Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Looking at 1982 from 2009

So my encounter with the little girl at the local Chik-Fil-A last weekend has me mulling over my own experiences as a little girl on the verge of puberty. Mom had given me the appropriate books to read and we'd had "the talk" by then, but reading something and experiencing something is entirely different. Like rebuilding a car engine, or say pregnancy. You can read all you want about the topic but it's not until you really do it yourself that you gain a real appreciation of the subject. There I was, prepared as possible for my first period, but woefully unprepared at the same time.

I started early, eleven years old in 1982. I clearly remember it was June because we were packing for a two week vacation in Alaska. Yep, I started my first period the day before we embarked on a 14 hour trip to Anchorage. Lucky me. We were flying on standby tickets and Mom insisted that we wear skirts because our names might not be called if we didn't dress nicely and apparently pants weren't "nice" no matter how much I protested. Never mind that I despised wearing a skirt at that age because 1) I felt awkward in them and 2) I only wore them when I had to so the very fact that I was wearing one made me feel even more awkward. At that age I desperately wanted to fit in with everyone else and not attract attention to myself, which in my mind definitely meant not wearing a skirt. Fitting in with everyone else wasn't easy as I was fairly tall and solid for my age and wore thick glasses for my nearsightedness. There was no way my parents were going to buy me the skintight Sergio Valente jeans popular in the 1980s and they wouldn't have looked good on my body anyways, but I only wanted to wear jeans. Instead, I wore a dark brown calico prairie skirt with several tiers to it, along with a tan peasant blouse with a drawstring neckline, as I boarded the plane. This wasn't too far out of the fashion stream at the time, even though the kids at my middle school called me Pocahontas or Laura Ingalls every time I wore it. A pair of cowboy boots would have really boosted the outfit, but again, I only wanted to wear Nikes with those jeans. Anyhow, there I was, stuck on a plane for upteen hours while dressed in an outfit that I felt screamed "LOOK AT ME!". In retrospect the skirt was probably a much kinder outfit as I was also wearing a rather large and thick sanitary pad wadded between my thighs that would never have fit under Sergio Valente jeans. I was embarrassed, uncomfortable, and so dead certain that everyone who looked at me must have instinctively known I was having my period.

I understand why my Mom didn't feel I was ready to wear tampons, but oh how much easier that would have made things. What I don't understand is why she didn't offer me aspirin to ease the cramping, but she and my aunt were sitting together in a different row of seats than my cousin Mary Catherine and me. (Oh, did I mention that this was something of a mother-daughter trip?) Maybe Mom didn't recognize that I was hurting. It didn't occur to me that I could ask for aspirin for the aching; I just thought that this was something that you had to suffer along with the indignity of wearing what amounted to a diaper between your legs. But the unfamiliar pressure and aching made me feel like I constantly needed to pee, so I nearly wore a trail down the aisle to the bathroom on that flight. There was an older woman sitting between me and the aisle that had to get up to let me out each time I needed to go to the bathroom, and by the end of the flight she remarked in a rather bitter tone that I must have a bladder infection. It must have been an unspeakable hassle for her to have to move her bottomless rum and coke off the meal tray each time I wanted out.

So, fast forward through our vacation in Alaska to a month later. Mom had invited my aunt, Mary Catherine, and our maternal grandmother over for lunch on the back deck. My grandmother wanted to hear about our trip as Alaska was one of her very favorite places to visit. Then, much to my horror, my grandmother turned to me and asked, "So, how does it feel to be a woman now?" I would not have minded one bit if the earth had opened up and swallowed me on the spot. I remember my face flushing in shame, muttering some sort of defensive remark, and then angrily demanding that my cousin pass me the mustard for my sandwich NOW! Mom sharply reprimanded me for my bad manners and rightly so, but I don't think anyone understood my feelings. I didn't have the wherewithal to say it then, but if I ever went back in time to that exact moment I would probably respond to my Grandmother with, "Are you out of your freakin' gourd? What do you mean by 'woman'? I'm only ELEVEN!"

I was eleven. I loved horses, stuffed animals, and eating giant bowls of ice cream while watching Saturday morning cartoons. I was still a child, despite the fact that my body had decided that it wasn't going to wait any longer to get the show on the road. I didn't want anything to do with this new status quo of periods. I felt that somehow I was expected to wear dresses with pantyhose, do my hair and apply makeup each day. Was I expected to find a boyfriend now, and maybe have babies? Overnight it seemed that the world had changed its expectations of me when I was still struggling with all the expectations from before puberty. And if being a woman meant feeling ashamed by my body and physical pain each month, then I didn't want to have anything to do with it, thank you very much.

Every girl has a different experience with puberty. I know my mom tried to prepare me as best she could, and I'll do the same for my daughter when the time comes nine or so years from now. I can't say that I'll do a better job than my mother and Ally will have an easier time than I had. I'll at least make sure Ally knows it's okay to take some ibuprofen when it hurts, and we'll find some nice jeans for her to wear with those sanitary pads the first couple of years.

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