It starts early. You are 11 or 12, maybe, and one day you’ve bled through your pants. You tell your mother, and she helps you fit your underwear with a thick, diaper-like pad. You carry a supply in your backpack or purse and are terrified a classmate might see them. No one is supposed to know about your monthly secret, and you go to great lengths to protect it. You maintain constant vigilance against the ever-present threat of a leak.
Before that, perhaps, you bought your first bra. Your mother took you to the store and stared at your chest before selecting something white and awkward and strange. She called it a training bra. Your father called it “an over the shoulder pebble holder,” which he thought was friendly teasing but was actually a reminder you that you are, in an important way, insufficient. In the mirror, your chest’s reflection is pitifully unlike images in catalogs.
A little later, you’ll have your first pelvic exam. An adult you don’t know will run hands over your body—up your back, across your belly, around your naked breasts. Your feet will be positioned in stirrups and, while prone, you will be entered by a cold, metal speculum. It will pinch, and you will feel something in your chest. With gentle hands pressing your ovaries, you will feel cared for, and the hint of pleasure will mortify you. It must remain secret.
At some point, you may decide to get your bikini area waxed. You call it your bikini area to avoid the social discomfort of referencing your pubic hairs. The waxer asks you to undress, lie on a table, and spread yourself open. The look on her face is stoic, an expression of perseverance. As hairs scream from sensitive follicles, it’s unclear for whom this experience is more excruciating—or for whose enjoyment, you’re even doing this—but when you leave a generous tip, you’re reminded that you were the one being serviced.
One day, you will get an infection. A yeast infection or bladder infection or the dreaded, nebulous vaginitis. You will be in pain—a terrible discomfort—yet many thoughts will be of embarrassment. You’ll wonder if you smell, and you’ll be ashamed of your itchiness, even though no one can feel it but you. It’s illogical, but logic has nothing to do with the horror of bright orange urine. If you have a partner, you will be asked to explain yourself because it’s important to have reasons not to want sex.
You will apologize for the interruption.
On the day you give birth to your child—if you give birth to a child, if you do what society all but mandates—you scream and grunt and cry in front of strangers. In front of loved ones. Splayed before spectators, your body is no longer yours. It has been sacrificed at the altar of motherhood, and every part you’ve been shamed into hiding—secret breasts in secret bras, parts you dare not name—is stripped of sexuality and now belongs to Baby, to society, to the interested throng in your crowded room. After months of strangers touching and remarking on your swollen belly, you’ve been primed for the final surrender. In a short few hours, as you empty your insides before an audience, your feminine mystery ends and your maternal duty begins. The transformation is complete.
A long time down the road, you will have a hot flash. Your body will flame, and you will excuse yourself to splash cool water on your face. Your doctor will tell you this is aging, and the only thing you can do is wait.
You’ll watch your body shut itself down, retiring from the burden of menstruation, from the highs and lows of menstruation, from the exhilarating sexual power of menstruation. Your male peers will be unable to understand, and while you’ll be offered high-risk hormone therapy, they’ll have ready access to manufactured, recreational erections, peddled in commercials featuring young, vibrant women who possess their fertility and don’t have to think twice about risking a turtleneck. You will feel that society has closed the books on you. You’ll slip into invisibility.