As I stood somewhere on the Washington D.C. National Mall, far too crammed amidst the massive swell of bodies and protest signs to know exactly where, I began to feel a familiar sticky substance between my legs. I waited a few minutes to see if I was imagining things before making any sweeping declarations to my friends who were protesting alongside me, but it wasn’t going away. It seemed that being surrounded by so many strong, nasty, pissed off women was enough to encourage my period to make its first debut in over a year.
A few weeks earlier, I had decided to stop taking my birth control. It was the kind that made my period almost completely vanish altogether, and since it takes a while for your hormones to get back to normal after you stop taking the pill, I still hadn’t gotten it by the time of the march. This was my first legitimate period since before I went on the pill, and I had a feeling it was going to be a big one.
The only problem: There was absolutely nothing I could do about it. I’m not sure how to accurately describe just how impossible it was to transport oneself from one place to another within that swarm of human beings. After joking to my friends that the sheer amount of females around me seemed to have ignited my flow, we did our best to work our way toward the row of Porta potties we had seen on our way to the march. I didn’t have any supplies with me, but I figured all I’d have to do once I got near the toilets was yell out and one of the thousands of women nearby would have a tampon to lend me.
No matter how long we pushed and shoved and squeezed and wove our way through the crowd in the direction we guessed was correct, as none of us were tall enough to see above all those heads, all we encountered were more people. It wasn’t until I saw the photograph of the sheer immensity of the march that I realized why we never got anywhere. I had been one tiny dot in the middle of those hundreds of thousands of people blanketing the Mall like a massive snowstorm.
Well, I said eventually, letting myself laugh in the face of this unexpected issue, I suppose I’ll just have to deal with it. I’ll just have to free bleed for the rest of the march.
And free bleed I did.
I had no way of knowing we’d end up standing there for many more hours, not that I would have been able to do anything about it. You moved when the crowd moved, you stood when the crowd stood.
As I squirmed around in discomfort, the crowd continued to erupt in chants. I joined in of course, so proud to be part of such a necessary and powerful movement, but, in addition to the relative discomfort I was feeling, I couldn’t shake the anxiety of knowing that soon, there would surely be enough blood soaking through my jeans for it to become visible to the people around me. I kept discreetly bending my head and widening my legs to see if anything was starting to show through.
I was in eighth grade the first time I got my period, on an airplane actually, headed to Colorado for a family vacation. One of my starkest memories from that week is running into a family friend and, while peeing in the bathroom stall next to her, I attempted to throw my pad into the metal box affixed to the wall of my stall. To my horror, the nails holding up the box came loose. It slammed onto the floor and slid into her stall.
My heart almost beat itself out of my chest with the thought that she’d probably realize the reason that box fell was because I may have been attempting to throw something away in it.
Oh no, oh no, oh no, I thought, Now she’s going to know I have my period.
Looking back now, I cannot believe I grew up learning to feel that kind of shame for something so natural, something that happens to half the world’s population every single month. I can’t trace the origins of that shame exactly. I know I didn’t learn it from my family. My mom and older sister were so excited when my first period came. I was the one who kept telling them to lower their voices when they mentioned it. I was the one who would rapidly snatch a pad or tampon out of my mom’s hand and shove it beneath my sweatshirt before anyone could see.
At least, that’s what I was like during the early years. As time passed I became far less embarrassed about the actual fact of having a period, at least when surrounded by other women. I, like many women as we grow older, became far more comfortable joking about menstruation, talking openly about it, and not caring about mentioning it in front of other ladies, whether they were strangers or not. While it remains something that must be spoken of in whispers around men, it has definitely become a concept around which women can bond.
But the idea of a blood stain on my pants and there being nothing I could do about it was never a scenario I saw myself being comfortable with. Had my leg been bleeding from a cut, I wouldn’t have been embarrassed at all, but this kind of blood was simply too disgraceful.
After the fifth or so time bending my head downward, though, I got pretty sick of being anxious and I started to think about where I was. I was at one of the largest declarations of female strength and power in United States history. I was standing among more women than I’ve ever been around at one time, women refusing to let the patriarchal society that made periods so shameful in the first place take control of their bodies. I was standing beside a friend’s girlfriend whom I had known for less than 24 hours, yet who repeatedly assured me that if I wanted her to, she would happily scream out to the crowd asking if anyone had a tampon. She didn’t mind, she wasn’t afraid. I was surrounded by so much power, and I finally decided that my free bleeding period, part of one of the most important biological processes of humankind, was merely another way that I could show pride in my womanhood and not let it be devalued.
So I stopped worrying. I chanted and cheered and took photographs and, when the crowd finally began to move, I didn’t rush to a pharmacy or a bathroom. I marched. I marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House, holding my sign declaring that I am gay, Jewish, female and proud, and I had no idea whether or not there were visible stains on my jeans. Because how could something like that matter when right now there are such vital rights at stake for people all over the world? As a friend of mine, Catherine Baxter, pictured above, wrote in a Facebook post after the march: “Imagine if our society showed as much disgust for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia as we do for bloody tampons.”
Hopefully someday we won’t have to imagine. Hopefully girls can be taught at much younger ages to never ever feel ashamed of the menstruation process so they don’t have to go through the heart beating out of their chest phase. Hopefully boys can be taught that periods aren’t something to fear. Hopefully someday tampons won’t have to be packaged to look like candy so that men don’t have to face the horror of knowing they are seeing one still in its wrapper. It may seem minor, but I believe all of this is a major step toward women gaining the rights they deserve.
When my little brother was in seventh grade, my mom received a phone call from his homeroom teacher. She braced herself for whatever mischief she was about to learn he had gotten into. Instead, his teacher told her that the class was planning to send backpacks full of important supplies to a class of teenage girls living in an area of Africa with few resources. That day, they’d been tossing around ideas of what to place inside the backpacks. My brother, who grew up in a house with three menstruating women, fearlessly raised his hand and said, in front of the entire class, Well, don’t they need tampons? He volunteered to bring them to class, himself and add them to the backpacks. His teacher was so proud she called my mom to tell her about it.
My brother did a really wonderful thing that day, and I hope more men can be raised surrounded by strong, confident women the way he was. Still, what he did should not have be considered brave. Tampon is not a four-letter word. More men should be able to take similar actions without thinking anything of it. They shouldn’t be afraid, and women shouldn’t be ashamed. Period.