Trigger warning: This content deals with accounts of misogyny, harassment and sexual violence and may be triggering to some readers.
In fifth grade, we learned that our periods might cause some mild discomfort. When I finally got mine, nearly four years later, I felt a little deceived. Mild discomfort, as far as I knew it, meant a stomachache, a bruise on the knee, or soreness after a hard workout, and my first ever period was much more uncomfortable than any of those things. But none of my friends complained about their periods, and I didn’t want to overreact. Besides, I had hundreds more to come, so I knew I had better get used to the pain.
Discomfort aside, I was relieved to get my period. I was grateful that it had the decency to arrive just before I started high school, so that I would enter as an adult. I was sick of being the shortest and skinniest in my class. I was ashamed to be one of the few girls to graduate middle school without ever having worn a bra. I wondered if I’d finally get boobs. I wondered what they’d look like. Maybe I would finally be hot.
As embarrassed as I was to be so late to puberty, it turns out I was one of the lucky ones. Girls who hit puberty younger are sexualized younger, and as a result, they are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, depression and body image issues and tend to do poorer academically. But I didn’t know this in the middle of 10th grade, when a friend and I straddled the road holding signs to advertise our school newspaper’s carwash. I found myself jealous of my friend for getting so many catcalls while the same cars passed me in silence. I just wanted to know what it felt like to be desirable.
I developed a little more. My thighs thickened, my butt rounded and my breasts became visible. The periods developed, too. Now in addition to the ache in my legs and the vice-like tightness I felt around my pelvis, I knew to expect a stabbing pain in my ovaries, a burning in my intestines and a gnawing along my fallopian tubes. I was no longer surprised to be woken up in the middle of the night by cramps and established a routine of drawing a hot bath and drinking peppermint tea to try to relieve the pain enough to go back to sleep. If my period were polite enough to arrive during the weekend, I would spend the morning curled in the fetal position on the couch until the pain faded enough that walking wasn’t a chore. If it came during school, I would be irritable and out of it for seemingly no reason. Like most of the girls in my school, I kept my period a secret. We hid our tampons in our backpacks and shirtsleeves and pencil cases, and most importantly, never complained.
In the following summers, a slew of strange men were kind enough to inform me, that, yes, I finally had reached womanhood. But the thrill of knowing I was at last sexually ripe wore off quickly, and as the jeers became more frequent and more vicious, they only filled me with shame and fear.
When I was job hunting, an older fellow, adorned with tufts of white hair and wrinkled skin, scanned me up and down for several seconds before concluding that I had a “nice body.” When I visited my cousin’s school where she trains English teachers, I spoke to a middle-aged man working towards his certificate and learned that he had a wife and two kids. The next day, I accompanied my cousin and her students to the beach, and he told me multiple times how cute I looked in my bikini and tried to take my picture. When I went to the downtown library in search of an engaging novel, I was distracted by my own personal drama when a man started to follow me. I weaved in and out of the shelves, trying to head towards a more crowded section of the library. He finally walked away, but not before promising that he was “just trying to be friendly.”
The summer before 12th grade I was volunteering at an art gallery and the cramps hit me harder than ever. Generally, I refused to skip out on commitments for my period — that seemed like quitting — but I thought if I stayed in the museum any longer I would pass out. I tried biking back and made it about two blocks before collapsing on a patch of grass by the sidewalk. I lay there in agony until I vomited from the pain. I mustered the strength to call for a ride home and vomited again. While I waited for my ride, I negotiated with my cramps. Would I give my life if it meant the pain would stop? No, no, that seemed dramatic. Would I skip the end of summer and fast-forward to the first day of school if it meant that my agony would subside? Maybe.
I decided my periods might not be normal and went to the doctor, who said nothing appeared to be wrong and that I was probably just anxious. When 12th grade started, I religiously took Ibuprofen the week leading up to my period and staved off anything as extreme as the incident outside the art gallery. But the cramps were still more intense than in years before, and on the first day of my period, I found myself incapable of doing anything in class except writing the F-word over and over and over, recalling an article I read that said swearing eases pain.
That was the year I started kissing boys I didn’t like. I went to a rave at my sister’s college and made out with whomever was willing. It felt so new and exciting to be wanted by so many boys at once. Making out was fun, and none of them seemed to mind when I said I was a prospective student. After the party, I saw one of the boys I had kissed lurking in my sister’s friend’s apartment. Nobody who lived in the apartment knew who he was. He kept trying to make eye contact with me, and I realized he walked 20 minutes in the snow to an apartment filled with strangers because maybe, just maybe, he could have sex with me. I wondered if it was a reasonable assumption on his part. He didn’t know much about me, like my name or my age, but he did know I had kissed him.
I continued to make out with strangers and moved beyond kissing. My first year of college, I mingled with boys I didn’t like or even find attractive. I wanted the stories. That’s what first year is for, I thought: hooking up with people and getting stories. When I hooked up with a boy I later learned had raped other girls, I decided that I should stop.
I knew the first year of college brought changes, but I didn’t expect to start getting two periods a month. Really, I didn’t mind, since they weren’t painful like my former periods, but after about six of them I thought I should see a doctor. I went to the health center and immediately regretted it. The doctor there seemed unwilling to listen, contradicting me as I described what I observed in my own body. She told me to stop drinking, and when I asked why that would make a difference to my period, she couldn’t give a coherent answer. I kept drinking, and I kept getting two periods a month, so maybe it’s unfair of me to say she was unhelpful.
One night, I was talking to some male friends and learned that they started watching porn when they were 11. They were in sixth grade and took spelling tests, studied basic grammar and graphed their very first linear functions. After school, they would be filled with pleasure while watching videos of women getting beaten and choked and tied up, videos of women tearing up as multiple men crammed their penises inside them and came on their faces, videos of women being degraded while men took control of their bodies. Nine years after sixth grade, I remember how to spell peculiar, to put a comma before a conjunction and that y=mx+b. Did my friends remember how much they enjoyed this violence? Did they relive this pleasure every day after class, when their roommates were out and they finally got some alone time? I wondered what these friends would have thought of me in middle school, so ugly and unappealing. I wondered what they think of me now and what they might do to me if I let them.
Second semester first year, I was cuddling with a boy, a boy I actually liked this time. He started to finger me, and I asked him not to. He stopped, but got angry and told me to leave his room. I was furious, not just at him, but at myself for being naive enough to believe he valued me for more than my ability to provide sex. That weekend I drank too much and yelled at him in the Charles Pratt common room. I told my story to anyone who would listen. Most people thought I had overreacted. A friend, who was interested in social justice and had shown me a radical leftist zine just a week before, explained that “When men expect sex and don’t get it, it’s natural for them to get mad.”
I went on birth control that semester, but it made me extra jittery and nervous and unable to sleep, so I stopped after a few weeks. The periods returned to their once a month rhythm and again were painful. That summer I went to a different gynecologist in search of a different prescription, explaining that this pill made me extremely anxious. She was incredulous; she’d never heard of birth control doing that to anyone. She gave me a different pill, and it had the same side effects. I tried it for a few months before giving up. A hundred years ago, would I have been diagnosed with hysteria?
Sophomore year I started to hate mock trial. It became too frustrating. No matter how well I knew the procedures of the Court or the facts of the case, I was unable to get the judge to like me. I argued too much. I recalled my high school mock trial coach telling me to avoid acting “bitchy,” something the male lawyers never had to worry about. Three years later, and I still hadn’t learned. The night before Regionals, my team and I were chatting in our hotel room, tipsy from Franzia. I started to tell an embarrassing story about one of my teammates, but before I could finish he shoved me across the king sized bed and onto the floor. I left the hotel room to sob by an ice machine. Nobody on the team mentioned the incident, so my only reminder that it had happened was the ache in my neck and shoulders that endured throughout the weekend. In my teammate’s defense, I was being pretty bitchy.
That spring my Facebook feed was bombarded with memes that compared Sanders’ and Clinton’s stances on pop culture issues. Sanders always gave the thoughtful, nuanced answer, while Clinton said something that revealed she knew nothing on the topic but wanted to seem like she did. If the topic were Star Wars, Sanders would say “Star Wars is an excellent series and I thought Episode VII was a nice return to the franchise’s roots,” while Clinton would say “Live long and prosper.” These memes seemed to suggest that Sanders belonged in the presidential race and Clinton did not. Sanders, with his catchy slogans and unkempt hair and penchant for yelling, was cool, and Clinton, with her stiff manner of speech and her desire to please and her detailed but unsexy platform, was hopelessly uncool. If Clinton mimicked Sanders’ tone and stopped combing her hair, would the media say she was authentic?
After the primaries, the news took a turn for the horrific, with the largest mass shooting and multiple killings at the hands of the police occurring within days of each other. The perpetrator of the Orlando shooting beat his ex-wife. The National Center for Women and Policing found that 40 percent of police officer families suffer domestic violence, compared to ten percent of families in the general population. Analysis of FBI data shows that 57 percent of mass shootings involve an intimate partner or family member. It seems unlikely that the correlation between committing domestic violence and committing murder is coincidental. Shooting up a gay club and killing an unarmed black man, like domestic violence, involve the destruction of those who lack institutional power. Does the fact that we live in a society where the CDC reports that one in four of women will suffer physical abuse by an intimate partner and one in five will be raped suggest that we have normalized violence against the vulnerable? Or would it be unfair to associate the millions of men who beat their partners last year with those who are capable of more serious acts of violence?
July ended with the most frightening period of my life. The pain was much worse than ever before. I lay on the bathroom floor hyperventilating, in too much agony to negotiate with death or call for help. I fought with my pain and made it on the toilet, and, to my horror, passed only a red, walnut-sized clot. I returned to the floor and wondered if I would die there, alone, to be found naked and covered in blood. Thankfully, half an hour passed, and the pain lightened up. Another hour went by, and I still hurt but was well enough to go to bed.
I went to urgent care that weekend, and the doctor decided that what happened had nothing to do with my period. He said I probably just had a hemorrhoid. Why that would cause me the most intense pain I’d ever experienced, why that pain would escalate right after I started menstruating and feel like the cramps I’d had since I was 14, why it would cause me to shit a pure clump of blood, he could not explain. Maybe he’s right though. After all, we learned in fifth grade that periods only cause mild discomfort.