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Mothers, Moons, Masculinity, and Mulan

April 20, 2009

There are many things for which I am grateful towards my mother.  She is an astounding, strong, talented, and intelligent woman.  With her faults, yes, but overall, a wonderful example of one who has maneuvered and situated herself through a patriarchical society with relative balance, savy, and grace.

One of the things I am particularly grateful for is how she reacted when I got–yes, you saw it coming–my period. I was eleven years old and completely immersed in an endless inner conflict between two polar parts of myself (that I am, incidentally, STILL trying to reconcile today).  On the one hand, I was that classic pre-teen Tomboy, who thought that only boys got to have real fun, and who thus wanted to erase all traces of femininity from her lifestyle.  On the other hand, I was a girl who had always looked up to the strong women in her life.  My Gramma, with her homemade calico dresses and Lutheran stubbornness, was clearly a strong woman.  I relished the stories of the obstacles she overcame.  She devotedly lived with and loved a mentally ill-husband, raised 5 children, and essentially ran a farm (despite having come from the city).  My mother, too, was an endless source of creativity, humor, and insight.  My two older sisters were growing up to be beautiful young women, full of dreams and fresh with knowledge.  Needless to say, I wanted to be all these things, too.  To me, these women were the highest models of female greatness, and I looked forward to the day when I would be a woman like them.  Nevertheless, at eleven years old, that was a dream that I intended for a later date.  In the meantime, I wanted to remain comfortably moored in my easy, black-and-white ethos of “boy=good” and “girl=bad”.  Alas, my opinion didn’t matter to Nature and the Moon, who decided my time had come.  In 5th grade, I was far-too-suddenly thrust into the throes of budding womanhood.  And I was devastated.

I didn’t want boobs.  My friends didn’t have them.  It was bad enough that I was already a foot taller than everyone else my age.  “Oh my, sleepovers are going to be a disaster!” I thought.  My friends would surely see me smuggling tampons into the bathroom, hear pad wrappers crinkling, and give each other vicious, gossipy looks behind the closed door.  It would be terrible.  I would be alone.  I couldn’t let them know!  I was infuriated and sad–this bloody, dirty, roller-coaster-y, sticky monthly adventure was going to ruin me.  I was unclean and out of place among my peers and in a male-dominated, menstruation-leery society.  Television, health teachers, my peers–they all told me that my periods were something to be concealed and despised.  They were an annoyance.  And they meant the end of childhood.  Even if my life wasn’t over, I knew at least that I could no longer entertain my vague hope of growing up into a man.  I was committed to my femaleness for life.  One pair of stained underwear sealed the deal.

But when I told my mom (as steam plumed out my ears) what had just begun, she did the best thing she could have done for me–and what more mothers should do when nature and womanhood bloom in their daughters.  She congratulated me. She rejoiced in my–in ALL–womanhood.  Her enthusiasm and warm acceptance were like invitations to enter that mysteriously attractive world of female power that I had thus far admired from a distance.  She made me feel excited, proud, and important.  That night, in celebration of the gift of femininity, we baked a cake and watched Mulan (my favorite movie at the time–and what a perfect example of being female but also having fun and doing what you want in a man’s world!).  I was a woman!  In the same league as Mulan!  And even as a woman, I could still watch cartoons!  The next day, we continued the celebration by getting my ears pierced.  To this day, wearing earrings makes me feel strongly feminine and capable of great things.  Capable of being a great woman.  Capable of being me.

In our culture, menstruation is taboo.  The media makes us ashamed that our bodies function naturally.  Menstruation should be avoided, it says.  When you get your period, you’ll get fat.  You’ll feel gross.  You’ll eat too much.  You’ll be tired and angry.  The more we embrace this essential, and even blessed part of being female, the more young girls can feel like their first period is an initiation into the league of great woemn–of Willa Cather, Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Eleanor Roosevelt, our Moms, and our Gramdmas–and the less shameful they will feel about the miracle of bodily function that makes, literally, the world go ’round.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    April 20, 2009 9:57 PM

    Jacque, this is a really beautiful piece. I feel a similar gratitude for my mother, who modeled a powerful womanhood that I still respect and look up to.

    I’m really excited about starting a first-period ritual for my daughter, if I have one. Your explanation of the shamefulness of menstruation is right on. I wish it weren’t like that.

  2. Lisa permalink
    April 20, 2009 11:42 PM

    I completely get where you’re coming from. I was also among the few early bloomers in my class, I got my period in 5th grade, I was taller than all the boys, and I developed breasts before just about anyone else. I was embarrassed of the little buds showing on my chest. One time, the boy who lived next door asked me what was under my shirt. When he said “they look like boooooobies!!!”, I assured him that they weren’t.

    I wish that society would accept menstruation as a natural and acceptable (hell, even enviable) process instead of vilifying it as a sort of monthly trial that must be endured by women. The taboos surrounding menstruation are just one more way that we are socialized to be ashamed of our bodies and their functions. Thanks for writing about this!

  3. Nikoleta permalink
    April 21, 2009 12:03 AM

    What a fantastic post. I really appreciate both what you say and how well you say it. And I also remember feeling like girl= bad and boy= good, and how frustrating it was. I just love this piece.

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