Sometime in the middle of the night, shortly after I turned 12, my period started for the very first time. I sensed something was different when I woke up, and soon discovered what had happened when I went to the bathroom and saw pinkish liquid smeared across scrunched up toilet paper.
Reader, I was thrilled. Finally, the thing that I had been anticipating for so long had happened. I had arrived.
I had been waiting for my period for so long. There were two other bleeders in the house already, my sister and mother, and I was desperate to join their ranks. It seemed to me that menstruation delivered the key to some kind of secret society. I knew about the scientific nature of it, but there was a difference between knowing and knowing. I already felt wise beyond my years, but this surely confirmed it.
(Narrator: She wasn’t, and it didn’t.)
In the months preceding the start of my first menses, I daydreamed about what I would do when I received its gift. I had pored over copies of Dolly, Girlfriend and Just Seventeen, and I was aware of a reticence among other adolescents to a) embrace menstruation and b) tell their parents about it when it happened. I was determined not to be like that. When it happened, I would march into my mother’s room like the goddamn adult I was and I would announce it with pride.
“Mother,” I would say, because menstruation meant you were entitled to address your parents in formal salutations, “I have commended menstruating!”
In a revelation that will surprise no one, it didn’t quite pan out this way. I did go to speak to my mother, but at the last moment I chickened out. It wasn’t that I was ashamed. It was that I wanted to keep the secret to myself for just a little while longer. I held it to myself tightly, this thing that connected me with a long line of other bleeding bodies, and I revelled in the quiet of it for just a few hours more.
Unfortunately, it turns out I wasn’t that good at concealing the secret. I had thought myself an expert on menstruation, in theory at least if not in practice. What I didn’t know was that you couldn’t flush sanitary pads down the toilet. In common parlance, this is what is known as A Bad Idea. In fact, I learned this sometime later that evening, when my mother entered the living room and interrupted a particularly tense scene on The Bill and demanded to know if my sister had been responsible for corrupting Norfolk’s sewerage system.
“No,” she sneered. She was 16, and had recently become fluent in the language of snarky teen.
“Clementine?” my mother, asked, turning to me.
“Yes,” I whispered in a small voice, my brother and father looking on. “It was me.”
To say this was mortifying would be an understatement. It wasn’t so much that my family knew I had crossed over into adulthood. It was that I had so decidedly cocked up the transition. I didn’t know anything about anything!
Still, I consider my experience with menstruation to be overwhelmingly positive which seemingly puts me in a minority camp. According to the data collated by the wonderful folks behind About Bloody Time, a majority of young menstruators feel unprepared to deal with their first period and certainly don’t experience the same level of joy and belonging that I did. In some circumstances the shame that surrounds menstruation spills out into daily life.
Hear Clementine Ford speak at the official launch of About Bloody Time: the Menstrual Revolution We Have to Have. 6pm Wed 5 June at Church of All Nations. Features co-authors, Karen Pickering (feminist organiser) and Jane Bennett (menstrual educator) in conversation with Mary Crooks AO (Executive Director, Victorian Women’s Trust). Tickets available now >
When I was 14 or 15, I remember hearing about a younger girl who had experienced the ultimate humiliation while travelling to school on a bus. She had recently started her period, and her mother had put together a care package of sorts for her. A clean, fresh pair of underwear. A stack of pads. Some painkillers. That kind of thing. It’s an act drenched in love and pride. But on the bus that morning, the girl was targeted by bullies. Her bag was snatched and emptied in the aisles, the pads and underwear landing on the floor for everyone to see.
To this day, I’m not sure if this was an urban legend or something that actually happened. But the horror of it is visceral nonetheless.
Because every single one of us who bleeds can imagine what it feels like to have someone shame us for that. Many of us have experienced that shame firsthand.
We know what it’s like to have the sites of our bodies turned into objects of ridicule and disgust. To know that our leaking, seeping, undulating flesh is considered repulsive and unruly. That as long as we experience this expulsion, we are foul, smelly, disgusting – but that once our body ceases to produce these effects, we are also broken somehow.
We know what that feels like. This is why a work like About Bloody Time is so important.
The research, effort and time that Karen Pickering and Jane Bennett have put into collating this essential text cannot be underestimated. To be able to have a conversation as honest as this is so necessary, and to have it curated by the Victorian Women’s Trust is a profound gift.
I am so proud to be associated with this work, and to collectively work towards a future in which shame and fear are no longer associated with bodily functions as straight-forward as menstruation and menopause.
My period has signified so many things for me throughout my life. Adulthood. Growth. Fertility. It allowed me to have a baby, the child that has become the most important thing to me in my life. I pay homage to it. I will mourn it when it’s gone, I’m sure.
These are just my feelings. But maybe they’re yours too. I hope so,
This is an edited extract from About Bloody Time: the Menstrual Revolution We Have to Have, written by Karen Pickering and Jane Bennett, published in 2019 by the Victorian Women’s Trust and it’s harm prevention entity, the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls. Available Thurs 6 June via the VWT Shop.
Clementine Ford is a freelance writer, broadcaster and public speaker based in Melbourne. Her best selling debut FIGHT LIKE A GIRL, published by Allen & Unwin in 2016, followed by her non-fiction work, BOYS WILL BE BOYS in October 2018.