“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.
“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.