me of pink powder puffs and cleanliness and sweetness and comfort and how happy I will be now that I can bleed once a month.
I don’t WANT to wear an ugly old rag! Much less bleed once a month!
They also sell these elastic harnesses that are supposed to keep the ‘napkins’ from falling out of my underwear.
I don’t WANT to wear a harness! Or whatever fancy name they call it. See. I can’t even remember it now.
Here’s something else. They can’t even tell us exactly when this bleeding might start. It might be years before it does! And then it will just suddenly start one day. All by itself.
Even if I’m in the swimming pool?! This is NOT very reassuring.
Even worse, once it starts it won’t stop happening every month for years and years—whether I have a husband or not. Or ever have a baby growing in me or not.
In fact, it doesn’t matter at all what I want.
I’m a girl and this is what happens to girls. Not a bad thing, they keep saying, but one of the most glorious things in the whole wide world! A great privilege that comes only to girls when they’re growing up!
You could have knocked me over with a pink powder puff!
At the very end of the film they remind us that when ‘it’ happens—and it will!—we simply must buy their world-famous ‘napkins.’ They’re the best.
Nothing but pinky-poo from beginning to end!
Seriously folks, in my opinion the voice and the animated pictures and graphs are way too happy. No real people, no real ‘napkins’ and no real blood.
Just sweet lovey-dovey promises, promises and more promises without a shred of evidence!
Is this supposed to make me feel better or understand something I have never heard about or dreamed would happen to me in a million years? If so, it falls flat on its face!
This is one of those times when I want to be a boy and be out with them on that playground. Right now!
Of course all the boys are silly when they get back to the classroom. They keep pretending they know all about it, and try to embarrass us.
Reality Arrives, Ready or Not
I’m now 10 ½ years old. It’s summertime in 1954—the summer after I met that shopkeeper, more than a year after I saw that film, and just weeks from beginning 7th grade.
My entire family is back at the conference center near Shulls Mills, North Carolina. Sister #4 is with us, I think for the first time. Our parents still direct the conference center, and they’re still busy most of the time.
One evening I’m getting ready for bed. Whoa. What’s that brownish stain? I don’t remember having diarrhea today.
Mother isn’t anywhere nearby, so I throw my underwear in the laundry basket, grab a robe and head down the hall to the showers in the women’s communal bathroom.
Several days later Mother is sorting the laundry into piles. I’m alone in the bedroom I share with my sisters. Mother bursts into the room, waves the stained item in front of me and asks why I didn’t tell her about this immediately. I’m dumbfounded.
She’s agitated, and tells me to come with her right now. We walk down the hall to the women’s bathroom. She leads me into a stall, tells me to wait right there and leaves the bathroom.
In a minute or two she returns, hands me an elastic thing (over the top of the stall) and tells me to put it on.
I don’t have a clue what it is or how I’m supposed to wear it, much less why. It takes a while to figure it out.
Just as she hands me a ‘napkin’ to attach to the ‘belt,’ another adult staff woman comes into the bathroom. At this point the stall door is closed. Mother is standing just outside of it. The woman asks whether my Mother is OK. Does she need help? Mother is obviously distressed.
Mother explains that her eldest daughter has begun to have her period, didn’t tell her about it and doesn’t even know what’s happening! Her words and tone of voice stun me. It seems I’ve done something wrong or simply unbelievable, and now she is trying to save the day—or rescue me from my ignorance.
I stay in the locked stall until the staff member leaves the bathroom. I just want to hide. I feel humiliated, shamed and unjustly held responsible for not knowing what I didn’t know!
From my Mother’s perspective, this seems to be an unnecessary interruption in her day. It could have been avoided entirely had I been paying attention to the film I saw in the 5th grade.
Not a good start to becoming a young woman. I still burn with humiliation when I think about this episode. I also weep for my dear Mother who simply didn’t know how to deal with my growing female body.
I wasn’t ready, and neither was she.
To be continued. . . .
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 May 2014