I CAN REMEMBER the moment I learned about sex. It was not, as one may expect, from my mother -though I did receive that talk years later- it was from my childhood friend, Katie. We were playing with Barbies in the basement of her house when she leaned in and asked in a low whisper, “Do you know how babies are made?”
“Of course,” I brushed back my doll’s hair, “Babies come from God.” (Oh, how I yearn to return to my childhood simplicity.)
Katie nodded as though this answer made sense, but pressed further, “Well, yes, but do you know what has to . . . you know . . . happen?”
“Sex makes the baby inside the belly,” she explained, for some reason she no longer felt the need to whisper. “Your dad put his penis inside your mom’s vagina.”
I was shocked. Horrified. “No,” I stammered, “There’s no way they would ever do something like that!”
I repressed most of the conversation after, until one day my mum sat me down on the living room couch in our farmhouse. By that time, she must have assumed I had figured out what the physical act of sex was because she only told me about my not-then-existent menstrual cycle.
I vaguely knew about periods years before that. Our golden retriever, Lady, would occasionally bleed. My childhood self was concerned for Lady, so I asked Mum about it. She explained that it was something that happened to female mammals and that it was natural to bleed from the vagina every month, and that it wasn’t dangerous.
“All females?” I was worried it applied to humans and I would one day bleed.
“Yes,” she tried to keep it simple for me, “It means they can have babies.”
At this time, I had accepted the explanation of sex made by my friend. This was a new layer to the puzzle of birth. “So,” I narrowed my eyes, “You have to bleed like Lady in order to get pregnant?”
“Yes.” In fairness to my mother, she didn’t know that I now thought you had to have sex while menstruating in order to get pregnant. I was, once again, horrified.
Later, She explained the menstrual cycle much better. She gave me a book that had something to do with the developing female body and what would happen during puberty. The book made periods sound like a rite of passage, a crimson indication of womanhood. Suddenly, I wanted to get my period. I wanted to be . . . grown up. (I also learned that one doesn’t have to have sex while on their period in order to get pregnant. Not that I was wanted to be pregnant or anything, it was just good intel.)
I wasn’t the first in my class to get my period, but I was one of the first. Since periods are inevitable, I can say that I was lucky enough to get my period at home. Mum had previously bought pads for me -a foresight I was very thankful for. I had an initial moment of excitement while on the toilet. Any time now, according to what I thought the book was saying, I would feel like a woman! I never did. I just felt annoyed.
Once I was on a cruise with my family. I didn’t have time to change my pad before going to dinner but I had never leaked onto my clothes before so I thought I would be fine. I was about thirteen at the time -going through something of a phase. It’s an awkward age and I wasn’t sure who I was as a person. I kept trying out different styles and mannerisms. My hair was cut into an ill-advised pixie, and I chose to wear white pants that night. When we got back to our room after dinner, I went to the bathroom and saw tiny dark spots on my pants. It wasn’t a big deal, but I was mortified.
I quickly learned that periods don’t mean fun white dresses from tampon commercials. They mean acne, bloating, rapid weight gain, irritability, and uncontrollable blood. Everywhere.
There is a marble statue of a crouching Venus, known as the Lely Venus, at the British Museum in London. The figure is crouching, somewhat in the same way I might when my uterus is causing me pain -though her face is much more stoic.
Venus has always fascinated me: she’s the goddess associated with sex, love, beauty, fertility, and feminine charm in general. I’ve always found it interesting that the goddess so closely tied with femininity was not born in the standard way, she wasn’t conceived by the method of sex that horrified me as a child. Rather, Venus emerges from ocean foam. (If you ignore that Caelus’s castrated genitals had to be tossed into the ocean for Venus to form, it actually sounds quite peaceful.)
Venus is so closely tied into the idea of women that we use her Roman symbol for the female gender. Along with being the goddess of conventionally feminine sexual attributes, Venus is also a goddess of prosperity and victory. She is a woman, and a goddess, but she is not perfect according to modern (and past) standards of women. She cheats on her husband, she’s usually portrayed in sculpture and paintings with wonderful belly rolls (especially when crouched over like the Lely Venus), and she takes sides in wars. Venus is unconventional. Of course, I would be hard-pressed to describe any of the Greek/Roman gods as conventional. That aside, the incredible womanness associated with Venus means something special too, that women are not conventional.
I’ve learned a lot more since childhood. I’m still learning and understanding, but I like to think my views on womanhood have improved a lot. I no longer believe that periods are a sign of maturity nor womanliness; I was eleven when I got my period -not close at all to adulthood nor any notion whatsoever of being a woman. There are many women after all, who don’t get periods -sick women, trans women- and let’s not forget that trans men get periods (definitely not a sign of being a woman in this case).
Simply put: people born with vaginas menstruate and there’s not much more to it. Though deemed to be a gross and indecent thing, it’s natural. Some women are feminine, some are not. Some women menstruate, some don’t.
Periods aren’t rites of passage. People have different expressions and experiences of being a woman. Periods are a normal part of life and should be treated as such, but they don’t make anybody more or less of a person.