Women bleed. Our blood tells both a singular narrative that is factual, centered around a product, but also holds deeply personal truths. With this universal bleeding, these narratives pour out, each one pregnant with emotion, with yearning, with becoming. Some of us find nostalgia in the predictable demarcation of time. Others know our own blood without romance: our tide felt not as a beautiful, consistent pattern of nature, but as a rote repetition of surges and cycles.
As children, some learn lessons of cleanliness or of silence. Between solving for x and Nathaniel Hawthorne, sensitive girls learn to tolerate stains on day-of-the-week underpants because a stain on Tuesday can be easier than the chafe of cleanliness. Timid girls leak mess in sleeping bags on their best friend’s basement floors, surrounded by other girls who have not all bled yet, who share kiwi lip balm and giggles about new boobs but do not speak about the stains on their thighs. A motherless girl sneaks her grandmother’s incontinence pads into her backpack, lacking words to tell her father she has begun to shed her childhood. I walked extra slow in the drug store hygiene aisle, skimming box labels that, at thirteen, I dared not touch.
As teens, some find acceptance. A swimmer channels health class with a hand mirror from her mother’s bathroom drawer, flat on the rug between her legs, to shove bleached-pure cotton into a space she had never felt. Purity inserted, she flaunts herself in her bikini best, unmarked, as if she were not bleeding. A self-assured daughter holds her leg up on the bathroom sink while her mother shows her, with a gentle force, how to contain her own gushing. Some girls wedge socks into the crotches of their underpants, poverty necessitating creative solutions to routine living. Some girls beg attention from school nurses for cramps as a proxy for asking if they are normal, if it is right that they can feel their insides squeeze. I buried a floral zippered sack in the depths of my backpack, wiggling it out between study hall and chemistry lab, with a practiced hurry.
As college girls, nearly women, some demonstrate mastery over their bleeding. Trash cans in sorority houses brim reliably the second week of each month, telling a story of unity. Fearful girls, and focused ones, seek out Student Health for prescribed regularity. Pragmatic ones soak the genitals of boys who prefer their scrotums covered with clotted brown warmth to shafts wrapped with latex. Condoms are doled out in dormitories as a message of protection and liberation, but there are no bulletin boards with paper bags full of hygiene products. Some of us never reach college: excluded cyclically from school in corners of the world where blood cannot be easily concealed. I carried my hygiene six blocks in CVS bags dangling from my left hand while my right hand curled inside the grip of a first sweetheart love.
As hopeful women, some of us entwine our blood with our pain. Roommates drop out of college when they stop bleeding. Because whether or not they choose to birth a child, the detour of months without bleeding forever shifts their paths. Husbands drive to Rite-Aid at 3 a.m. to buy sticks for our urine. Because the question of not bleeding in that moment punctuates the recoil of our every heartbeat. Rarely, our children, dependent on our blood to grow inside our bodies, die when we bleed; their loss never forgotten. I bled once in a kayak on Lake Washington a week after I opened myself to the idea of motherhood.
As middle-aged women with children or careers, some live despite the bleeding. We toil, strive, do. Busy women note the faint odor of inconvenience in between the emails and the groceries, the meetings and the carpools. Entrepreneurial women design cups to catch, rinse, and reuse: to spare the planet from our tainted trash. Diligent women record each day of blood, catalogued in apps on phones, so their own histories can predict their own futures. I explain to my son, with distilled details, the reason for a toilet bowl filled with bloody water in the wee hours of the night.
As menopausal women, all of us have shed the responsibility to reproduce. Some women still bleed with a predictable pattern while others flow with an infrequent reminder of youth. Carefree women are caught off guard, the irregularity destroying white pants and sailboat hammocks. Resentful women feel the burden of this fickle bleeding as a tease. No-nonsense women dry their middle-of-the-night sweats and embrace the day when the blood will simply stop. I feel a reluctant mourning in knowing that my own body will drift without a dependable anchor.
We wipe, clean, hide, ignore. All of us. We stride forward as if our bleeding is not a measure of ourselves. Clinical. Chemical. We quantify flow in hours, assign numbers to days in the process as if we need flash cards for our lives. With words like regular and heavy, we make the shedding concrete. An ancient we united under red tents; a more modern set of bold women mark the bleeding with period parties. Timeless. Ageless. Ongoing.
But the blood, and the periods between the blood, contain a nuanced power easily lost or silenced in the daily orbit of life. Our own bodies can teach us to know ourselves. As our tides rise, we find a dome to our bellies, a thickening of mucus, that beg us to slow down and open our bodies to touch. The subtle plumping of breasts, the tenderness of nipples, beget more than just flaunting and feeding; reading their swell predicts our futures by telling us that soon, so soon, we will bleed. Mindfully, these subtle changes and varied narratives sculpt a universal thread of strength in the banal but discrete details of living as women. As we read our own bodies, let us understand the rhythm of our own selves the way we understand our own gaits. And with this understanding, we can stride forward with a purposeful grace.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/bethandin