Flowing Narratives

Menstruation essays show how far we’ve come.

The first lines of a few of the stories in my little red book (Twelve, $14.99), edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, give some indication as to the subject of this collection:

“I was ten at the time, and it was summertime.”

“I was thirteen years, tall and lanky.” “I was eleven years old and the first of all my friends to get a period.”

Voices rise up — and blend together — in this collection of first-period stories. It’s hard to remember which of those lines introduces the story of a girl in Ghana in the 1970s, and which the story of a girl heading to her softball game in the 1990s. A few of the recollections stand out, but most fit easily into a few categories of emotion: surprised-andshameful, or impatient-and-proud.

The impetus for this project was Nalebuff ’s own first period, while waterskiing, and the responses of the women in her family. Nalebuff started collecting these stories when she was only 13, and her writing could have used a more expert editor. Nine of the stories mention Judy Blume; and though a number of the contributors are professional writers, the stories do not have unique voices. At the center of the collection is an essay by Gloria Steinem originally published in Ms. 1978. The brief essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” imagines how glorified the period would be if it were a masculine event. That this 1978 piece is the focal essay in a 2009 book says, perhaps, a lot about menstruation in today’s world. When the period was connected to shame and embarrassment, we needed feminists like Gloria Steinem to reclaim it for us. But now instead of belts and “the curse,” we have Tampax Pearl. Looking at the stories that describe first periods from the last decade or so, you can see just how much things have changed.

Jennifer, who got her period in 1998, practiced using tampons and pads in anticipation of the event; when it did arrive, she “was on cloud nine.” Zoë, the editor’s sister, IM’s the information to a friend in 2005. Jacquelyn muses on the difference between her period in 1967 (“I spent the day cowering in a dark bedroom”) and her daughter’s in 2008 (“When she came to me one winter night to report her first period, we spent an hour cuddling in my bed”).

So do we need this book? Maybe. The graphic honesty of some of the stories is especially helpful. After reading this book, no girl will expect bright red blood and wonder about that brown stain described in this collection as a “muddy smudge” and a “rust-colored crust.” And not every daughter has a parent who will prepare and explain. Hopefully my little red book will help make itself even more obsolete, so that it can exist primarily as a record of the way things were.

Emily Seife works at Random House Children’s Books. She lives in Brooklyn.