When I was eight, I asked my parents what a tampon was. My memory of this moment is shockingly fresh in my mind: I stand in the threshold between our family room and our kitchen, my socked feet on the wood floor. I’m almost sure that tampons are used to stop you from peeing your pants, but I want to make sure of it. My heart is beating when I ask (practically blurt) the question I’d been too scared to ask for years.
My parents look at each other for a moment, baffled. Then, they start to laugh. I’m confused. “You’ll find out in a few years,” my mom says. They turn back to the TV, shaking their heads. I stand there for a moment. I’m shocked at myself, but I’m something else too. Ashamed. Why did I ask that? I vowed to never talk about tampons again.
After sex ed in fifth grade, I still don’t exactly know what a tampon is. The girls from the other class file into our classroom as the boys file into theirs. Our teacher was a woman, and the boys’ a man. Our teacher puts an old VHS tape into our dusty classroom TV set and sits behind her desk, averting her eyes. The movie is from the 1980s and, to say the least, uninformative.
When the movie ends, someone raises their hand and asks, “What’s a period?”
Our teacher says, “It’s something every woman goes through.”
On the playground, a boy asks me if we learned what masturbation was. I say no. He says it’s probably only for boys. I believe this until I’m 15.
The day I get my first period, I’m home from school. I’d been puking all day. I’d never felt that pain in my stomach, a raw pain, a combination of sharp and dull. I think it’s the flu, until I pull down my pants. The blood looks different from normal blood. I sit on the toilet and cry. My hands shake as I call my mom.
“Please buy me pads,” I say.
We don’t talk about my period again until I’m in college.
It’s my first year of high school. My friends and I talk about if you should shave “down there.” The unanimous answer is yes, and you should also shave everywhere else.
Boys will think you’re gross if you don’t.
You also shouldn’t smell bad.
You should use the scented soap from Victoria’s Secret, we say.
You know the joke, “What smells like fish? Close your legs!”
And you should only wear lace underwear.
Boys won’t touch you if you don’t.
And don’t let your panty lines show through your pants.
You should also use pads.
Using a tampon is basically losing your virginity.
Boys don’t want to have sex with loose girls.
Never mind pH balance and period comfort and sexual agency. We know all there is to know about our bodies because the boys teach us what we should look like and smell like and feel like. We’re pretty girls and our bodies are for them.
I didn’t know who Georgia O’Keeffe was until my freshman year of college. Her painting “Black Iris” appeared on a PowerPoint slide.
“Her paintings seem to allude to female genitalia,” my professor says.
“That’s totally a vagina,” my friend whispers to me, hand cupped to her ear, leaning over in her chair.
“Black Iris” was the first piece of vaginal art I’d seen by a woman. By men, I’d seen it all: portraits and paintings of women by men, poems, novels, songs about women by men. The female body as seen by men. Men had claimed women, had claimed the vagina. “Black Iris” shattered that claim. The masculine vagina suddenly became replaced by the feminine one, the right one, the one I owned. I liked this version better. In fact, I loved it.
O’Keeffe became something of an icon to me, the standard of the radical, raw embrace of femininity that I wanted as a part of myself. Hers is one of the only quotes I think about every day: “I said to myself, I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me — shapes and ideas so near to me — so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to start anew, to strip away what I had been taught.”
Here is my unlearning of what I’ve been taught: My female body is mine. And it is beautiful.