On a very hot day in August of 2011, I headed down the big hill with 450-some other freshmen, all sweaty from moving futons into dorm rooms.
We filed in for our college’s convocation, and so did all of our parents and every faculty and staff member. About 30 minutes after I claimed my white folding chair, I felt it.
I felt one quick, warm-ish drip, and I knew I was done for. I searched for an escape route as I clenched my legs together and gritted my teeth (neither tactic stops your uterus from shedding its lining, FYI) before I bit the bullet and stood up. I walked out in a blood-stained dress in front of every human being I would spend the next four years getting to know, which is a really fun first impression, especially if the second impression you make is introducing yourself as “the girl in your row at convocation who got her period on her dress.”
Thanks to a winning combination of a really heavy flow and a lot of bad luck, my period has managed to leak onto my clothes or chair at just about every major post-puberty milestone in my life.
I kicked off my trip to Tanzania by tying a t-shirt around my waist and waddling through the Kilimanjaro airport, covered my stained jeans with a friend’s coat in the audience of the first play I ever directed, and pulled an emergency tights change in the bathroom during my first job interview. I didn’t use a period tracker app because I could ensure that, no matter where I was in my cycle, if something important came up, I was bound to get it. To this day, I haven’t gone on a trip or had any kind of big event that was accompanied by a purse full of tampons.
I grew accustomed to the stomach-sinking feeling I’d get when I felt like I might be leaking.
It happened time and time again, and, every time, I knew I was only drawing more attention to my stained self or seat by looking as completely humiliated as I felt.
In high school, I got scary good at sprinting out of classrooms before anyone noticed the spot on the back of my uniform skirt, so much so that I began to feel like having my period was synonymous with ducking into stalls to triage a stain. I started to obsess over beating what felt like the inevitable awkwardness of leaking. I became a sort of Menstrual MacGyver, fashioning whatever I could think of to protect myself. I wore multiple layers of Spandex under dresses, filled my pockets with an obscene amount of tampons, and wouldn’t leave the house without an extra pair of pants and a long-enough-to-cover-anything sweater. I developed code words with every close friend, asking for them to be on “leak patrol” and perform “butt checks.”
Over time, I developed a sort of period-phobia, dreading its arrival and spending the duration completely convinced I was leaving trails of blood wherever I went. At my high school graduation, I delivered a speech and stood in front of the audience in, of course, a bright white robe. After years of milestones ruined by menstrual mishaps, I was positive that I would turn around at the end of my speech to return to my seat, only to reveal my red-stained robe to the entire audience of families and faculty. My classmates sat behind me while I spoke, so I begged 10 of them (carefully selected to ensure someone was checking from all angles) to be on Period Watch and give me some kind of sign if my greatest fear was coming true. One of them coughed during my closing sentence and I was so positive it was the “sign” I had asked for that I crossed my fingers for good measure while I turned around.
I went to great lengths, like these, to avoid what had begun to feel like inevitable monthly humiliation. I would have rather someone see me trip down a flight of stairs than spot a blood stain on my pants…but why?
I realized that inherent in my obsession with period protection was a sense of shame. If the fear of leaking in public shaped how I planned my day, I began to realize, I must be pretty embarrassed by the very concept of having a period, a thought that didn’t sit so well with me.
When I was first introduced to the idea of menstruation, I learned about the whole thing as a sort of secret. I was instructed by books and health teachers and google searches to make a list of adults I trusted enough to “share the news with” if I wasn’t at home when I got my period for the first time. I watched tampon ads that promised me I could play volleyball in white shorts while climbing Mount Everest without anyone having the slightest idea what was really going on down below. I kept my supplies in a cute little pencil case so I could march off to the bathroom discreetly—God forbid someone figure out I was heading to the bathroom to change a tampon.
I realized I was hiding, and then that I was sick of associating an entire week each month with intense embarrassment. So, I decided it was time for an attitude adjustment. As hard as I tried—and I really, really tried—I’ve never had any luck keeping my period hidden. They’re real, and sometimes they get the best of us and things get a little bit messy.
In a cosmic coincidence that surprised no one, I had my period on the day of my college graduation last May. Of course, it took place in the same big room as the convocation had four years earlier, and I, again, sat in a white folding chair smack dab in the middle of the crowd. This time, I stuck a tampon in my pocket and decided a graduation leak would be a pretty classic bookend to my college career. It didn’t happen, but, if it had, I like to think I would’ve changed and laughed it off.