No Not the One in Sentences, Talking About a Different Kind of Period in YA Lit
I distinctly remember all my friends passing around copies of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret They would say things like, “I can’t wait to start my period,” which honestly always confused me. Did they read it right, I would wonder. Do they understand what they say is going to happen? I kept reading it again and again and again to make sure I understood what they were so excited to start. And because life is nothing if not a cruel, ironic kick in the pants, I was of course the first among all my friends to get my period. The girl who wants it least gets it first.
In the 21 years that I have been reading YA fiction in my job as a YA librarian, it turns out that the female period isn’t mentioned all that often. The girls in books don’t even often joke about it or commiserate about it to one another, as we do in real life. It often feels like it is this taboo subject, just another instance of us shaming ourselves culturally for very normal biological functions. Although current research suggests that 1 out of 4 girls now gets their period as young as the age of 9, it appears that in ya literature we have a different medical crisis happening where girls aren’t getting their periods at all. At least, that’s what the silence on the topic in ya lit might suggest.
I began thinking about this in earnest a few years ago when I read the book Lost Girls by Ann Kelly. Here, a group of girls gets stranded on an island and the author makes mention of the fact that they have become so starved for food that they have stopped menstruating. It was like the author was thinking, I know you are wondering how they are handling their period but I want you to know that I have thought of that and have written in this convenient plot device so you don’t have to wonder. But the thing is, I wasn’t wondering. I had become so used to the girls in ya not even mentioning their periods that it didn’t even really occur to me to wonder. Zombie apocalypses, bleak dystopian futures – what are these people doing about their periods?
I was amazed earlier this month when I was reading Althea & Oliver, which I have talked about some here, and Althea mentions the embarrassment of starting her period for the first time at the home of her best friend Oliver. On his couch. It’s a great scene because how many of us women can’t relate to that one time when you bled unexpectedly and all the sudden there was some tell tale evidence left behind. Oliver turns over the couch cushion and later, slightly abashed, Althea sneaks in and tries to clean the cushion up. This to me was such an authentic emotional moment.
And then I recently read All the Rage by Courtney S. Summers. The book doesn’t come out until 2015 and I’m not really going to discuss it in depth here except to tell you that it is superbly well written, emotionally eviscerating, and incredibly important. And to mention this other salient point: Here Summers writes a main character who talks often and sometimes casually about her period. There are even a couple of scenes where she makes mention that she runs in and changes her tampon before doing some other activity. Gasp – she changes her tampon! It’s a little disheartening to realize how overjoyed I was that Summers had talked so honestly about this perfectly natural part of the female experience. If you know anything about Summers as an author, you know that she is strongly committed to writing realistic fiction that powerfully captures the truth of the teenage experience. In fact, the Tweet pinned on her Twitter account at the moment reads, “you will never see adults more scared of a YA novel than when the teenagers in it are acting like actual teenagers.” So it’s not surprising and it is very welcome to read Summers character and her very authentic experiences with her period. I wish I had read more stories like this when I was teen.
It’s interesting when you think about it. It is quite normal in books with male protagonists to hear them mention waking up with the morning wood, or getting the inconvenient erection at the most inopportune times, or to mention that they stopped for a moment in their day to “rub one out.” There is no shame in boys and their bodies, they are the reigning paradigm in many ways still today. But girls and their periods? Not mentioned at all in the same ways nor as frequently based upon my casual observations in 21 years as a YA reader. But then again, this isn’t surprising, because there is so much about the female experience that is still surrounded in shame and secrets. While we readily accept talking about male bodies and the male experience, often even crudely, there is still so much shame that we project culturally onto the female body. Childbearing women, for example, are still fighting for the right to breastfeed their babies in public, something that is perfectly natural in a wide host of other cultures. But they are told they should be ashamed, in part because the female body is so overly sexualized – and beginning at such a young age – that we would rather send our mothers into the bathroom to feed their babies then give them a moment to participate in a perfectly natural childhood feeding experience.
The stigma surrounding breastfeeding is related to the stigma around menstruation in that both situations make us squeamish because they don’t fit nicely into the cultural female narrative that we have written for ourselves. And don’t forget, it makes us “crazy” and “hysterical”. We want our women to be beautiful, skinny, polite, and easy to deal with. Periods are messy and gross; as far as bodily fluids go, menstrual blood is the worst of the worst. I mean, menstruating women used to be shunned to huddle together during that week of cursedness (and remember, historically and according to many religions menstruation is a curse put upon women for the destruction that their evil ways have caused mankind) on the outskirts of their community. So while I’m not necessarily one to celebrate my period the way some feminine product commercials might suggest, I am glad that I am no longer shunned for a bodily function I have little control over.
As I read Althea & Oliver, I was reminded how important it is for us to normalize life experiences in the literature we consume. Years ago, when I read about Are You There God, Margaret was the only person I knew talking about this thing that was happening to me. Margaret prompted my friends and I to talk about it. Margaret helped us normalize this very natural and normal teenage experience that the adults around us felt to embarrassed to talk to us about. Margaret helped remove the shame. Margaret helped me know that this was really no big deal and that I was not alone. And it can help guy readers understand this part of the female experience as well, and isn’t understanding other people’s experiences part of why we create art in the first place? I’m tired of feeling like the world must protect boys from the life of girls, as if it is something so other and shameful. Girls have periods, it’s just a part of life.
I am the mother of daughters, one of whom is old enough that she recently got separated into the boy movie/girl movie day where they talk about “changes”. She came home that day and shared that they had watched a movie about starting their period. “It sounds awful,” she said. And the truth is, it IS awful. Mainly in that it is entirely inconvenient and annoying and usually always seems to show up at the exact worst time – like a first date, beach day, or prom. And although it is a very normal thing, some people can have intense pain, discomfort and very real medical issues. But I also assured her, it’s very natural and not anything to be ashamed about. So I am thankful to those authors who take a moment to mention this very natural part of the female life experience, because I don’t want my daughters to feel fear or, more importantly, shame. I want them to know that every other woman they meet along the course of this life understands sympathetically what it means when you say, “ugh, it’s that time of the month”. In fact, given current stats, it appears we ought to be mentioning periods occasionally in MG lit as well if it’s right for the story (though I don’t read it enough to state that we don’t).
And thank you Judy Blume, you helped so many of us understand what was happening to our bodies when the adults around us couldn’t. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m often to buy a copy of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for my girls.
Edited to Add Links Shared with Me Via Twitter or in the Comments:
Liz Burns – http://blogs.slj.com/teacozy/2013/01/13/its-that-time-of-the-month/
Sondra reviews Period Pieces http://www.sonderbooks.com/ChildrensFiction/periodpieces.html
Are You There YA Readers? It’s Me, Your Period http://storiesaregoodmedicine.blogspot.com/2010/11/are-you-there-ya-readers-its-me-your.html
Getting Menstrual with Judy Blume http://forbookssake.net/2012/12/07/changing-bleedin-history-getting-menstrual-with-judy-blume/
9 Books That Made Us Terrified of Puberty http://www.themarysue.com/9-books-that-made-us-terrified-of-puberty/
Menstruation & YA Lit http://anytimeyoga.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/menstruation-ya-lit/
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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