I Learned About Shame When I Was Eleven

My journey with menstruation in India: Part One

I Learned About Shame When I Was Eleven
Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash

My journey with menstruation in India: Part One

The First Shock

Growing up, I had a strange relationship with my period.

When it first came, I had no intimation that something like that existed. It came as a rude shock — the blood between my legs when I woke up one morning.

It was 2002. There was no internet in my town back then. The only source of information I had was the “Ask the Doctor” column in an old newspaper where a 52-year-old man had inquired about finding blood in his urine. The doctor had suggested the man get admitted to a hospital and get a proper medical examination done immediately as it might be cancer.

I was terrified. At only eleven years old, I had too many dreams in my eyes for my little heart to hold so much fear.

I didn’t know how to talk to my parents about it. While they had never been overly strict, I knew there were some “boundaries” between us and having blood coming out of my vagina was definitely too “personal” to discuss with them.

And so, as I got out of bed that morning, I wiped the tears from my eyes and the blood from between my legs with a tissue and resolved to carry on with life as usual.

If it was indeed cancer, there was no way I could burden my parents with the knowledge that their daughter was about to die.

Passing on the Shame to her Daughter

During breakfast that day, it was my father who noticed the blood on my white chemise. He whispered something in my mother’s ear that made her sit up straight and give me a sharp look. Saying nothing, she grabbed me by the arm and took me to my bedroom. Her demeanour was so off-handed, I was certain I was in trouble for hiding the blood.

But to my relief, my mother told me this was alright. That I had attained “puberty” and it was normal for girls my age to bleed. She handed me a sanitary napkin, told me to peel off the paper from the back and stick it between my legs. Then, she turned to leave.

But, how could she go? I had so many questions: will I bleed every day of my life until I die? Was the sanitary napkin like a band-aid that I had to stick on my vagina to stop the bleeding? If so, what would I do when I had to pee?

She sat me down on the bed and answered my questions one by one. She stared at the bed, the walls, her lap, but never once did she meet my eyes. All this while, I could see it on her face that talking about periods made her uncomfortable.

This was my first lesson in shame.

I understood that the blood between my legs somehow made me “unclean” and “impure”. That it was my job to carry this shame on my shoulders wherever I went all my life.

I could see it in my mother’s demeanour that she too had lived with this shame all her life and now it was her turn to pass it on to me.

Living A Life of Lies

Though my mother never explicitly mentioned it, I understood that bleeding each month needed to be kept a secret, and my little brother needed to be “protected” from the knowledge.

And thus started the charade I went through each month. Sanitary napkins were purchased from the store in hushed tones and brought home wrapped in newspapers so no one knew what was inside. Bedsheets with blood on them were hastily changed in the morning before my brother woke up. Stained clothes and underclothes were washed separately and hung to dry at corners away from the places we usually hung our other clothes to dry.

Ironically, a lot of questions that burned in my head all these years were suddenly answered.

I now understood why we were asked to shut up whenever my brother or I raised a question about the sanitary napkin advertisements on the TV. I understood why even the advertisements never specifically mentioned “blood”. They used vague terms like “prevents leakage and odour” and showed a blue ink to depict how the layers of absorbent prevented spillage.

If you think my story must be unique, let me tell you it isn’t. Almost all my female friends in school (at least, the ones who had no elder sisters) found out about periods the hard way.

School wasn’t easy either. The shame that I had already internalised made me keep checking my skirt every few minutes to see if some blood had spilt on it. The boys in the class didn’t make it any easier. In fact, all the pain and the shame can be summed up in the story of that one day back when I was twelve.

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

Bloodstains on my Skirt

I don’t remember much about that day, except for the fact that they laughed at me.

The teacher had finished teaching, and I had gotten up from my seat for some work. It took me a few minutes to hear the first sniggers. I turned back, suddenly conscious, and saw the boys at the back pointing at my skirt and laughing.

I quickly turned around in horror. I didn’t even have to look down to know I’d gotten my period — there must have been copious amounts of blood on my skirt.

I was scandalized. These were the same boys who used to sit next to me in junior school, and now they were laughing at my plight. Overcome by shame, I nudged my best friend and asked her to come with me to the washroom.

My face had turned a bright shade of crimson with shame. Throughout that long walk, I remember looking down at the floor, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone else, wishing I could disappear. For the twelve-year-old Anangsha, the fact that I had become a class joke because of the bloodstain on my skirt was too much to digest, and I prayed to God with all my heart that I could somehow become invisible.

That all this humiliation could be undone.

Once we reached the washroom, my best friend and I inspected the damage that had been done. It gave me a tiny heart attack just to look at the condition my skirt was in. There was a stain the size of a small egg — bright red, slowly turning to brown. Anybody who looked at it wouldn’t have a doubt it was anything but blood.

I felt helpless — as if one of my most closely guarded secrets had come out in the open.

On the verge of tears, I looked at my best friend for some solace. She had brought a sanitary napkin wrapped in a paper towel for me. I gratefully accepted it, but something still needed to be done to cover up my shame.

The two of us put our heads together and came up with a plan. Back in those days, we used to write with fountain pens in class. I took mine out, and together, we poured a little ink on my skirt to camouflage the stain in blue. Then we blotted out the excess ink with some chalk and there I was — all ready to face the world again.

If anyone asked, I could say I sat on a soiled bench.

My best friend was satisfied, but I felt terrified at the prospect of entering the classroom again. The thought of facing those boys who had so mercilessly laughed at me a few moments back filled me with dread. My friend touched me on the shoulder to comfort me, and together, we walked into the classroom hand-in-hand.

Nobody paid me the slightest heed this time; not a single head turned in my direction. Those boys in the backbench who had made a joke out of my plight were engrossed in something else now. It was as if what had so tormented me till a few minutes back had ceased to exist — obliterated amid numerous other events that occur in the course of a school day and are forgotten almost immediately after.

I cried that night though, a little more broken than I had been that morning.

To think that something that wasn’t in my control had been used against me filled me with a deep shame. I remember resenting those boys that day — how they had everything easy in life, and how it was so unfair that none of them would have to face something similar ever in their lives just on the account of their gender.

Maybe that was the day a little of my innocence died. Maybe that was the day I realized that life isn’t as easy for a woman because of bodily functions that are completely out of her control.

Maybe that was the day a bloodstain on my skirt became a permanent stain on my childhood memories.

The Journey of Shame Through Teenage

Now when I look back on that day, I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that whatever happened was not her fault and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. Those boys might have laughed, but if I had taken a stand and just said, ‘Yes, there is blood on my skirt. I didn’t know my period was due. Now tell me, what’s so funny?’ — it might have wiped those sniggers off their faces.

All I had needed that day was a little bit of self-confidence.

And a little assurance that having periods was okay, and the fact that those boys laughed at me didn’t show me in a bad light, but the other way round.

This post is dedicated to all the boys who laughed at me that day — no I don’t resent you anymore. But please don’t laugh at another girl who isn’t aware there’s blood on her skirt. If you want to ignore it, you’re more than welcome. But if you want to help her out, you can go up to her and tell her about it. Be respectful, be friendly and make her feel comfortable.

In a country like India where anything remotely related to sex is a taboo, teenage is tough as it is. Don’t let periods make it worse for her.

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