Women Recall Their First‑Period Experiences
“It was the day before my 11th birthday. I was just sitting with my family after dinner. I suddenly felt something strange happening in my stomach, and something wet in my underwear. Till then, I only knew of periods as something my sister and my mother talked about hushedly. I ran to the bathroom … there it was. I panicked. It wasn’t even blood; it was like dark maroon tissue and mucus. My heart was racing, I remember. Without thinking, I changed my underwear and took the stained one, crumbled it into a ball and went and threw it in the garbage outside the house.”
Aparna Tambulkar, 27, of Mumbai, accepts she wasn’t thinking when she panicked and hid her first period-stained underwear. When she inevitably bled into her next pair of undies as well, she knew she had to tell her mother. “She was very composed about it. She gave me a pad, taught me how to use it and told me it wasn’t a big deal,” Tambulkar says.
“But maybe I never told her about the undies I threw out was because she said it wasn’t a big deal and in my head, it had been one.”
Periods. Menstruation. Aunt Flow. That time of the month. Call it what you will, the monthly loss of blood and uterine lining after each menstrual cycle remains shrouded in taboo and stigma. At best, periods are seen as a ‘woman’s problem’ relegated behind closed doors, to be talked about only in hushed whispers. At worst, they are seen as a curse that makes the bleeding woman impure. Either way, information about menstruation is not readily and healthily passed along generations to women — unlike, for instance, information about how to sit like a lady.
According to a 2018 survey conducted by OnePoll and Diva International Inc., the makers of the DivaCup, which surveyed 2,000 women over the age of 18, nearly 1 in 3 women were “confused” when their period arrived for the first time. More than 40% said they were “scared” when it first happened. More than half said they were embarrassed.
Getting your period for the first time can understandably be surprising. However, confusion, fear, and embarrassment are symptomatic of a larger, missing conversation that could otherwise arm a young girl with information about her body and how to cope with the first time she menstruates. The study reflects this truth: 48% of women surveyed never had a conversation about periods or what to expect before it happened, leaving them completely unprepared when it did.
To keep the discussion going, we spoke to a few women across generations about the first time they bled, what they felt and how they coped with it.
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“I was washing the utensils after lunch, I think. I must have been 13. I was the only child. Back then there was no such thing as discussing periods like there is now. I felt something flowing out. I saw my father from the corner of my eye, resting after eating. My mother was talking to a neighbor at our front door. I remember running into the backyard, taking three dusting rags that she had just washed and set out to dry and folding them together till they fit between my legs. I came inside and continued cleaning. I remember wanting to throw up when I was cleaning a bowl with some left-over food also, but I told myself to keep it together. I remember not wanting it. Maa found out later and yelled at me for dirtying the dusting cloths. She showed me to her cupboard where she kept some cotton rags separately just for periods and also showed me how to properly wash them.” — Shubha Kumar, 62
“There was a pooja (prayer meeting) at my house during Janmashtmi. I must have been twelve. We were sitting and the pandit (priest) was saying something when I felt the worst kind of cramps you can imagine. Before that, I had barely even gotten a stomach ache. I wanted to immediately throw up. I went to the bathroom, threw up and sat down on the toilet when something felt wet. When I saw that I had gotten my period — my sister had gotten hers a few years ago so I knew that it would happen to me too — my first thought was I wouldn’t get the prasad that girls usually get during a ceremony because it was only for kanyas (girls) and not women. I quietly went and took my sister’s pads, used one and went back to the hall. I told my mother my stomach was hurting; she gave me some antacid which in retrospect, made things even worse because it made my stomach churn. But I didn’t say a word to anyone. I wanted that prasad; I wanted to not be asked to leave the puja. I had a feeling I would have been. I later told my mother and she was very kind about the whole thing. She taught me how to use a pad and I realized that I hadn’t put the wings around my underwear properly. I just bled onto the plastic covering the sticky part of the pad.” — Chaitali Haldhar, 48
“I was in Class V. It was the end of the day, maybe math class. I got up to answer a question the professor had written on the board. I heard giggling from behind me. When I began to sit down, I saw it: the chair was red, my skirt was red … suddenly, all I could feel was the wetness between my legs. I was traumatized. I ran out to the bathroom, crying while I heard some boys bursting out into laughter and yelling the names of sanitary napkin brands. A housekeeping didi heard me crying in the stall and asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know exactly what periods were. I had seen pads in my mother’s cupboard, but no one talked about it to me at home. In school, we were told girls get their periods but not why or how or what it would look or feel like. So, I just told the didi what I thought had happened: ‘I think I’m hurt and have cut myself down there. I’m bleeding.’ She calmed me down and took me to the infirmary where they gave me a pad, told me what to do with it and a clean skirt. I didn’t find out the why of periods until Class X, five years later, when it became a part of our curriculum.” — Neha Roa, 36
“I thought I was going to die. That was literally my first thought when I saw blood on my thighs and in my underwear when I was 10. I just kept crying in the bathroom, screaming for my mother because I thought my life was going to end. She came running and help me clean up. She gave me a pad and told me to stay away from the mandir for the next six days. When I asked her why I was bleeding, she told me it was God’s way of saying I was growing up. When I asked her why I couldn’t go to the mandir, she said I was impure to go in front of God. I was too young to see the double standard then. I remember I bled for two weeks straight and I could not believe that I would have to go through that every month. I bled for fifteen-fifteen days for the next two months before my period became regularized. No one told me that it was supposed to last only a week. It was so scary.” — Mukta Grover, 35
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“My mother passed away when I was five. So, when I got my period in 2003, I had to entirely rely on Google to get through it. I had gone to pee during school and I saw that I was bleeding. I didn’t know what to do so I bunched up toilet paper together and used it as a makeshift-pad, as I would later find out. I went through four more hours of classes like that. As soon as I came back home, I locked myself in my room and googled ‘I think I just got my period’ and ‘How to tell your father you got your period.’ That evening, I sat him down and all I ended up saying was, “Dad, I need pads from the chemist.” He got so awkward, I could tell. He called up his sister — my aunt — who spoke to me on the phone and said she was coming over. She got pads; I remember reading the instructions on the packet to learn how to use them. I came out of the bathroom, no one said a word. She sprinkled some turmeric powder on my feet — and that was that. I filled in the informational and parenting blanks myself, thanks to Google, over the coming months.” — Drishti, 26
“My parents have always been very open about these things. I remember I was twelve when my mother and two elder sisters sat me down and explained that ‘a period’ was going to happen to me soon. They told me that it’s because my body is getting ready to have a baby. I childishly said I didn’t want a baby … my mother explained that it was also healthy for every woman to have periods regularly. She packed a pad for me in my school bag after that day so I wouldn’t be caught unaware. Sure enough, I was in my after-school tuition a few months later when I felt sudden cramps; I could also smell something coming from me that was just nauseating. I went to the bathroom with a gut feeling that I had gotten my period. I used the pad just how I was taught, tied my sweater around my waist to hide the small stain I had, went to my teacher and told her that I needed to go home. My mother, my sisters and I had a ‘celebratory’ dinner that night, all while my dad thought he was just eating good food. I’m sure my mother told him later that night, though. I remember reading about periods on Teen Vogue’s website in bed before I slept, feeling positively adult.” — Shaheen, 23