Grace, Beauty and Polyester Surround Her
Reposting my First Period Story from over at my old blog, just because I can.
With the very glasses mentioned below. This was the year AFTER my green phase, thus the Dress of A Different Color.
One day in fifth grade, our class was separated by gender and sent to different rooms for the presentation of “Your Changing Body,” a shaky, well-worn film shown with slightly out-of-synch sound.
I was already desperately curious about sex but no one would ever talk to me about it.
I took refuge in books. My mom had bought an entire Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia, one thick $1.98 volume at a time during a weekly grocery store promotion. I combed the books for any shred of information I could glean about the dirty deed. The volumes were disappointingly light on smut, but through careful, persistent reading, I learned about snake sex, fish sex, and any other type of procreative activity I could find mention of.
The result of this extracurricular studying was that I had never been quite sure whether humans might have cloaca like snakes, or if they perhaps deposited eggs in coral reefs.
Watching the movie made it all perfectly clear – women had a bulls-head shaped thingy where eggs bounced around like a pinball machine, causing salmon to swim upstream. Or at least that’s what the movie made it seem like.
After the film it became apparent that some – or at least one – of the girls in my class already had gotten her period. She didn’t SAY she had gotten it, but it was obvious from Millie Richardson’s enthusiastic hand-waving during question and answer time that she was privy to some things the rest of us didn’t know about.
“How often should you change your pad?” asked Miss Clarkson, reading questions off of a 3×5 card.
“Oh, oh, I know!” squealed Millie. “At least every four hours.”
Terri Evans and I glanced meaningfully at each other. Yep. Millie had IT. We wrinkled our noses and whispered “Eeeew.”
I finally got IT several years later when I was at sleep-away camp.
As a child, I was loathe to spend time away from my family. I hated sleepovers and going to relatives’ houses. I just wanted to be home, so it seems especially strange and ironic that, during one of the very few times I slept away from our house, I would finally get my first period.
At the time, not knowing what PMS was, it felt like a bad dream. Girl Scout camp was supposed to be about having fun with 60 other girls, but instead I was prickling with moody bitchiness, fighting with my best friend Jan and bursting into tears at odd times.
I remember shoving Jan hard in the back when she wouldn’t shut up on the nature walk to the leaning Indian tree, a tree that was the most sacred and special spot in all of Camp Tecoya and as such, was entitled to our respectful silence as we approached.
Our camp counselor, a stocky little redhead whose camp name was “Juniper” had told us as much and in my hormone-induced state, I was going to enforce that rule of silence even if it meant pushing my best pal off the trail into the underbrush, because I was all about the sacred and special.
About seven days into my 12-day camp, I found blood in my underwear. I was moderately horrified but far too embarrassed to seek help. I had my period! What would all those women counselors or the nurse think? It was unimaginable to me that I should ask them for a tampon or pad. What would they say?
I toughed it out, bleeding and aching and avoiding swimming, praying the blood didn’t soak through my clothes. When I got home, I dumped all my clothes in the laundry.
“Um, honey, did you…get your period at camp?” my mom asked when she saw.
“Yeah,” I said, ducking my head, my heart pounding.
“Well, you shouldn’t put bloody clothes in the wash without rinsing them first,” she said. “It can get all over everything. Oh, and there are pads in the bathroom.”
So that was it. My initiation into womanhood. This not-so-special moment in the laundry room began my trip from being a cute little kid to being an adult, a trip which was across a long, dangerous bridge, and that bridge was made of Ugly.
It wasn’t just the lank, greasy hair and erupting multicolored facial bumps and the blotches that provided me hours of entertainment as I picked at them while locked in the big bathroom off the hallway.
It was the other stuff, the terrible, stupid choices I made. I know you can’t tell teenagers anything, but I’m still a bit peeved that no one bothered to stop me from heading off to Dork Central – but they didn’t, and I suffered, and so I became a writer. Naturally.
First, there was the matter of my glasses. I couldn’t see the chalkboard in pre-algebra, even though I sat squinting in the very front row. I was always telling the teacher that he didn’t write big enough. After months of this, someone finally got the bright idea to take me for an eye exam.
The verdict: damn near blind. No wonder I couldn’t see the board: my vision was about 20:160.
Back in those days, the early-mid 1970’s, contact lenses were an expensive and fussy matter, so glasses were prescribed. My mother made the mistake of letting me choose my own frames. I picked some copper-colored wire octagons with little divots chipped into the metal, so there would be sparkly dots around the edges. I think I was going for a John Lennon look, but my love of bling made me end up looking more like Crazy Aunt Florence.
The optician was cruel, too. He talked me into “the latest thing,” which, at that time, was self-darkening lenses. The advertised benefit was that you didn’t need a pair of sunglasses in addition to your indoor specs – as you went outside, your clear glasses would magically darken, and when you came back inside, poof, the darkness was gone!
That was the theory. In reality, poof, the darkness was not gone. There is something about slightly grey-tinted lenses that adds a distinctly seedy air to even the most floppy limbed, innocent law-abiding 13 year-old. My glasses made me look exactly like Crazy Aunt Florence if Crazy Aunt Florence was the type who sold stolen prescription medications out of the trunk of her car.
Then there was polyester. After years of having had to iron cotton clothing, my mother fell deeply, passionately in love with double-knit polyester and demanded that all of our clothing be made out of the miracle fabric.
“It never needs ironing!” she would crow, oblivious to its other drawbacks. It was hot in summer, cold in winter, attracted grease stains like a watermelon draws ants at a picnic and smelled like a gym locker room if you dared to sweat on it, which, as an adolescent who had not yet discovered anti-perspirant, I was all too prone to do.
So, in eighth grade, my whole wardrobe consisted of polyester, and because my mother let me shop alone, (“The music in those stores hurts my ears, she said) my annual back-to-school shopping trip to Montgomery Wards Juniors Department netted me an armload of green double-knit clothes.
I had thought of this on my own: I would only choose clothes that matched, so I could swap them around at will. Genius. Not having received the memo about variety being the spice of life, every single article – every last one — was green or some combination of green and white.
The problem with my fantastic plan was that I look like death in green. The natural undertone in my skin is blue, so a nice dark forest green makes me look as if I have just been released from the hospital following a life-threatening illness.
So to sum it up – greasy hair, zits, perp-walk/Crazy Lady glasses, and an eerie, sick cast to my skin. It all added up to make quite the Teen Dork package.
My other tormentor was The Pad. Back then, menstrual technology wasn’t what it is today, with the ultra-absorbent, ultra-thin pads with wings and comforts developed by teams of scientists.
No. Back then, the pad was a bulky, square-cornered mattressy thing that was wide enough to cause a teenage girl to walk like a lifelong cowboy.
Today, those type of pads no longer exist, except of course in restroom vending machines, which must all be supplied by the same place, a giant New Jersey warehouse filled with pads that have been stockpiled since the Nixon era.
Despite being thick as a John Grisham paperback, those pads couldn’t absorb even a moderate amount of menstrual blood. They were always leaking. The side effect of this was that, in any given week, a quarter of the girls at my junior high walked around with their sweaters tied around their waists.
I had several memorable pad blowouts. The worst was the day I chose to wear my green and white checkered (oh, God yes, checkered) polyester bell-bottoms. Some time during English class, I felt it. The leak.
Half of me wanted to be excused to go to the restroom to take care of it. The other half was petrified that it had already soaked through my pants, and that, by standing up to leave in the middle of class, everyone would see. Because, of course, as a teen I knew that everyone was looking right at me at ALL TIMES.
I didn’t hear a word that my teacher, Mrs. Hemmings, said because my heart was booming in my ears as I focused on the disaster that happening below my waist. At the end of class, I did a simultaneous stand-and-sweater-wrap, snatching up my books.
I was completely mortified to look down and see that there was a lot of blood streaking the plastic desk chair. I have had lots of humiliating moments since, but I think the lack of perspective you have as a teen makes those traumas so much more keenly felt and remembered.
That was my Worst Moment Ever. I felt like I was in the prom scene of the movie Carrie when she was standing there screaming, drenched in buckets of blood from head to toe.
Looking back from an older and wiser age, I don’t even think anyone else noticed anything was wrong.
Because I was such an embarrassed dork, I didn’t even think to call my mom to help me. That would have meant using the phone, and if I did that someone might hear me. So instead I walked around with my sweater tied around me and my books held awkwardly in front of me all day at below waist level, including in the cafeteria during lunch.
When I got home that afternoon, I did not rinse out my green and white checked pants. Instead, I balled them up with their shameful stain, wrapped them in paper, stuck them at the bottom of my trash can and covered up the evidence.
It was a horrible, horrible day in my life history. But one thing good came out of it. I got rid of those ugly pants.