A (not so) Great Leap Forward, 1991


“You’ll never guess what I have for you to try,” said my friend Kristy, who was sitting with me in her bedroom as I waited for my parents to pick me up from a playdate. We were only eleven years old, but I felt much older. I had grown up around my grandmother’s cigarettes and my parents’ glasses of wine, and my friend Stephanie and I had spent hours poring over her dad’s stash of porn. What else could there be?

Kristy glanced into the hallway to make sure that no adults were approaching, then pulled open a drawer, pushed aside her socks, and gently removed a clear plastic bag from its hiding place. She took out two of her treasures and dangled them temptingly before me, their pink and white paper wrappers crinkling at her touch.

Tampons.

“They’re my mother’s,” she explained, handing one to me. “She doesn’t know that I took them.”

I held it in my palm, admired the feminine script labeling it as “Super Absorbency,” and wondered how I could be so lucky. Kristy had just given me womanhood in a paper wrapper. Who cared that I hadn’t actually started my period? Much like a training bra, the tampon’s functionality wasn’t important; it was the symbolism that mattered. “Thank you,” I said softly to Kristy, stuffing the tampon into my L.L. Bean backpack as my mother rang the doorbell. “Thank you very much.”

As soon as I got home, I locked myself in the bathroom with my tampon, sat down on the edge of the tub and unwrapped it, ready to let Playtex make me a woman. Using my mother’s makeup mirror to match up my own equipment with the diagrams I’d seen in my science textbook, I inserted the tampon in the right place, but left half of it hanging out so that it wouldn’t get lost.

“What’ve you been doing in there?” asked my mother, who was standing at the sink hulling strawberries when I waddled into the kitchen. I said nothing, trying to walk normally while keeping my thighs clamped together. “And why are you walking like that?”

I ignored her and made a break for the dining room, my heart racing like a guilt-racked protagonist of an Edgar Allen Poe story. I was terrified that my parents would instinctively know I’d been experimenting with sanitary products or, worse yet, that my tell-tale tampon might squeeze out, tumble down my pants, and emerge triumphant onto the floor in front of my father. I decided to stage a distraction by setting the table, even though it was three in the afternoon.

“Um, could you move your stuff?” I said to my father, who was sitting at the table reading The Financial Times.

He looked surprised to find me standing in front of him with my legs crossed, holding a plate. “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why are you setting the table at three PM?

“Why wouldn’t I?” I said, slamming the plate down on top of a discarded sheet of newspaper and hop-stepping back toward the bathroom. “Can’t I just set the stupid table without having to explain myself? Can’t I, for once, just be helpful?”

Back in my bathroom, which was decorated with seashells I’d collected as a child and framed pictures of myself as a toddler, I tossed the tampon into the toilet and watched in horror as it expanded to three times its original size. As it swirled in circles and I prayed it wouldn’t clog the toilet, I decided something: contrary to what I had previously thought, I never, ever wanted to get my period.

Puberty had both fascinated and terrified me ever since the afternoon I’d returned home from school to find a copy of “What’s Happening to My Body Book For Girls” on my bed, its cover showing a mother and daughter embracing in a sun-dappled field. From what I gathered from television, getting breasts was a necessary step in getting a boyfriend, and for that reason alone, puberty couldn’t be entirely bad. But at the same time, the concept of puberty made me feel as if my body were betraying me. Things were happening that I had no control over and, for the first time in my life, I felt a sense of shame about my body and a division between my mind and my physical self. I worried that, once my period set me firmly on the road to adulthood, I wouldn’t be able to go back.

* * *

A year after the tampon incident, my parents and I went on a vacation to China with our friend Betty, who was then about seventy years old. While I had traveled abroad before, I’d never experienced a culture so different from what I was used to, one where hotels had separate entrances for foreigners and Chinese, and people weren’t able to own cars without permission slips from the government. I’d never known that not everyone in the world had the rights I took for granted—the right to vote, the right to choose careers, the right to live where you want to, the right to leave the country—and, just as puberty represented an irreversible shift in my perception of myself, going to China permanently changed the way I viewed my life in the United States. But my twelve-year old thoughts were not quite so profound. I summed up my emotions in my journal in the straightforward, capitalized statement: “I HATE CHINA.”

June 16th, 1991 was Father’s Day. My parents, Betty and I celebrated with a dinner of fish and dumplings in the hotel’s restaurant and when Betty and I returned to our room, I found a rust-colored spot in my underwear. I didn’t have tampons, I didn’t have Kristy, and I didn’t have my copy of What’s Happening to My Body. Too embarrassed to tell my mother, I stuffed some toilet paper in my pants and crawled into the bed I was sharing with Betty, trying to convince myself that I was being delusional, a pubescent version of Lady MacBeth. An over-scratched mosquito bite would have bled more than I was, but I lay awake all night anyway, worrying that the tiny trickle would turn into a crimson tsunami if I fell asleep.

The next day, exhausted and disappointed to confirm that, while there was certainly no tsunami, there was blood on the toilet paper, I pulled my mother aside after breakfast.

“I think I got my period,” I told her, feeling embarrassed and ashamed as if, by starting to menstruate, I’d somehow betrayed her. To my surprise, she hugged me.

“It’s okay, Catherine,” she said. “Congratulations.”

I made her swear not to tell my father what had happened, claiming that he would “figure it out on his own when I had children,” and hugged her back, relieved.

Had we been in America, the next step would have been for us to go to a drug store together where I, too embarrassed to pick out sanitary products myself, would inspect the toothbrush display as my mother yelled questions from the next row over like “Scented or non-scented?” and “Do you want wings?” However, the hotel we were in didn’t have sanitary supplies, and in China at the time it was difficult to find a store opened to foreigners at all, let alone one with Western toiletries. Instead, my mother convinced me to allow her to tell Betty; the two conferred in hushed tones and, when back in my room, Betty rummaged through her toiletry bag and presented me with a Depends.

Wearing an adult diaper as a twelve year-old added insult to the injury of menstruation, but the Depends offered a considerable advantage to the toilet paper I’d been stuffing into my panties: adhesive. Even though I was convinced that it was clearly visible through my jeans, I did not have to worry about it falling out of my underwear and dropping onto the hotel floor in front of the concierge, and that was something to be thankful for.

Something not to be thankful for was our itinerary. Presumably if we’d been sticking around at our hotel, we would have been able to find maxi-pads somewhere in the city before Betty’s supplies ran out. However, my parents, eager for an “authentic,” self-guided China experience, had arranged for us to get on a train to a city twenty-three hours away. No sooner had we left for the station than my body, unsatisfied with the humor of me simply menstruating on a Chinese train, broke out in hives. My mother gave me two extra strength Benadryl, I stumbled to the train platform with my parents and woke up three hours later on an upper bunk in a moving train, in a car with vomit stains on the carpet and circles at the end of each bed where people’s heads had wiped away the dirt. My parents and Betty were giggling on the bunks below me as they played bridge and drank “tea” they’d brewed from water and Johnny Walker Black. I needed to use the bathroom.

I slid off the top bunk and unlatched the door to our cabin to find the toilet but my mother stopped me before I could leave.

“It’s clogged,” she said. “Betty and I tried to use it and it smells so bad, we almost threw up.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Do what we did,” said my mother, which was greeted by tipsy laughter from Betty and my father. “Pee in this.”

My mother then handed me a zip-loc bag.

What bothered me about this was not so much the fact that my mother was telling me to urinate into a freezer bag, but rather, how I could do so with my father in the room. Holding the empty bag, I glared at my mother, glanced at my father and then glared at her again until she realized what I was trying to communicate.

“Richard, go out in the hall. Catherine needs some privacy.”

With my mother and Betty playing cards in front of me, I then squatted down, pulled down my pants, pushed aside my diaper and peed into the bag, trying my best to keep my balance on my heels as the train rocked back and forth.

“I don’t want it,” my mother said when I tried to hand it to her. “Give it to your father.” I slid the door open and found him standing in the hallway watching rice paddies out the window. A childhood polyps operation gone awry left him with no sense of smell, so he took the bag when I offered it and carried it down the hall to the bathroom. He stuffed the bag down the toilet with a hanger, it burst upon the tracks, and he returned to our cabin to finish reading The Economist.

When we arrived at our hotel in Beijing the next day, my family’s first destination was the Summer Palace. Thanks to overzealous consumption of green tea on the cab ride over, my personal first destination was the bathroom, a squat building a short, urine-scented walk away from the park entrance. Inside, a long row of waist-high, doorless stalls subdivided a porcelain trough pitched slightly toward one end of the room, over which women squatted on their heels, bottoms bared to the world. Some read magazines; most held tissues clamped to their noses to keep out the stench. Driven by the pressure of my bladder and the presence of my Depends, I ignored the smell and forged ahead toward the end of the room, picking the last stall so that I would be exposed to the fewest number of people possible. I glanced around quickly to see if anyone was watching and yanked my pants to my knees, realizing only when I looked down that my stall was downstream from the other seven.

The second thing I noticed was that my period had stopped—apparently it had decided that two and a half days was sufficient for a first-time visit. This filled me with joy until I realized that, now that I had begun to ovulate, it would return once a month for the rest of my child-bearing years. When I looked up to the ceiling in a “Why, God?” moment, my eyes were stopped half-way by a third realization: despite my attempts at seclusion, the other women in the room had seen me enter. Curious about what a Caucasian twelve-year old would look like while urinating, several had walked up to where I was squatting and were standing next to my stall, giggling behind their tissues as they stared at my naked backside. I felt self-conscious enough simply being an American in China but being watched in a bathroom while wearing a diaper was as embarrassing as going bra shopping with my father. I pulled my pants up and they scattered back to their places in line as I pushed past them, ashamed, wishing I could be back in my happy childhood days in the United States where my womb retained its lining and no one was interested in looking at my butt. If this was what it meant to be a woman, I wanted to go home.

—Catherine Price, Oakland, CA

Catherine is an essayist and freelance writer. Her work has been published in places including the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones, Popular Science and Salon. To see more of Catherine’s work, check out her website. She still hates getting her period.


38 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Baoxing

    Maybe it’ll be different when she come to China now~

    May 26th, 2009

  2. Jenna

    wow that tampon must have been very uncomfortable

    June 30th, 2009

  3. jackie

    acrually tampnas are really comfortable it was probably unconfortable cause youdidn’t have it in all the way i started using them on my third period because on my second i was reading everything i could about how to insert it which that info is on the beinggirl website so by the time i tried it the first time it was comfortable and i did it right!! really you should look into it before using one cause not reading it and doind it wrong can be bad and can hurt you there are pecautions well good luck!!

    abbie Reply:

    yeah they are comfortable, i was in vermont when i first started and i was on vacation..thank god i didnt get it in school which is where i would have been at the time, but anyways i had to use a tampon my first time cuz i wanted to go in the pool, and the hot tub felt really good on my tummy, so then i realized that i hadnt pushed the tampon all the way in and it was about to come out. i hadnt brought anything to the pool and i didnt want to go back to our condo..this was in the winter it was freeeeezing!!! so i go into the bathroom and find a tampon there and thank god it wrked and i felt so much better from then till now!!! also when i got out of the shower after the pool i used one of hose “never-been-used” white towels and then there was this bid deep red blood stain. i wadded it up and tried to hide the blood, then next time we went to the pool i brought that towel and threw my shame into the laundry bucket there so no one would know it was from me.

    Blake Reply:

    i think they are comfortable too. I was 16 when i had my first period and i also wanted to go to the pool so i had to use one, i have been using them ever since! My friends are all jelous coz they got their periods when they were eleven and i got mine at 16.. go me

    bored Reply:

    i still don’t like the idea of sticking a tampon into ur … thing

    Julzie Reply:

    oh my gosh! i love the being girl website, and i never used a tampon, when the free samples of pads and tampons come in the mail, my mom automatically takes the tampons and gives me the pads.

    June 30th, 2009

  4. Cassidy

    LOL The first time I put in a tampon, I didn’t know that you were supposed to take the cardboard off…

    kim Reply:

    me too!!
    i used theplastic one and i left it on. durring PE i felt the tampoon slide out, omg, i thought that it was going to fall out of my shorts. running in that condition was so scary!! luckly my undies sustained the tampon.

    Porter Reply:

    That stinks … I was at a soccer game and I was wearing a thick pad without wings and it slid around and was out of place … Everyone on the soccer team knew it was so embarrassing!!!

    July 1st, 2009

  5. olesya

    But did your mom know that you took her tampons and i think that if you still didn’t tell her you should. also i haven’t use tampons yet so i don’t know if they are to comfortable

    abbie Reply:

    they are very comfortable! 1000x better than pads!!! once u get past the initial fear of putting them in. check out beinggirl.com

    Jazmin Reply:

    Do you guys feel the tampon or not because I use pads. my mom won’t let me use tampons help!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Blake Reply:

    i agree with your 1000x better than pads. pads you get really self conscious that ppl can tell they are there.. and they are sticky and disgusting. I used tampons on my first period coz i wanted to go swimming. i have practically never used a pad since.

    July 4th, 2009

  6. peacelovesleep

    i’ve never worn a tampon before and everytime i get the courage to try it i get scared. my mom says she can show me but i don’t really feel that comfortable. any advice?

    ps. that is so cool that you went to China!

    Annie Reply:

    First of all you need to calm down. Everything will be fine. If you’re uncomfortable with your mom there look at the box. There is usually some kind of instructions in there. There generally easy to read and figure out. Good luck!

    Katie Reply:

    just try it out there are usually insructions on the box . Whats the worst thats going to happen? I mean seriously what do you thinks going to happen? Just practice until you feel comfortable with it. You’ll be fine. Don’t worry.

    shelby Reply:

    http://www.beinggirl.com/en_US/yourperiod_inserttampon.jsp

    go here :)

    July 9th, 2009

  7. Brittany

    I got mine on Christmas, so now my sister calls me the “Christmas Rag Doll” :( I hate my period, it’s sooo annoying! When I was 11 my bestfriend had had her period for 2 years, but i didnt have mine yet(she was a year older than me). Then when I was 12 I started on CHRITSMAS! I had my period a few times after that(wasn’t regu;ar yet) and on my thirteenth birthday I was going to the beach for my party, so i had to ask my sister for a tampon. Yes you heard right Period on my birthday! It was NOT fun! Especially since mine usually lasts seven days.

    Maddie Reply:

    Yikes! Seven days is a hell of a long time!

    July 20th, 2009

  8. that was a really neat story, thanks!

    July 27th, 2009

  9. maddison

    ok, i really wanna use tampons but i am afraid to tell my mom tht. when im with my cousin.. and im on my period.i always sneak a tampon.they r a lot easier than pads.i always end up with bliid on my but when i wear pads. i am just too afraid to ask my mom to switch!ahh

    Katie Reply:

    well think about how you told your mom you wanted to wear a bra or deodarent and just do the same thing with tampons like casually mentioning it you’ll be glad you did. The longer you wait the harder it will be.

    August 1st, 2009

  10. Halley

    ew, i had my period on my birthday too, and i had a pool party.

    August 3rd, 2009

  11. Dulce

    Girls! I am 16 years old and I still have yet to get my period. What I have learned is that you really have to forget about it and realize that when it comes, it comes. I can’t even tell you how long I’ve had pubic hair, underarm hair, and discharge (I’ve never really been chest-y, if you know what I mean..) but that doesn’t seem to matter. There is absolutely no way to figure out when it will be or what to expect. I snook countless pads from my mom’s bathroom because I thought \Maybe today will be the day, and I’ll just be prepared.\ So to all you girls out there who are 10,11, 12, maybe 13 and to my girls who are like me and older, Stop worrying about it. When it happens, it happens, and don’t even think about.

    August 6th, 2009

  12. Haley

    omg i absolutely love this story i cant get enough of it i try to read it at leat once a week because its just so amazing i loooooooove it

    August 10th, 2009

  13. Claire

    me + my mom just read this and we almost died laughing!!! i dont think there could be anything more humiliating as having u r first period in china and wearing a diaper!!! thanks for the laughs!!!!

    August 12th, 2009

  14. Maddie

    The whole pee bag thing was kinda grody. As was the depends. Sorry that you had to live with that! Haha

    September 5th, 2009

  15. I think that thats a really wierd stroy. And i think it was kinda rude off the Chinese woman to look at her.

    November 21st, 2009

  16. Carlesme

    beinggirl.com
    girlslife.com

    BEST websites for period advice!

    December 26th, 2009

  17. Kimmi

    I read your entire story. It made me crack up! You are funny.

    January 30th, 2010

  18. brittany

    this “first period” story beats anyyy other that i have heard in my life.
    it is by far one of the best biographical bits i have read in a very long time.
    not only did my gift arrive again this morning, but i was stuck at school with NO feminine products!
    …luckily, thanks to the school nurse’s emergency stash,
    this newfound website, and a few good “LOL’S” (from this story)
    my day has been saved!

    February 4th, 2010

  19. lakota

    geesse that must have reeeeeeeeaaaaaaaly sucked.

    February 7th, 2010

  20. Caitlin

    I just started my period for the first time last Friday and I just got off of it today. Whoever wrote this story is lucky — she only had her first for 2 1/2 days. I had mine for almost a whole week. I thought I was going to be more excited about getting my first period than I actually was. Hm…weird.

    I’m thinking about using tampons for my next period because I sit down ALL day and the pads are really uncomfortable. I already know how to insert them, but I’m afraid of how to ask my mom.

    March 4th, 2010

  21. jess

    omg, tampons can be sooooooo scary but practice makes perfect!

    March 8th, 2010

  22. Christine

    I got mine the month before i turned 11. i was the first out of all my friends to get it. i had to start using tampons on my third period, because we were on vacation in Cape Cod, and i wanted to swim in the ocean. i still only wear tampons when i swim, but am now 13. they still scare me a little. i prefer pads over tampons, just because of how easy and comfortable they are. a lot of my friends still haven’t gotten their period, but their are a few who have. my first period lasted 8 days but now they normally only last 6. i get really bad cramps, but so does my mom and my grandma used to . its just something i have gotten used to . my sister is 8, but its hard to believe that she might be getting her period in just 2 years. she’s the baby of our family and she just seems so young. for those who get their periods early in life, just hang in there, sooner than you know it, your friends will have them too.

    March 11th, 2010

  23. rachel

    please respond to this saying where to get this book because i know ill <3 it!
    seems so down-to-earth. so embarrassing but so true that every girl faces.
    i promise on my grave that if i get this book, ill actually read it! i know - read! yup! i would READ this book because it seems like an adorable lil book.

    this is 1 of my favorite story’s out of the samples. where can we get the book? it’s pretty embarrassing to ask my mom for a book about 1st time periods. help? please reply! :) i think i might get my 1st period between tomorrow ( 3-13-10 ) and 2 weeks ( 3-31-10 ). i cant - just cant have my period @ school - i just cant! too embarrassing….
    just reading these stories make me get all teary eyed. mainly this 1, i don’t know why, and the story about the twin towers. that is a brave, true, down-to-earth story as well as this 1. please respond saying where in Florida i can get this book!
    it seems to true, trust-worthy, helpful and truly down-to-earth. i will travel a zillion miles just to get this book. this is the only book i wood intend to read!

    i luv u all who read my comment and is replying where to buy it!
    please, good luck with everything!
    this is just soooooo inspiring to me.
    x0×0,
    !rachel!

    March 12th, 2010

  24. Chenia

    u know u can go online and search a bookstore website and check to see if they have the book

    March 19th, 2010