How I Learned to Stop Feeling Ashamed of My Body—Thanks to My Period
YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen recounts three messy, life-changing experiences.
This essay is excerpted from the new anthology Period: Twelve Voices Tell the Bloody Truth ($16, amazon.com).
Experiencing a first in life is always memorable—whether it’s your first day of school, first kiss, or first loss of a loved one. Firsts are often signifiers of one door closing and another door opening. They are powerful new beginnings that will shape us in ways that are only revealed to us through the grace of time. So, as someone who has now been menstruating for almost 15 years, I’m able to look back on some of my period firsts in ways I never have before. My period, as annoying, frustrating and painful as it can be sometimes, has taught me so much about my body and my life. Here are three pivotal, bloody moments.
My first time
At 15, I was the last person in my circle of friends to get her period. I had been faking it for about a year, not wanting to be left out of the “What do you use?” and “Ugh, cramps suck!” conversations. These seemingly small, mundane interactions were ultimately moments of sincere bonding among girls around me; something I noticed and felt excluded from. I had been somewhat of a social outcast for pretty much all of my years in school and I saw this as my one opportunity to fit in. I thought having my period was the common thread I needed to help me connect with people I had always felt so disconnected from. So every day, I wished and prayed that I would receive the keys to this ultra-elite kingdom. I thought the day would never come—until it finally did.
Menarche came for me on a Saturday. I woke up thirsty, so I went downstairs in a sleepy daze and poured myself a glass of orange juice. My underwear felt kind of wet, which was a little weird, but I brushed it off as standard vaginal discharge. I had been so vigilant and on “period watch” for so long—there was no way this was that moment.
I had every intention of getting back into bed but went to the bathroom for a quick pee. It was early in the morning and the sun was just coming up over the trees in our backyard. I was on autopilot, just trying to find the fastest route back to sleep. My eyes were heavy, and as I sat on the toilet, I looked around the room to keep myself from nodding off. To my left, I saw the new plastic shower curtain my mom had just put up. The pattern was a slightly different variation of the same thing we always had in that bathroom: fish. Directly in front of me was the towel rack. I could see the little chips in the paint that were only visible when the rack was bare. They were literal pieces from my past, probably going back to when I was about six or seven and insisted on putting stickers everywhere, despite my parents telling me not to.
Then I looked down. I jumped. I was so startled when I saw my baby-blue Paul Frank pajamas covered in blood. They were soaked. I couldn’t even see the original color of my underwear. Everything was covered in crimson goop. I went to wipe myself, and there was even more blood on the tissue. I thought I was going to pass out, but instead I burst into tears and got into bed with my mom—bloody pj’s and all.
In my brain, I knew what was happening. I knew this was my period. I had seen those weird, outdated videos in school and even had a body book that I had secretly ordered from the book order in elementary school. Plus, every girl I knew had her period. But when it happened to me, it was a shock to my system. Nobody told me it would be like this. I was expecting maybe a couple dime-size spots of blood, not what looked like a massacre in my pants! It was gooey and mucusy; not at all like the blood you see when you cut yourself. I was so confused. Was this normal? Was something wrong with me? I just kept sobbing to my mom. I remember her immediately sitting up in bed with concern all over her face, but relaxing and smiling with relief when I said I had gotten my period.
This is actually one of the fondest memories I have in my Mom Memory Bank. We weren’t particularly close, especially in my teen years, but I remember how gentle she was with me that day. How she calmed and soothed me, telling me that all of this was totally normal and that I’d be okay. She gave me a pad to hold me over while we went shopping so I could pick out my own pads and get some dark underwear. For the first time as a teenager, my mom helped me feel okay with my body and the things it was doing. As it turned out, my period didn’t exactly give me the keys to the kingdom of cool, but it did give me the keys to something I wanted on a deeper level: connection and a moment of bonding with my mom, someone I had always felt distant from. So I guess I got my wish—it just looked a little different than I had expected. Kind of like my period.
I started to free myself from period shame in 2010. Admittedly, I was probably more comfortable with my period than anyone else I knew, but there was this one thing that was really holding me back: pads. If you’re a menstruating human, you’ve probably overheard or participated in conversations about how “gross” pads are at some point in your life. Even as a pad user myself, I can definitely check both of those boxes.
I’m not exactly sure where all this pad shaming started, but I’d guess cis men had something to do with it. I’ve seen and heard what many men think of periods in general and pads more specifically—men who aren’t necessarily bad people. They think periods are gross. They think tampons are “less dirty” and more sanitary because they’re inside your body and less noticeable. They get uncomfortable if their girlfriend is wearing a pad because it feels like she’s wearing a diaper. The list goes on and on. So naturally, this makes women feel awful and ashamed of their bodies and their choices. We internalize this and try to find ways to be less “gross” and more appealing. Pad shaming, unfortunately, is one of those solutions.
Now, I’m not here to go into some long analysis about our cultural and social views on menstruation (even though it’s one of my favorite topics), but I wanted to give a nugget of context before getting into the main event: the two people who helped me free myself from pad shame, one of whom is… Surprise! A man.
I was living in San Francisco in 2010 with a few roommates in a loft apartment. I shared a tiny room downstairs with one girl. Despite the cramped quarters, it was a dream rooming with her. We shared a bathroom, a mutual level of respect, and a love for MAC makeup, and agreed from day one to be communicative and open when it came to our space. On top of that, she was hilarious and incredibly kind. When someone talked, she listened, and not in the way of just nodding her head and then proceeding to talk about herself. I mean really listened. The kind of listening where someone doesn’t say anything, but they look you in the eyes and they see you, and that’s enough.
Needless to say, I loved living together, but there was one moment when I really felt like I put our relationship on the line. You see, sometimes when I take a shower and I’m on my period, I just take off my underwear and leave my pad still in it. This is because: (a) I’m lazy, and (b) I wrap my used pad in a new pad’s wrapper, and I’m not going to be putting on a new pad until I’m out of the shower. Logistically it just doesn’t make sense to dispose of the old one until I’m done. So bloody-pad underwear on the floor it is!
Usually, this is a seamless process. No one knows any of this is happening. Except this one time when I showered while on my period, and my roommate needed to use the bathroom. I was so focused on getting out quickly so she could get in that I ran out in my towel and completely forgot to grab my underwear. Now you may be thinking that I had it off in a corner, somewhere not so noticeable, but NOPE! It was smack-dab in the middle of the floor and it wasn’t a light day, so there was blood all over that thing. I realized this as soon as she was in and shut the door. I paced outside, waiting for her to scream in disgust, but there was nothing. Maybe she was so grossed out that she had been shocked into silence? To say I was mortified would be an understatement.
A couple minutes (which seemed like hours) passed and she came out of the bathroom. I anxiously looked at her with apologetic eyes, waiting for her to say something. She looked at me, totally confused. I immediately started apologizing and trying to explain myself and she stopped me in the middle of my rambling. She said, “It’s okay. It’s no big deal. It doesn’t bother me at all.” I was shocked. Dumbfounded. She meant it, too. She proceeded to go on with her day, completely unfazed.
As I went into the bathroom and picked up my underwear, I remember thinking that this was a moment to remember. I didn’t know why, but I felt like it was significant deep down inside me, and I was right. I was harboring shame over wearing pads and my little bathroom habit. To have someone see all of those things, plus what my actual menstrual blood looked like (which no one had seen except myself), and not bat an eye or see me differently—that was huge. My roommate made me see myself and my body in a different light: a body filled with a heart and mind and soul that was worthy of friendship and love. That day, when I threw out the used pad that I’d left on the bathroom floor, I threw out all the years of shame that came with it.
Interestingly, a few weeks after the pad-on-the-floor incident, I found myself in another predicament: getting my period while I was with the guy I was dating at the time and being totally unprepared for it. This had never happened to me before.
We were in his apartment chatting; he was sitting at his desk and I was standing at the foot of his bed. Usually my period starts with a few light drops and I have about an hour before full flow is in effect. This was not one of those times. As I stood in his room, I felt a rush of wetness in my crotch. And not the “Ooooh, I’m into this!” kind of wetness. It was my period and it was here in full force.
I froze. My eyes probably looked like I had seen a ghost and I could feel my heart racing. In the past, the guys I had dated wanted nothing to do with my period. I was newly dating this guy, so I really had no idea where he stood with it all, but based off previous experiences I was guessing he’d probably fall into the same boat. I was wrong. Oh so very wrong. When he saw me freeze, he immediately asked what was wrong. I blurted out, “My period just started.” I felt trapped. I could only move as far as the bathroom to stuff tissues down my pants because every movement I made just prompted more blood to come out. I knew this was a temporary solution and so did he. He calmly asked me, “What do you need?” and I said, “Pads.”
He proceeded to run out the door, out of the building, around the corner, and down the street to the nearest convenience store. I know this because I was standing by the window and saw him bolting down the sidewalk. I had never seen anyone move so fast for me. I smiled, and in that moment I knew he was special. I knew this moment was special. I hadn’t had the best relationship experience prior to this. I had been hurt. I had hurt people. I had been taken advantage of. I had been raped. And I had definitely never had a boyfriend who would go out and buy me pads. When he returned, he was out of breath but smiled as he gave me the plastic bag containing my pads. I was so relieved.
Over the course of our relationship together, relief was a common theme. He brought down my walls and he was living proof that kindness, acceptance, a willingness to learn, and a capacity for compassion can exist in all men. Eventually our relationship ended because we were moving to different cities, but I’ve never forgotten our time together. He was the first man I had been romantically involved with who truly accepted me. He was my first lesson in finding the people who will go the distance for you.
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Doing the Work
As I sit here now, almost eight years later, I see how much my life has changed. I have a job that allows me to express my creativity and put meaningful work out into the world. I have a small group of best friends that I’d do anything for. I’ve come out as lesbian and I’m dating a badass woman I absolutely adore. Plus, my mom and I are closer than ever. I’ve experienced a lot more period firsts, too: trying menstrual cups and discs, having sex on my period, and publicly asking President Obama about the luxury tax on menstrual products (he had no idea it even existed!). Through all these moments and seasons of life, I have worked hard, kept faith, and continued to menstruate. My period has helped me examine the world through a different lens. I see the beauty, the history, the science, and the inequality that permeates our social interactions and government. All of this just because 50 percent of the population is shedding some uterine lining. I don’t think anyone who has a period would consider this totally natural bodily function a luxury. So why are we treated like we’re lesser than, while simultaneously being charged more for our biology? Why is reform being pitched to and then denied by panels of cis men who have never had a period in their lives? When will they get over themselves, step aside, and listen?
Yeah, this is all pretty daunting, but despite the seemingly impossible obstacles, change is happening if you look closely. Our voices are growing and getting louder. History knows we make the impossible a reality. We’re in this battle and we’re out here for blood.
Ingrid Nilsen is the personality and creative mind behind her incredibly popular YouTube channel. She is also a women's health activist.
Excerpted from PERIOD: TWELVE VOICES TELL THE BLOODY TRUTH © 2018. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan, a division of Holtzbrink Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership. All rights reserved.