It was the 4th of July of ‘99. I walked into my mother’s bathroom, taking a brief break from watching Pokémon on my box television.
I glanced at myself in the mirror to at look at my oversized, hole-ridden white Spice Girls t-shirt and the mismatched Esmerelda scrunchies holding my lopsided pigtails in place.
I sat on the toilet, swinging my legs in the air since my feet didn’t quite hit the tile floor yet. I glanced down and saw what looked like brown and red watercolor paint in my underwear. I wasn’t scared because I associated badness with pain. This didn’t hurt, but I knew I needed to show my mother.
I took off my underwear and bunched them up on my hand. I pulled up my high-water Walmart jeans, and fastened them shut. Before walking out of the bathroom, I took a moment to tighten my pigtails.
She was in the kitchen, looking for food in the cupboard.
She ignored me.
“Mommy. I don’t know what this is.”
She ignored me again.
Finally, I unbunched my underwear and held it out in front of her.
My mother dropped the box of oatmeal she was holding on the second shelf. She looked at me with horror, which scared me. Was I dying? Did I do something wrong? Was it my fault?
“OH MY GOD. NO! NO! YOU’RE GOING TO GET PREGNANT!”
She snatched the underwear from my hands, and immediately grabbed the landline phone in front of her and started dialing on the keypad.
I stood there, waiting for my mother to tell me what to do.
“JANE. JANE. HOW THE HELL COULD THIS HAPPEN? SHE’S GOING TO HAVE SEX!”
I figured out that my mother had called my aunt, who lived a street over. After standing there with the dried brown watercolor still on my fingertips, I turned around and walked back to my bedroom then plopped myself onto the bed. I turned the television back on to continue watching my cartoons.
I remember thinking to my nine-year-old self, “If I die, I bet God will let me watch all the cartoons I want!”
My mother didn’t tell me what to do, so I didn’t think much of it.
I assumed I wasn’t dying, but the words “sex” and “pregnant” must be bad.
A day or so later, I was at my aunt’s house as usual. I was playing computer games in the back bedroom, and she called me into the dining room.
“Hey baby girl, I want to teach you something.”
She knew I loved learning, so she had my attention.
My aunt pulled the magnetic dry erase board off of the refrigerator and drew an oblong shape, bolding the sides of it, making them thicker. She told me, as best she could, where the watercolor paint came from and how often it will likely happen. She smiled and rubbed my back, “It’s okay. It just means you are becoming a big girl, Sarah.”
She took me into the bathroom and showed me what pads were. She pulled out her own, and then let me know that she was going to run by the drugstore to find pads “just my size.” She showed me a little basket under the sink where she would keep them. A special big girl basket.
My aunt always maintained a calm demeanor around me. It kept me calm. Even for frightening situations, like when it was time to get my vaccines for school, I always looked to her to know how to feel. Because of this, I thought the world would treat my new big girl upgrade the same way.
I was wrong.
As most women know, periods can be pretty unpredictable for a beginner. Not only can the timing have zero predictability, but the heaviness or lightness can also come as a surprise.
I was in my third grade science class, and I felt some dampness in my pants. I raised my hand to go to the restroom across the hall. Once I was given permission, I grabbed my tiny No Boundaries purse so that I’d be prepared just in case. A few of the girls in my class looked at me and giggled to each other.
Soon after I closed the stall door, I noticed that one of those girls followed behind me. I tried to be discreet and slowly take the pad out of my purse; however, the crumpling sound of the plastic was impossible to conceal. The girl just stood in front of my stall, waiting. There wasn’t a trashcan in the stall, like in most adult women’s restrooms, so that meant I had to wrap up the packaging and throw it away in front of her.
I flushed the toilet and opened the door to meet my fate.
I said hi to the girl, Patricia.
“I WON’T TELL ANYONE!” Patricia said, holding back even more giggles.
Not fully understanding why this needed to be a secret, I thanked her.
Not long afterwards, I wasn’t invited to any of my female classmates’ birthday parties anymore. I remember this one girl had a pool and everyone was excited about going. I remember asking her if I could go.
“Um. My mom says you can’t.”
The girl looked left and right a few times, and then whispered, “Because you’ll bleed everywhere. And she said you’ll look inappropriate.”
At this time, I was wearing a training bra because I had developed significantly within just a few months from starting my period. It didn’t help much that kids’ clothing no longer fit me, so I was this strange combination of being a young girl wearing juniors’ clothing, which added insult to injury.
Though the girls stopped inviting me to birthday parties, suddenly the boys that never paid mind to my existence were asking me to come over. I remember being so excited when I was in fifth grade, because I had been invited to a popular boy’s pool party. I remember it was just the boy’s dad, the boy and about eight other guys from my grade. That’s it.
At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but I clearly remember being gawked at and the boys pulling at my bathing suit when we were swimming.
I told myself they were playing with me because they liked me, as a person. That’s all I wanted.
In middle school, due to severe bullying, I had to transfer to a small private school. I loved it. We had to wear uniforms, which meant I wouldn’t be judged for my outfits. It was small, which meant I got a lot of attention. And it felt safe.
I quickly made friends and was a part of a group with two other girls. One of the girls, Cassy, was from a devout Catholic family. Her dad wasn’t in the picture, but she lived with her two sisters, mother and grandmother. Cassy arranged for me to come over after school.
I remember I was so excited to finally have friends again.
In our uniforms, she introduced me to her family. Her mom was nice. Her older sister looked at me up and down, making me a tad insecure.
And then the grandmother, having a shocked look on her face, waved her hand to then whisper to the mother while pointing at me. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just smiled at went upstairs to play with Cassy.
A few days later at school, she let me know what her family thought.
“My grandmother thinks you’re a slut.”
“Why does she think I’m a slut?”
“She said you look too mature for your age, and she doesn’t want me to be influenced by you.”
I remember my heart hurting, similar to what you feel after a bad breakup. My eyes started watering, but I distracted myself by walking over to the classroom library.
After the years of just wanting to be liked, I hated my body. I hated how I looked.
All it did was cause me pain.
I didn’t even understand what a slut was let alone why I was being associated with one. I fully believed I was inherently unlikeable, and apparently, a risk.
Please learn from my story, and don’t slut-shame the little girls in your life.
If you feel uncomfortable talking to them about their development, do your research, recruit someone they trust, do better. The resources are out there.
Teach her to accept herself and the many changes she is and will be experiencing.
Teach her to know that she is absolutely perfect just how she is.
Most importantly, teach her to know that she is more than her body.
Do this, because she will carry these narratives with her for the rest of her life.
I know I do.