I was thinking the other day that, being female-bodied, there’s a lot of stuff you’re expected to know about menstruation that you might actually have no clue about.
I remember being 8 years old, in 3rd grade, and all of a sudden, I had boobs. Like, can’t-miss-them-boobs. I had to get a bra. There were no training bras. It just happened. My chest exploded over night, and there was no going back. I still just wanted to play Girl Talk and run around pretending to be international spies outside, but I knew my body was on some irreversible adult trajectory now. Huh.
So, I had the boobs thing down. Fine, whatever. A concurrent step along with OMG What Are These New Things Impeding Basic Bodily Movement was menstruating. Oh, how everyone wanted their periods. I had learned from the pediatric endocrinologist at Hershey I visited that I wouldn’t be doing that (why – my intersex – I didn’t learn until years later at Johns Hopkins), and was perfectly happy not to do so most of the time. Sometimes a general feeling of, “Awww, I’m missing out on something, even if I don’t really want to do it, but I kinda wanted to have the option anyway,” overtook me, as it did at various points of my life regarding both menstruation and childbirth. Mostly, though, there were few tears shed over my not menstruating. Since then, I’ve also realized that that perspective wasn’t quite accurate – you can’t miss out on something that your body was never supposed to do in the first place, as I described in a recent previous post.
What DID shock me a little was that even though I didn’t and would never get my period, I look female, and was thus assumed to be getting it soon, if I didn’t have it already. There was a whole list of things that I needed to know regarding menstruation that I had never anticipated until I was already in the moment, and had to think of something to say. Usually, I lied (sadly, in retrospect) since it was drilled into me that people didn’t know what intersex was, and wouldn’t understand, and it’s personal and does not need to be shared (especially since it was pawned off as a medical condition), and that if shared I’d open myself up to much misunderstanding and ridicule. (It’s worth noting that these perceived negative reactions have not come to pass talking with people in my adult life, barring some uncomfortable questions out of ignorance and not true malice.) Here are some things I can think of, as follows below. Note that all of my testimony focuses on conversations with mostly cisgender women; not all individuals who menstruate are either women or cisgender, and while I don’t menstruate, many other intersex individuals do depending on their form of intersex and individual variation.
1) My First Period story. Girls and women I know sometimes shared “the first time I got my period” stories. Well, I didn’t have one. I think I said something about getting it when I was 11 (since most girls were running around chanting didyougetitdidyougetit around that time), and went to the bathroom at school, and saw blood. Yeah.
2) This Is What A Period Feels Like. Sometimes in college, friends would be feeling crappy and mention that they were having their period. It would often devolve into a discussion about what their own menstrual process was like, or the range of things a menstruating person may experience (“My friend gets THE WORST periods EVER explainexplainexplain.”). The fist time this happened, I panicked, realizing that I had no effing clue what having a period was actually like. I fear all the things that could’ve come out of my mouth, unawares, sounding like an intersex version of The 40 Year Old Virgin (“Uhhh, my uterus feels like a…bag of sand?”). I knew some things from just being around my Mom and sister (like, bloating and feeling cramps), but was astounded that things like people’s NIPPLES hurting could happen, or that people got unusual food cravings during their periods just like I’d heard might happen during pregnancy, or that periods could last anywhere from like, 3 days to HALF A MONTH. (I mean, FUCK, that’s a long time.) I just usually shut my mouth and said that my period didn’t last very long and wasn’t too severe.
3) “When Did You Get Your Last Period?” Any sort of medical examination as a female-bodied person is not complete until you’re asked at least once if you might be pregnant. That was a rather easy one to answer, saying, “No,” especially during my younger years before having sex. I was thrown for a loop when this easy-as-pie routine was altered to include the question, “When was your last menstrual cycle?” I had no idea this information was relevant, and it seemed invasive and irrelevant and weird. It wasn’t until later that I realized they were checking that patients were menstruating, and that they were menstruating on a more-or-less regular schedule. I had no idea what to say. Did it matter what day I chose? Did it mean something if I menstruated on the 12th versus the 14th of the month? Would I start menstruating on the same day every single month? Would it be suspicious if I didn’t? Was it better to pick a day during the start, middle, or end of the month? Did THAT mean anything? Would anyone look at these charts from all these appointments later and notice something was awry about my stated menstrual schedule, that what I was saying couldn’t possibly be true, and I’d be found out? I always just said, “The first of the month,” somewhat too brightly and a little too nervously for my own comfort, but was never asked about it. Smoooooooooooth.
4) The Entire Aisle(s?) of Menstrual Products. If someone was having their period, they might ask you if you had any Midol or pads or tampons on you. I learned that this was a thing in high school, and it wasn’t infrequent at college, either. What I encountered later was that sometimes women also shared what menstrual products they liked best. It was pretty much agreed that Midol was the best pain reliever, but there was a lot of individual preference as far as what kinds of pads and tampons were used. I knew that pads could come in different sizes based on flow, but had no idea that what size you used affected how well you could sit down without feeling like you were in a diaper. If you decided on that, then wings or no wings? If you didn’t use pads, tampons came with their own questions. Who knew that tampons were made of different materials, and that their “feel” made using them more or less comfortable? And what the hell was that string at the end for? – it seemed strange and wasteful to put a string on the end just so you could get it out of the package or whatever, right? Regardless of what you were using, did you want the scented ones or not? SO. MANY. QUESTIONS.
5) I'm In On The In-Joke. Sometimes, women would make comments to male-bodied individuals assumed not to menstruate to the effect of, YOU'RE SO LUCKY YOU DON'T GET YOUR PERIODS, LADIES, AMIRITE? Um, I guessed they might be right, because the entirety of my knowledge about periods revolved around a kaliedoscope of different pains and aches you could have. But I always felt a little shame-faced when, after saying this, the women around me would all look at each other - me, included - with a look of we-know-what's-up solidarity. A solidarity that I actually couldn't share in but was assumed to. It was a strange thing to look at these women and think, "I look so much like you, but my body is different than yours. Looks? - similar. Functions? - different." For a while, I felt like an impostor, but realized later that just because other people READ ME as biologically female doesn't mean that I was somehow being deceptive by being nothing else than who I am. (= it's their problem for making assumptions, not my own problem that I exist.)
Talking about menstruation is actually one of my favorite things to talk about, ever. I’m fascinated by the intersections of people-assume-my-body-does-this and I-don’t-know-what-this-is-like, the complexity surrounding menstruation itself as a biological process, and the range of practices people profess in their experiences menstruating. Any of you intersex individuals out there got interesting perspectives and/or anecdotes to share?
Also, check out this perspective on beginning to menstruate later in life from fellow intersex activist Tricia over at Intersex Unicorn. It's hilarious. I died.