The Hidden Tampon
I was thirteen years old when I woke up for school on a Wednesday morning, sat on the toilet, and saw a small red stain on my blue-flowered underpants. I had started bleeding for the first time.
I called out to my mother.
“Ma! I need help!”
I frequently yelled to my mother from a distant part of the house; lately I’d been warned to stop doing so.
“Mother! Mom! Ma! SHELLEY! PLEASE!”
Finally, listlessly she came over to the bathroom.
“Yes, Maggie,” she sighed behind the door.
“Umm, Mom. I’m bleeding.”
The door rushed open. At the sight of my red-marked undies and bewildered expression, her eyes softened to genuine excitement. She shuffled out of the bathroom and came back with a pale-pink, plastic-wrapped pad. Rather than easing my increasing nerves, the squishy lump made me pause.
“I’m supposed to wear this?”
Still sitting on the toilet, I unwrapped the pad, carefully peeled off the plastic to reveal the adhesive, and gently attached it to my underpants. Folding the wings under felt reassuring. This will stay put, I thought. As I stood and pulled up my pants, I shuddered. It felt like a diaper. Oh god, I thought, it must look like one, too.
My mother, still present, was euphoric. “I can’t believe this is happening! You’re a woman! WOW!”
I stared back at myself in the mirror, twisting every which way, bending over, squatting. Oh god, I thought again. Someone is definitely going to notice this giant wad between my legs.
“Want me to call Dad to tell him you need to stay here?” My mom asked, teary-eyed. “This is a big moment!”
It being a Wednesday, my brother and I would be trading Mom for Dad and would end up at his house for the rest of the week.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, trying to settle myself as much as my mother. Moving the schedule brought me more worry than the blood. Already this new condition seemed disruptive, another inconvenience to add to the already exhaustive anxieties of teenage life.
Coming home after school, the house was abuzz with my dad’s energy. The kitchen counter was a menstrual buffet: Midol, chocolate, a heating pad, magazines, and what seemed to be the entire aisle of feminine products. It was as if I were ill.
“I got everything I could think of. Your mom told me what to get, so I got that and more,” he said hurriedly.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, surveying the lifetime supply of menstrual pads before me. “I’ll be fine.”
Both of us were equally unprepared, nervous, and unsure about the whole situation. He followed me around the house all weekend, cautiously noting my every move.
“Feeling okay, Mags? Need anything?” he’d ask.
Even though my parents welcomed my first period with eye-roll worthy dorkiness, they treated the occasion as normal, celebratory, and important. I can appreciate this gesture in hindsight, but, at the time, my period was anything but ordinary or joyous.
Bleeding was discomfort. My boobs hurt, two heavy sandbags that felt like they would rip from my body with every movement. Cramps were knives tearing my insides apart. I had cold sweats, then hot sweats. I slept for 12 hours straight and still had to drag my body around a room. I wanted chocolate, but also tortilla chips. Maybe together. My clothes felt tight and even my shoes didn’t fit. And then the blood. So much blood. I changed tampons hourly and bled through numerous pairs of underwear, pants, blankets, and sheets.
Bleeding was embarrassing. My girlfriends and I discreetly checked each other’s rears to make sure we hadn’t soaked through our clothes, and we avoided being seen holding a tampon at all costs. Of all the period experiences I’ve heard, The Hidden Tampon seems to be the most universal. Never let them know you’re bleeding.
So who am I keeping my menstruation a secret from? Why do I treat my tampons like contraband?
About 5 years ago my period disappeared for over a year, due to hormonal changes and stress. When it came back, it arrived in flutters, accompanied by bladder pain, severe eczema, weight gain, and crippling anxiety. For the first time in my life, I missed my period. I longed for a normal one.
I used to consider bleeding as something that happened to me; but, as my menstruation normalized, it became a welcome sight. I relished the sight of a red-soaked tampon and took comfort in knowing my body was doing its thing. When a friend told me she considered her monthly bleeding a “moon song,” I thought, How beautiful.
And yet, I still can’t carry a damn tampon in public.
I know I’m not hiding my tampons and monthly bleeds from other women. And most men I’ve encountered have absolutely no problem buying feminine products or talking about periods. So who am I keeping my menstruation a secret from? Why do I treat my tampons like contraband?
Even with all the shame and secrecy I’ve associated with menstruation, there’s always been a tug in the opposite direction: Blood is connection. Besides sharing products, tips, and cycle-specific details with the women in my life, I’ve shared actual periods with roommates, coworkers, and even girlfriends I see once a week at Bachelor night. Cycle-syncing may be a myth, but it’s one I’m down to believe in.
I’m not the only one. According to one study, 80% of women believe their cycles can align and 70% relish in the possibility. Even the scientist who debunked cycle-syncing likes the idea of a uterine network among friends: “It feeds into a feeling of connection, support, and sisterhood…. Periods are personal and the thought of sharing with someone makes the idea powerful.”
Periods are personal, but they’re also universal. Whether or not our menstrual tides are strong enough to pull each other into our flows, periods are connective: either you have one, are going to, once did, or are related to someone who does.
I’m done with being part of a hidden collective united by shame. This doesn’t mean I’m going to love my period every month—there’s really nothing awesome about debilitating cramps—but I am going to treat it as if it were a young girl’s first. Something normal, celebratory, and important.