I zippity-doo-dah around Google Images every day, collecting a variety of things that catch my eye, many of which are not anything I was initially searching for or associated with it. So when I stumbled across an antique Sanitary Belt pic, I had a head-rush of memories from when I was a teen just starting my period.
Having spent 32 years in birth work, I have talked about first periods hundreds of times. I’ve always been fascinated by the vast differences between women’s experiences.
What the Heck?
I went to The Period Movie in 6th grade, girls only, smashed into the cafeteria. I still am clueless what the boys did while we learned about “menstruation.” (The link takes you to the Disney-made menstruation movie that came out in 1946. I could pretty much guarantee it was the same movie I saw in 1972.)
Watching the movie was my first exposure to what a woman’s body was capable of. My mom was mute when it came to anything remotely sexual, even something as basic as body changes in adolescence.
After we girls watched and learned, we chitty-chatted a lot, each telling the other when they began wearing bras, shaving their legs or growing public hair. The pies de resistance, however, was who had started having periods. Sitting here 45 years later, I cannot figure out why, but you were elevated almost to Goddess stature when you did begin.
That Brown Paper Bag
When I finally started at 12, a full year after the movie, I felt like I was one of the last ones out of the gate. Hardly, but self-centered me, that was what I thought.
I told my terribly prudish mother (who blessedly, has loosened up considerably over the decades) and within a couple of hours, I went into my room and there, on the end of the bed, was a brown paper bag. I dumped out the contents and had absolutely no idea what to do next.
A white elastic belt & an enormous pad with long gauze arms on each end. What the fuck?
I sat down and read the directions, seeing how the gauze arms were to be threaded through the hooks on the belt. It looked like a geometry problem… and I suck at math.
I did figure out how to put the pad on, then saw how I was supposed to wear it, elastic on my hips, pad between my legs. But when I tried to put my legs through the make-shift holes, the pad twisted wildly. It took several periods before I got the clue to hold it with one hand while putting my legs through the holes.
Up there, do you see those pokie triangles on the metal that holds the pad’s gauze? Well, I suspect they are uncomfortable on most women, but on a fat teenager, they stabbed my flesh. In my mons and in the crack of my ass, I would get indentations that imprinted my body and by the end of the day, I would have bloody spots where the metal prongs went right through my skin. An alternative to these hook thingies was using safety pins, but those were equally painful, especially if they opened during flight and stabbed me while walking to my next class. Or while playing my flute as I marched on the practice field a mile from the bathroom. (Yes, it happened.)
A Loaf of Bread? Are You Kidding?
Pulling the elastic belt up, the pad was finally positioned between my legs. I can remember it now as if it was yesterday. Being fat, my thighs never had “the gap,” not even as a toddler, so wearing the thick cotton between my legs became an adventure in hands-off, nearly constant, re-positioning.
If you’re one of the youngsters who never had to wear the baguette-sized pads between your legs, how lucky you are. This picture demonstrates the very real situation we dealt with for 5 to 7 days, every. single. month.
My belts never went up around my waist like this mannequin’s, but were more under my belly button, the elastic stretching to its maximum capacity, gouging me nearly as much as the metal pieces. But you get the idea of how bulky (understatement!) these things were.
That is, until my fat thighs squished it like so much Play-Doh, being more comfortable between my legs, but the hell if it was able to contain the blood.
Through the Bathroom Door
It was less than a year before I began wearing tampons, urged on by my girlfriends, all of whom had pools or went to the Y with me, except when, during shark week (which is the best name EVER for having your period; it didn’t exist in the olden days), I stayed ashore.
I don’t know who donated the box of Tampax tampons, but I am sure my mom had nothing to do with it. So, I sat on my bed while my three best friends described to me how to put the tampon in. They might as well have been describing how to install an engine in a plane.
After I was equipped with verbal instructions, I went into the bathroom, alone. Just me, the full box of tampons, including the written directions and a small jar of Vaseline.
Trial & Error
I sat on the toilet reading the directions, it really all being so foreign; I’d never touched my vulva except with toilet paper after peeing… and most certainly never put my fingers inside myself.
I opened one of the paper-covered tampons, looked at it from all angles, totally confused how that was going to go inside me. And the actual tampon was inside the cardboard container?
This was my Riddle of the Sphinx.
My 3 girlfriends stood outside the bathroom door asking what was taking so long. I had no answer. The one who brought the tampon party favors with the side of Vaseline began coaching me.
Did you put the Vaseline on the end? Not a lot.
Shit, I have a giant glob there. wiping some off with toilet paper
Now, use your left hand and open your lips.
My lips? Huh?
On your Down There.
I guess these are called lips, too?
I touched myself for the first time without toilet paper. scrunching up my face Hmmm, not bad.
Now take the tampon and slide it in a little, AIM FOR YOUR BACK! Don’t go straight in.
I pushed straight up and gashed my clitoris (that I didn’t know existed yet).
You pushed straight up, didn’t you! Don’t do that. Try again.
I took the offending object out and threw it angrily in the garbage can; it never occurred to me use the same one. I huffed reaching for another tampon, ripping the paper off, digging it into the Vaseline jar (with less goop this time) and breathed deep as I set out to find The Right Hole.
I repeated this same scenario through at least 5 tampons, 3 of which before realizing I had to pull the cardboard applicator out. This was a freakin’ dexterity test! Thinking I had it in, I’d walk to the door of the bathroom, ready to say, “I DID IT!” when, before I walked 4 steps, it either hurt like crap or fell out. Despaired, I went back to the toilet, only to begin again.
My friends would not let me leave that cubicle until I Got It.
Of course, I did eventually figure it out: AIM TOWARDS MY BACK. Wasn’t that the original advice? laughing, shaking my head
The Midwife Who’s a Slow Learner
When I began working in birth, I sometimes thought back to my ignorance about my own body. As I figured out there were 3 holes on the perineum, that the clitoris brought enormous fun, that being fucked in the vagina is a really nice experience, I relished the position I held to teach others who, I found out, were as equally in the dark as I had been.
I send thoughts of thanks and gratitude to those three friends who taught me much more about my body in an hour than I had learned in 12 years.
I continue learning to this day.