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stories of menstruation sweet secrets

by Kathleen O'Grady and Paula Wansbrough | May 10, 2001

Facts are important; they can explain how and why things like periods happen. But facts aren’t able to explain everything. Sometimes we need other ways to help us understand life, especially when things start to change and the world gets a little confusing. So along with all of the facts, this book also contains short stories by women who describe what happened to them, how they felt and what they did around the time of their first periods ...

The women who wrote the stories ... talk about the many different feelings young women have around the time of their first period. You may find yourself in some of these stories, or you may hear the voices of other women you know. And later you will get to tell your story to the people around you – your friends, your sisters, your mom. They’ll learn about you and they may even learn something about themselves. Together – telling our stories, listening and learning, that is how we women come to understand the secrets of our bodies.

Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation is published by Sumach Press (see resources and the external link below). We think that this book if for mothers too, those whose daughters are reaching that age and those who have made that passage with their daughters.

Character Building, by EMMY PANTIN, excerpted from Sweet Secrets: Stories of Menstruation, pgs. 206-210:

What defines me is the strength of my character. This is what my mother taught me about menstruating. Others have said that their mothers told them menstruation would hurt, that it would go on forever, that they would need special products to cope, that they were doomed to a life forever struggling with The Curse. Some mothers told their daughters nothing at all – one of my friends thought she was bleeding to death until the school nurse explained things to her. But like fathers telling their sons about competing in sports or building things with tools, my mother told me that bleeding would “build character.”

I have never hated my period, even after my male cousin shrieked, “What’s that smell?” when I had just discarded a blood-soaked pad in the bathroom. His disgust at the whole idea of menstruation only made me more proud. I never wanted to be one of the boys.

My mother wanted to throw a party when, at thirteen, I told her that I had finally gotten IT. She hugged me and, predictably, told me that I was a big girl and would be all grown up before I knew it. I didn’t undergo the extreme metamorphoses I had been led to believe would occur. I expected a new appreciation for high heels and children. Instead, I continued to play schoolyard games on concrete playgrounds, patiently waiting for the day I would Grow Up.

Lately I’ve found myself in estrogen-based bonding sessions with friends. They recite long lists of complaints against their bodies. Menstruation is discussed and vehemently cursed for all its evil symptoms: cramps, bloodstains, bloating, pimples, weight gain, backaches, increased sex drive (or the opposite), tenderness, sensitivity, mood swings, PMS. I feel entirely left out and I wonder if this means I haven’t yet grown up.

While I have experienced some of these symptoms I’ve never referred to myself as someone who “suffers” because of them. Sometimes friends react to my alienation on the subject of menstrual pain with: “You’re not a woman then!” But I am a woman and I bleed like the rest of them.

I’ve talked to my mother about the hatred my friends seem to feel towards their bodies and specifically the female functions, and she nods her head in agreement. “I know. A lot of women complain about their bodies. What they don’t know is that their periods are what gives them strength, what makes them powerful. Women have been taught to hate their bodies and to see their periods as a curse. It’s not a curse, it’s a gift.”

I believe other women when they say they’re in pain. Yet I can’t help but feel as though some of my friends show a real disrespect to their bodies when they say they’d give up their period if they had the choice. If I had the choice, my menstruating is the last thing I’d give up. My mother taught me that just because you bleed once a month doesn’t mean you’re weak or any less than a man. In fact, she told me, it means that you’re stronger if you carry on despite any pain. That’s the esteem in which I was taught to hold menstruation, and that’s the way I will always look at it. It doesn’t make me any less than a man, it makes me more.

I look down the road and realize that I won’t have my period forever. What will it mean when I stop menstruating? Will it mean I am no longer a woman? Will I become asexual? Will I be a man?

My mother started menopause in her late forties just when I was starting my period. I asked her what it all meant and she told me, “Menopause is when you stop having your period. It means you can’t have babies any more.”

“Is having babies what makes me a woman?”

My mother thought about this for a moment and replied, “You aren’t defined by the babies you have. You’re defined by your own strength. When your period stops, you’ll be even wiser because you’ll have gone through an experience that others haven’t gone through. Menopause isn’t the end of something, it’s the beginning of something else. Few roles are defined for older women the way they are for younger women, so the end of your period is kind of like the beginning of a new life that hasn’t yet been defined.”

During dinner with four friends yesterday we discovered that we were all on our periods at that same time. I wonder how that happens. Maybe because we’ve been together for so long our minds and bodies have begun to function on the same cycle. We can finish each other’s sentences, we can guess with incredible accuracy each other’s behavior in any given situation, and now we can menstruate at the same time. We have grown into a rhythm together and I wonder if, although none of us wears high heels or yearns for children, maybe this is what becoming a woman really means. We are growing up together, having dinner in a restaurant, discovering that we are linked through the blood that flows from our bodies.

I’m nineteen now and that magical transformation that was supposed to suddenly occur once I got my period has not come yet. As a woman I don’t want to fit into any moulds that are set out for anyone other than myself. I align myself with other women, but I define myself through my own insight. In the meantime, I carry on with my life and continue to build character, add strength and knowledge to the person I am becoming. I like what I’ve got so far, menstrual cramps and all.

more to consider

There’s a puzzle around menstruation, a really important puzzle.

O’Grady and Wansbrough make the point that cultures differ in how they regard menstruation. It’s either a cause for celebration or a taboo, or both. How cultures treat menstruating women show that, “no matter what their views, people all over the world believe that menstruation is very powerful.” Women, however, at least in my culture, do not view it as powerful. They more or less hide it.

What do we think would happen if we didn’t hide it?

resources for this story

Sumach Press, a new venture on the Canadian publishing scene, looks forward to its first full year of bringing readers exciting new titles.

We will be publishing dynamic feminist titles that explore the role of women and the social and political issues affecting them. Sumach Press titles will document women’s redefinitions of the contours of a more humane and equitable society on questions of race, gender and class. We aim to publish writing that shakes us out of our complacencies; writing that explores current scholarship as well as grassroots activism on subjects as diverse as health, history, politics and sexuality. We are eager to promote a diversity of voices and opinion.

Literary fiction is another genre we intend to expand at Sumach Press. The contemporary Canadian writing scene is flourishing, with many exciting and critical writers emerging. We hope to set our experience and abilities to the task of bringing their words to readers, both adult and young adult. As publishers, we would like to underline our commitment to producing beautifully designed and wee-written books. At a time when the publishing world and booksellers are facing unprecedented changes, we intend to meet the challenge of reaching our audience through active and innovative marketing.

Our new releases are supported by a strong backlist that includes novels, short story collections and a variety of works of non-fiction for both adults and young people. Readers will find our books thoughtful. innovative and enjoyable.

Sumach Press, 1415 Bathurst Street, #202, Toronto, ON M5N 2L1, phone (416)531-6250, fax (416)531-3892

For further information, please contact Lois Pike, or visit the press’s website, linked to below.

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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