The moment could not have been more mundane—until it wasn’t.
It was a weekday, late afternoon, the bathroom tiles under my bare feet cool and grey. I sat on the toilet bowl, eleven years old, and daydreaming as usual. Next to me, a dryer hummed, emanating warm smells of clean laundry, as my mind drifted over my plans for the weekend ahead—baseball followed by a sleepover with Anna and, if we were lucky, a trip to pool. I imagined the cool water swallowing me with a splash as I landed one of my well-practiced cannonballs, and smiled to myself. A moment later, my bladder emptied, I reached for the roll of toilet paper to my right and made a reflexive swipe below. And then…
It took me several slow seconds, staring at the crimson streak on the crumpled paper, to register what had happened.
Menarche, a girl’s first period, is a storied and fraught threshold. In some places, it’s cause for festivities, in others, an inauguration of shame. For me, before my tissue turned up Rorschach-red, “menstruation” had been only a half-heard fable, its moral obscure but its influence palpable, implied. I knew, vaguely, that it was supposed to be linked to other, alien experiences, like adulthood and sex— alluring yet unintelligible, it bore the sheen of the exotic. My best friend Anna and I, mutually ignorant yet reluctant to inquire of our mothers, often speculated on the details of this distant, impending fate. We murmured to each other that we hoped it wouldn’t “be like, gush-gush” or befall us while in public. We wondered if it’d smell. We felt sure it would never actually come to us.
And then it did.
Yet despite all the menstrual mythology I’d accreted, I registered little emotion as I regarded the soiled tissue, my reaction muted by the non-feeling that so often cushions the utterly new. I read no revelation of femininity in the strawberry stain, felt no surge of sexuality or budding sense of womanhood. No, I was merely inconvenienced—I had a baseball practice to get to, and no time to go hunting around for the pads my mother kept tucked upstairs. I wiped again—this time, nothing but a watery pink appeared. I decided I could deal with the nuisance later. I stuffed my underwear with tissue paper, forced back a flush of embarrassment, and hopped out the bathroom door.
Confessing my discovery to my mother that night, she’d look startled, then sheepish. “Well, you’re a real, big girl now,” she said, and it almost sounded like an apology. Anna whooped on the phone, asked for intimate details, “Is it like, gush-gush? How do you feel?!” We’d anticipated this event with such wonder and dread, yet now, at last the possessor of this coveted insight, I was underwhelmed. “I feel the same.”
A few days later, the trickle of blood faded as quietly as it had come. Around me, the world appeared unchanged—at first.
Yet, changes had been set in motion, too subtle to articulate then, as I began to learn to contemplate my body from a distance, as something separate, bewildering, willful. There were some things, it seemed, that this body would do in spite of me—and, what’s more, I began to see a social pact of silence surrounding these particulars of the female physicality. The sticky red matter seemed to speak to something intimate about me, yet social convention treated it as unseemly, even repulsive. It was my duty, I’d learn, to keep a tidy distance between the visible and the visceral. The body should be controlled, curated, sterile, and when this was not possible, masked.
As this new dualism took root inside me, other changes worked their way outward. “You’re becoming a woman,” goes the narrative of puberty, and it usually begins with that first bleed. In reality, the language used to describe this “transformation” is a little dramatic—we do not transform in puberty. Even as my hips bloomed and my chest took shape, my essential self remained—I was still two-legged, afraid of snakes, lover of cookie dough, myself. Yet these particularly positioned pounds of flesh did transform my world by making me suddenly, legibly, female. Around the time that I discovered the trickle between my legs, the silent leaking of my insides outward, I found a new world greeted my altered, gendered frame. To be female-bodied, I’d learn, is to be relentlessly visible, inescapably external, skin like pages, only skimmed, but never private.
There was no way for me to know, or treasure, the seamlessness of those early years. Before my endometrium slipped out of me, before I was taught to stand apart from myself and regard my body like a hostile terrain, or a liability. Before my flesh and I became two warring parties, cruelly tethered by skin.
The lessons started that year and came quickly, inaugurated by my physicality but lodging much deeper inside me. Too soon, questions of sex and gender began to pollute one of my most sacred spaces: the baseball diamond. I was starting first basemen on a co-ed team and loved the grueling thrill of throwing my young body into physical exertion and competitive play. I dedicated hours to practice, honing my skills, strengthening my limbs, dreaming of double plays and line drives.
I was never the best player on the field, but I always aspired to be, comparing myself not to the one other girl on the team, but to the to the team captain, Jesse. I’d always been a so-called tomboy—vigorous, scabbed, strong-boned, and perpetually hungry, munching rubbery hot dogs in the dugout and relishing the smell of warm leather, dust, and sweat. I preferred to wear baseball caps both on and off the field, often pairing last year’s jersey with athletic shorts or cutoff jeans. It had never occurred to me to attempt to look feminine, sexy, or even “cute.”
Yet my emerging, female body eventually asserted itself. Shortly after my first period, I began to notice an unsettling change in the fit of my favorite baseball pants, the grey fabric stretching with odd tightness over my thighs and bum. After all, they were designed for boys, and my body no longer resembled one.
My teammates noticed this, too. Where I was once a scrappy infielder with a decent throwing arm, I was now ripening specimen of the opposite sex. Practices became parallel ordeals—not only did I feel my coach’s critical gaze tracking my performance, but I became aware of a new kind of attention from my teammates. My body not only slowed me down with its new bulk, but it rendered me painfully separate from the group to which I most wanted to belong.
Off the field, too, being a girl was proving to be a miserable fate, and I felt secretly betrayed by those who had failed to warn me. I was baptized in the hot flush of shame as strangers began lobbing coarse, if poorly understood, comments in my direction. Friends’ brothers projected their restive sexual curiosity with clumsy jokes, then come-ons and fumbling palms. I’d look to screens and silvery magazine pages at an impenetrable sea of commercialized, processed women, understanding with a sickening feeling that this was my tribe, now. I grew slowly pained by the fact of my stubby, scabby frame, so unlike these wispy, eager-looking Women. I filled slowly with dread like ice.
At home, I’d be told by my mother to rein in my appetite, to eat less, to watch out because, “I wouldn’t want to start gaining weight.” I’d hear her swap self-deprecating jokes with girlfriends over nibbled salads. I’d put down my sandwich and wander, fretting and hungry, to the full-length mirror in my parent’s walk-in closet, confronting my reflection as I tried desperately to evaluate what I saw. I groped for some coherent rubric from the fragmentary messages of horny boys, glaring televisions, and fretting mothers. While these inspections never ended in clarity, I was left to infer shame for what was, presumably, my myriad of defects.
I began skipping meals the second year after my first period. By then, I was wearing “real bras” (my mother had prolonged my “training bra” phase a little too long, and even my friends had started to comment on my poorly contained bosom) and was teetering somewhere between sheepish discomfort and full-blown hatred for my body. Now undeniably female-bodied, I felt cornered, forced to comply with the aesthetic expectations that were, apparently, now the absolute determiners of my worth.
Despairing of alternatives, I threw myself viciously into the game, approaching it with my characteristic resolve. I studied the players, contemplated the “field,” and worked to deduce my particular strengths. Eventually I inferred that my height could be an asset, that my blonde hair ought to be let out long, that tighter clothes brought better results. Above all, of course, I battled against fat; thinness was the trump card in this precarious game.
By age thirteen, I quit baseball.
For most of high school, I hovered miserably on the lower end of my healthy weight range, trim but not “skinny,” bitterly lamenting the lack of willpower that kept me from being a “real” anorexic. Still, there were moments of reward—male affirmation or even a fleeting sense of personal confidence. I sucked down these paltry victories to their dregs, but their refreshment never lasted. At any moment, a prettier girl might appear, or I’d betray myself somehow—miss a workout, eat a cookie, fumble a flirtation—and lapse into oblivion. My center was tenuous, my worth externalized, contingent.
Yet as miserable as this all was, I had not yet met the full peril of the female body—an inheritance which, it turned out, encompasses much more than aesthetic angst.
I’m disgusted to say that before the first assault, I was often woefully complacent when subjected to what I now recognize as harassment, or abuse. For years, I failed to notice the implicit violence in the way many men spoke of and to women—even believed the shameful argument that some less egregious comments could be construed as “compliments.” Didn’t I work hard to maintain an acceptable, appealing body type? After curating my appearance for male pleasure, weren’t these come-ons a sign of success?
Freshman year of college, in a dark, rum-scented hotel room during a conference in DC, was the first time in my adult life I wished I was bigger. Big enough to fight back when the young man with the crew cut—he was from the Naval Academy, or was it West Point? —leveraged his body against mine, his thick arms sudden and vise-like, my feet leaving the floor. I protested; he laughed. I panicked; he didn’t care. I stumbled out later, my limbs shot through with cold alarm, and I’d spend the night walking nervously up and down hotel hallways, unable to register what had happened. I’d lose track of that crew-cut man. I’d sit quietly on the bus back to Philadelphia. Days later, I would wonder who to blame— I’d been smiling, laughing along, sending the expected social cues; wasn’t this all part of the transaction?
Yet I deep down, some part of me maintained the clarity to know what had happened to me was profoundly wrong, dangerous. Fear crept in with this thought, cascading over me like that first flush of shame on the baseball diamond years before, seeping into the groundwater of my soul. The world around me looked suddenly sharper, more sinister, the female body where I lived appearing so much more penetrable, exposed, and impossible to hide.
Inwardly, I began to recoil from my treacherous, liable flesh, and this withdrawal would take me far from life’s surface. I went to fewer parties, walked with my eyes scooping the pavement, and returned kisses coldly, mechanically, praying for gentleness. Kind boyfriends searched my face and puzzled at my fear. Then, just after graduation, I’d be assaulted outside my apartment, by a stranger. I’d only see his face after his hands had penetrated me, and he’d be grinning, and as I screamed, he’d take his time backing away. The remorseless satisfaction on his face haunted me for weeks.
These experiences compounded by quieter echoes of aggression, which I now saw nearly everywhere, finally obliterated my waning faith in the female body. It was the final shift in the transformation set in motion the first time I leaked blood, when my uterus turned itself inside out and I began to bifurcate. Where I’d once lived in an effortless rhythm of flesh and spirit, by twenty-two I was a woman divided. My world was one in which I saw the fact of my female form always preceding and circumscribing me. While I had first come to see my flesh as an embarrassment and then a form of currency, I now saw a liability, a source of danger. I longed for an escape.
It was then I became a “true” anorexic. With the force of all the violence I’d internalized, I turned against myself, burrowing into the punishing disease, taking perverse comfort in the gradual dismantling of my body. It was no fad diet, no project of vanity, this time. I was aiming to disappear, to erase all the trappings of this woman-body I’d come to loathe, and which I felt so powerless to protect.
It worked. In perfect, ironic symmetry, the disease that had been triggered by the advent of “womanhood” folded my body back upon itself. I lost my curves. I became straight-hipped, painfully angular. My chest melted back into my ribcage, my thighs whittled and parted. I was undoing puberty, even as my flesh railed against me, screaming in hunger, seizing with fatigue. I ignored these protestations; after so many years of misery for which I blamed this body, I felt little sympathy for its pain. I stood apart from it, judged and disavowed it.
Yet the split I’d supposed existed between material and mind was, of course, a myth. As my flesh vanished, the rest of me faded, too. My imagination, once vivid and lush, grew grey, unvisited. My heart and mind, like twin islands on a yawning horizon, grew more distant each day. As I abolished my body ounce by ounce, my spirit shrank by stratospheres.
And then, one day, my period stopped. My womb grew quiet, its former fertility arrested by neglect, going the way of my spontaneity, my laughter, my sense of joy. Its absence loomed, incriminating as a ghost, each dry month a further testament to the silence within. There was so little living inside me.
As my weight dipped into life threatening numbers, I discovered that, on the inscrutable social landscape of gender, excessive thinness was a transgression, too. Men were offended by my degraded female body, hurling angry words at me on the street as retribution. “Fuck you, you skinny bitch!” “Go eat a sandwich, cunt.” “You sick or something? Nasty.”
Yet apart from these abuses, I took refuge in the fact that men no longer found me attractive. It was thrilling to move through the world in my new, desexualized state. I slipped on boxy tunics and traipsed out the door, my flat chest ungirdled, my hollow limbs inviting a little gawking but few propositions. I passed my first summer in New York City remarkably free of catcalls. Encountering clusters of men on stoops or street corners had once filled me with dread, but now I passed by as if invisible. Shrouded in androgyny, I felt invincible.
Yet even as I achieved this liberating exemption from sexual attention, my disease brought devastating physical consequences. As I descended, my body fought with ever-increasing ingenuity to stay alive in spite of me, and, eventually, it was the whimpering of an emaciated cardiac muscle that called me off my madness. Stethoscopes confirmed: I was dying, my gallant but failing heart spelling urgency with each erratic beat.
I was wrenched backwards, inwards, finally confronted with the fact that there was only one logical outcome of my sworn self-hostility. I suddenly saw that either all of me would survive, or none of me.
The prospect of recovery brought several types of terror. The first was the totality with which it contradicted the architecture of my eating disorder, a doctrine of self-denial that by then was deeply fortified, familiar, and encompassing. Now, my medical team instructed me to actively nurture my body, to rest it and feed it with lavish portions of forbidden foods. I was urged to “let go” of my desire to control and withhold, both on the physical and psychic levels. I discovered that beneath my self-denial lay a thick swamp of self-loathing, that it was this feeling of worthlessness that allowed me to justify and endure abuse, from myself and others. Over the months I began to discover the stirring power of saying “yes” to my needs, of dignifying my vulnerabilities with self-care. With these revelations in mind I chewed consecutively bigger meals, marveling as the haze of starvation lifted and my contact with the world gradually resumed.
Yet as I moved through my program of “re-feeding,” I was confronted with another troubling discovery: the route to health would run me straight back into puberty. In the process of restoring at least thirty pounds of weight—the bare minimum, the doctors said, to put me in a safe range—I’d be returning to the body that had been the source of such disgust and fear. It was important, I was told, to restore my “secondary sex characteristics”—my breasts, hips, curves—in order to achieve natural hormonal balance. Most critical of all, I’d need to get my period back. Without it my body was leaching calcium from my already-thin bones, eroding me from the inside, putting me at risk for serious injury.
I fingered my knobby wrist and tried to imagine inhabiting a body that was once again soft, feminine, supple. I pictured myself rejoining the ranks of female bodies, with all the attendant risks and perplexities. It was terrifying.
Even so, I was sick of being sick; I stayed committed to recovery. For the past twelve months, I’ve swallowed gritty protein shakes, shed my junior-sized clothing, and watched my body creep slowly back towards fertility. In this deliberate reentry, I’ve seen the world around me shift once more, reorienting again as I grow more recognizably female. The catcalls have resumed, as have my wrestling matches with the anxiety and self-loathing triggered by male attention. The questions of intimacy and trust remain, like some shifting tectonic terrain. A few men have stayed on despite the tremors, kind and earnest, to trace the jagged contours of my fear—lightly, haltingly, and with my permission. We walk towards each other on the slowly cooling ground.
And then there’s Woman, that pale, straight-limbed specter whose willowy shadow stretches over our cultural psyche—I’ve had to reckon with her, too. As my own arms have grown rounder, my thighs broader, my chest more buoyant, I hear a familiar voice cursing these accumulations. Size is the enemy, she tells me, fat is failure. She tells me hunger is my proper state, satiety a sin, self-discipline the only virtue. With each added pound comes the possibility of becoming “too much”—reproachable, dispensable, transgressive.
Yet I’ve grown tired of her grating voice. I’m weary, altogether, of believing so much morality must reside in the size and shape of my flesh. Was there ever a woman small enough? Sexy enough? Eager enough? Quiet enough? Where on earth did the myth emerge that we, inhabiters of female bodies, can ever be the sterile, hyper-sexed, effortless immaculate wonders demanded of us? That we’d want to be?
Flesh jiggles, it sweats, it grows hungry. It bleeds, it asks for love, and it grows tired. We’re made of organic matter, all of us, a single race of infinite variations. I still wrestle, desperately, each day to allow this truth to enter me and my ordinary, female body. I just want to be released, to be, a bit of carbon on this planet, simple, warm, enough. Can I be forgiven if I’m not supernatural? Can I forgive myself?
My period came back one early August morning. I stumbled blearily to the toilet, my mind muted with sleep until I found myself confronting another blood-streaked piece of tissue.
It had been almost three years since my last cycle. For thirty-five months, my abdomen had harbored a stony silence, starved into stillness like some parched patch of earth. My body, in its wordless, inscrutable wisdom, had judged correctly that I was no candidate for procreation.
Until I was.
I looked again and read that splotch this time, like an ancient, vital script. Life asserting itself again, Nature taking another, audacious gamble on me. In that red stain I saw repetition and surprise, detritus and hope, an end folding backwards into a gesture of creation. Something universal in that thought, a reminder that we are full of more than we can consummate, that potential waits inside us even when we miss it, month after month.
Or maybe I should thank myself for this flow—perhaps it’s a confirmation, a congratulation, for making the choice to fight, to return to my female body despite all the ways I’ve wanted to flee. Perhaps I can choose to see it as an emblem, the struggle I’ve returned to, my membership in the ranks of those whose bodies subject them to unjust danger and pain.
I think of how this fertile substance flows from a hollow space, and how being alive feels this way: a searching for fullness, a turning in circles that somehow brings us somewhere new. Our bodies surprise us, endure us, sustain us. And how there is no living without flesh, and blood, and mess.
For Dana, Victoria, and Bethany.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.