My first was not painful. It was Labor Day; we were in a cabin at Tahoe. I was unprepared, it was premature and yes, I bled. That weekend in sixth grade, I became the first of my friends to get my period. At a scrappy Chevron on the way home, my friend’s mom Lisa taught me how to put a pad on my underwear.
“Then you fold the wings down,” she yelled at me through the cracks of the public restroom. She paused, then lowered her voice to a whisper. “And you’ll feel it when it comes out.”
It sounded almost pleasurable, the prurient way she said it. I had dozed off during our barebones sex ed class in fifth grade, so upon first seeing those unfamiliar red spots on my ash-white shorts, my imagination ran rampant. I envisioned a sort of magical oil slick oozing neatly into a sanitary pad, to be expected and practiced as an annual fertility rite of womanhood. I surmised that it would happen twice a year, tops, probably aligning with the cosmic patterns of celestial orbs. There was probably a farmer’s almanac I could borrow at the middle school library to help me predict my period next year. Then, I learned that I come from a long line of uteruses that expel blood with the urgency of a firefighter’s hose. I adopted my mother’s many strategies: mesh underwear, double lining pads, sleepless nights on top of the dark towel.
That summer, my mom and I went on an impromptu European mother-daughter trip. In Rome, during a free Mozart opera concert that bored me to no end, my mom’s eyes widened slightly in surprise. She did not break her gaze from the warbling singers. “Aiya,” she said calmly. “The disaster has come.” I panicked for her. No, she said, she didn’t have any hygienic provisions with her. No, she didn’t have any black pants to change into. Yes, she had bled through. I looked at her khaki trousers that had seemed so smart and graceful moments earlier, and cursed them for her. We conspired to leave the concert with quick paces, me walking mere inches behind her like a sticky shadow.
Companies like Procter & Gamble (which owns Always, Tampax, Naturella, and Whisper) target women of different countries with different products. The French want the least bulky, the Japanese want the softest material, and Americans want maximum security against leakage, regardless of cost in comfort. When we neared the light of street lamps, I could see the little stains on either side of her crotch, hiding in the creases of her pants as she walked, like a blinking, winking, eyebrow-raising face that mocked our embarrassment. Did the Italianos around us notice? Would they stand and point and laugh at her if they saw her stains? What if we were walking under American streetlights?
Menstruation is an ongoing civil war waged in between my legs, my ruined underwear its tired battlefield. Month after month, my body triumphantly declares victory over my will. I looked towards a higher power. What could calm the fury that overtook my body every 28 days? God, maybe, or yoga? I dabbled in both to no avail. My pediatrician warily prescribed me birth control and I started Sprintec, a waxy blue envelope of little round pills which is now my constant companion. Sometimes, when I forget to pepper the pill at precisely 9 p.m., I have my period for two straight months. I envied the women whose periods are so infrequent that they buy pregnancy tests. I envied Olympic gymnasts, whose extreme athleticism causes secondary amenorrhea. I envied those without uteruses and I resented their oblivion to our suffering.
I grew to dread my period, a deep self-hatred dappled with anxiety from frantically shuffling towards the bathroom with a hidden tampon up my sleeve or subtly glancing at my seat every time I stood up. Periods were terrible to start at school. By lunchtime, I’d convene with my friends. “I bled through,” I’d say glumly, defeated yet again. In a practiced ritual, they’d pat me on the shoulder with a sympathetic look. Lisa was right. I felt it. I felt too dirty to exist in public when I was bleeding.
We bargain with our reflections in the mirror, playing with the cards we were dealt: the cleft chin from your father, the curly hair from your mother, the hooded eyes, the pixie ears, the color of your skin in the winter. Variances of periods are many: menstruation can begin as early as age eight, lasts from two to seven days per cycle and occurs every 21 to 45 days. Periods can be viscous or thin, staining your favorite clothes any shade of crimson and brown. Thus, the period is the last manifestation of this genetic destiny, a hormonal sorting hat declaring your birth-given menstrual fate. As I anticipate the monthly shedding of my uterine lining, I’m reminded of my biological duty to reproduce, my position as almost-mother and future-mother and, at the risk of empathizing with the pro-life movement, my body’s power to create conscious life. No joy can be derived from apologizing for bleeding, sorry after sorry to my light-wash Levi’s and my Advil-scarred stomach. We do not shame the injured for their gushing wounds and broken bones, yet as I’m hurt, month after month, I nurse myself in secrecy. Menstruation is a woman’s first introduction to labor needlessly for the comfort of others.
When I was 17, I got a Diva Cup. The silicone wonder arrived at my door in a purple box with curlicue writing urging me to join the revolution: “A Better Period Experience,” it promised. The instructions are written in exquisite detail, specifying the locations of the labia and the cervix, as if its user did not know what a vagina is; the Diva Cup knew that many women are strangers to the intricate pains and pleasures of their own bodies. There was no shame in not knowing yet. Holding it by its ribbed stem, the cup is roughly tulip-sized and supple to the touch. Instructions demand some origami first: fold the cup in half from top down or into a U-shape. Then, a choreographed tango: angle the pelvis to the cup in sitting position as you insert, rotating it to ensure a solid seal. If vaginas were capable of feeling anxiety, mine did. As I pushed the Diva Cup in for its maiden voyage, I feared the worst. It might get swallowed up in that orifice and I might have to ask my mom to take me to the ER. It could crumble inside my vagina and probably somehow enter my bloodstream. The cup might turn over, liberating a deluge of blood in the middle of my Russian Literature seminar. It might hurt. Silly doubts, I realize now. The cup felt like nothing and my first period with the Diva Cup was a fucking miracle. Either God or yoga took pity on me; I was no longer drowning in a pool of my own blood and shame.
Oh, how can I count the ways I love thee, Diva Cup? Besides the physical security in its flawless, ingenious function, the cup is a cost-effective, environmentally friendly, safe, comfortable, and convenient alternative. Am I a hormonal Diva for my unorthodox approach to reigning in my menstrual flow? Or is this cup the Diva that translates the dramatic theatre of my cycle to a secret power? I perused their website. “The name Diva originates in Italy, where it was used to describe a female deity, a powerful woman whose talent resembles that of the gods. In the 1800s the name Diva was used to describe a talented woman, leading the way in music and stage. What better way to empower women than by encouraging them to become a menstrual Diva – a leader in period care!”
Ah. I’m in a harmonious collaboration with menstruation. Ours is a masterpiece worthy of Carnegie and Pompidou. I feel it.
Kat Chen wants you to buy a Diva Cup for someone you love.