Plenty of women's first periods are memorable, but arguably few experiences compare to a Nazi officer discovering you've entered womanhood during a strip search on a train fleeing Nazi-occupied Germany. This was how playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff's great aunt discovered her first period: The officer immediately ceased his examination and therefore failed to find the gold star hidden in her shoe. Her first period saved her life.
But she never told the story to a single soul — that is until her great niece asked her about it for an oral history school assignment.
"This was undoubtedly the greatest story in my family, and had remained a secret for decades because my great aunt felt that periods were a subject we shouldn't discuss," Kauder Nalebuff told Mic. "This got me thinking: Were there other incredible first period stories that might never get told unless someone asked?"
So Kauder Nalebuff asked more women about their experience — first just her own friends and family but her circle of contacts quickly expanded.
"Almost without fail, everybody I talked to recommended someone else that I should talk to because her story was so incredible," Kauder Nalebuff said. She ended up compiling dozens of these astonishing stories into an anthology titled My Little Red Book.
That so many women willingly and eagerly shared their "forbidden" stories, she added, proves just how much "we are hungering to hear these stories. We are hungering to tell them. The very act of sharing them is political; it's freeing."
Here are 12 such freeing stories of women's first periods.
1. Xiao Ling Ma, 1967
"During the Cultural Revolution in China, toilet paper — the kind that comes in rolls — was highly rationed. This was really discrimination against having girls. My family — with three girls — used to cope by taking the coarser brown paper towels, which were more readily available, and cut them up in strips for everyday bathroom use, so as to save the toilet paper for us when we had our period. Since I was the second oldest, I knew what to expect. But I was still anxious, because I knew the arrival of my period would put a strain on our supply of toilet paper."
2. Sarah Rosen, 2002
"When I was 12 and three months, I had my bat mitzvah. It was a whirlwind of a day — I was performing in front of all of my family and friends and being welcomed into my Jewish community as an adult. When I got home from the main event, I was exhausted, and all I wanted to do was take a nap before the party that evening. I went into my room to change and use the bathroom. It turned out that at some point during my Hebrew chanting, I had become a woman all over my underwear. Although I had been attempting to expect the unexpected, I was truly not prepared for this one. Who gets their first period on the day of their bat mitzvah? What kind of a sick joke is that? I went into my mom's room and told her, exhausted and overwhelmed, "I think I just got my period." She responded, 'mazel tov!'
"My biggest fear was that she would go down into the living room filled with my extended family and announce to them the wonderful news: Sarah became a woman twice! Thankfully she didn't, but once I became a little bit more of a woman I didn't mind sharing the story of my bloody bat mitzvah."
3. Lola Gerhard, 1939
"I was 11 years old when I first got 'the curse,' which was the slang word for the monthly period in 1939. I know, I know, it happens to every girl at some time in her youth. The difference was in my surroundings. I lived in an orphanage, which was really an institution for boys and girls whose parents couldn't take care of their children and have a job at the same time, especially during the Depression. There were 125 children housed in six buildings, a mix of boys and girls. My first period arrived at the dinner table. I hadn't a clue as to what was happening. There I was, sitting at the table, same as always, except there was something wet running down my leg. I thought at first that one of the other kids had spilled milk. Nope. That wasn't it. I looked under the table and there near my chair was a little pool of blood. What was happening? What do I do now? We were supposed to ask permission to leave the table; I just got up and ran for the bathroom. Upstairs I went, stripped off my underpants, shoes and socks all covered with blood. Where did it come from? And how come?
"Finally dinner was over and the housemother, Mrs. Riggs, came upstairs and rescued me. She took me into her apartment, helped me clean up, and handed me an oblong gauze-covered cotton form. What was I supposed to do with this big bandage? She also handed me a narrow pink elastic belt that had two metal hooks equidistant on it. Now what? She told me to expect this once a month. That was it for sex education. I was told to talk to my mother about it on her next visit. In the meantime, Mrs. Riggs wrote a note of explanation for her. But more was to come. Whenever I needed more pads, I had to go to Mrs. Riggs for them, and she would give me four or five at a time. I used more than that every month. Part of the reason for this paucity was that we had very little private storage space. But mostly it was to keep it a secret from the other girls in the cottage who weren't 'initiated' yet. Oh yes! We weren't to talk to any of the other girls about it. We had to keep it a 'big secret! Big surprise!'"
4. Flori, 1953
"I got my period late, around 15 years old. My parents never said anything to me about it, because people just don't talk about those things [in Guatemala]. But a woman would come to our house to make cheese, and I liked to talk to her and watch how she did it. She talked to me a lot, and she was the one who told me what to expect. ... We used towels to soak up the blood, because we didn't have the kinds of things you have here in America. It was very important not to eat anything 'cold' – like avocado and cream and other fresh foods because this would make you worse, since you are in a hot state when you get your period. If you eat cold things, it will make your stomach swell and hurt even more."
Editors note: Theories of hot and cold are pervasive throughout Latin America, where women try to balance hot and cold states of being with foods, herbs and medicines to which they ascribe hot and cold properties.
5. Amy H. Lee, 1992
"At 10 years old, I didn't know what it meant to have a period. The year before I started my period, in fourth grade, the girls had a day of 'sexual health education.' My parents checked the 'No, I do not consent' box on my form. My parents grew up after the Korean War, when there was certainly no such thing as sex ed. The letter from my elementary school explained the purpose of sex ed, but my parents spoke limited English and they only needed to understand one word: sex.
"The morning that my period first started, my sister handed me one of my mom's bulgy pads and showed me how to use it. I used pads every day for three weeks. I didn't know when it would come back and if I was supposed to wear it just in case. I didn't know how to take a shower. I would rush out of the shower and put on my underwear as quick as I could because I was scared that the blood would come gushing out. This was my introduction to my period: many questions and no answers."
6. Zannette Lewis, 1969
"Although my mother was a librarian by training, at the time of my first period, she was a stay-at-home mom. She gave my sister and me loads of books about menstruation, coming of age, female sexuality, and emotions years before our big day.
"She would tell us stories of how black women came of age during the Depression and earlier in Virginia. She was brought up by her grandmother, who was born and reared in an enslaved African family in Virginia. Grandma was a young girl when her family was emancipated. My mother described how black women used cloths during this early time because disposable sanitary napkins were not readily available. Women had to go through a painstaking process to take care of themselves during their monthly periods. We also heard from my mother the stories that her grandmother had told her about black women who were having their first periods in Virginia during slavery. When these girls got their first period, it meant that they were now able to breed and suckle for their masters. It also meant that the young women lost the responsibility for their own bodies, feelings and futures. Once these young women had their first period, they were often sold from their families because they had become more valuable to their owners. The girls could now be sold or hired out to other plantations for breeding or suckling duties. With the arrival of their first period, many of these young women were initially bred with their masters, members of his families, or other slaves on the plantation before they were hired out or sold to another plantation.
"My mother always made us aware that as black girls, our first period was one of the most significant events in our lives. We were now capable of becoming mothers and needed to become more responsible for our bodies, our feelings and, in many ways, our futures."
7. Bita Moghaddam, 1974
"What was extraordinary about having periods for me, which took a few months after the first period to sink in, was how much it would change my life, for good and for bad. I was angry for months, if not years, about having periods. It reminded me, it still reminds me, that I am a female in a society, in a world, that discriminates against women.
"When I was 12, I was a tomboy going to one of the few co-ed schools in Tehran. I spent school recess playing basketball or ping-pong with boys. I was better than most of them so I felt their equal. I was in denial. But the periods kept coming every month, reminding me that I would not be seen on their level. The denial had to stop. After a while, my anger was replaced with the strong sense that I simply had to work harder to be considered their equal. That was the good change. The bad change was — and is — the sheer inconvenience of bleeding for almost a week, every month."
8. Elli Foster, 2002
"I was at home. Which was fine. Except that the only person at home was my father. And my father is a blusher. He doesn't talk about anything to do with sex at all. So I had to ask him where my mom kept the pads. And he didn't know because she didn't keep pads — she kept tampons. I asked him to explain to me how tampons worked but he was so embarrassed that instead he drove me to the pharmacy and we picked up a box of pads. I had basketball practice right afterwards and we had to drive up together as he was my coach. The 45-minute ride was spent in silence. When we finally got there, I blurted out 'it's just my period, it's not that big of a deal!' And he just blushed."
9. Ilene Lainer, 1972
"Our home had burned down a few days earlier from an electrical fire. As a result, I was living in a neighbor's house with my mom while my brother and dad were living in another friend's house. I was feeling disoriented and worried because I didn't know the neighbors very well. I went to the bathroom in school and saw a brownish stain on my underwear.
"I thought I must be ill with some sort of stomach virus, but was confused because I felt just fine. I called my mother and told her what I had found. She sounded very excited, congratulated me on getting my period, and told me to wait in the bathroom because she would be there in a few minutes. When she arrived, she slapped me across the face and then hugged me. Stunned and even more confused, I asked her what I had done wrong. She began to laugh and told me that girls who get their first period are slapped and hugged to feel the pain and joy of womanhood. I decided that if I ever had a daughter, I would find a better way to mark the occasion."
10. Kica Matos, 1980
"In Latino culture, getting your period is a significant event, a time when you become a señorita. When my other two sisters got their periods, my mother announced it to the family at the dinner table with great pride. That was a bit much for me. I was 14 when mine finally arrived. It was in the morning, and I was on my way to school. I simply changed my underwear, put on a sanitary napkin and went to school. My mother found out eventually when she asked me about it. She was clearly hurt that I had not voluntarily shared this intimacy with her.
"It would be a full year before she would finally agree to buy us tampons. Preserving your virginity in the Latino culture until marriage was sacrosanct, and my mother was a great believer. Unfortunately, that also meant not being able to wear tampons until you were married, lest it tamper with your hymen. The three of us girls rebelled at the dinner table one day. We made a case by pointing out to her that most of our girlfriends at school wore tampons and that it impeded our ability to do sports (especially swimming). When my father spoke up in our support, she relented. Relief! For me, being able to wear tampons was a more momentous occasion than getting my period."
11. Emilia Arthur, 1979
"I was 13 years, tall and lanky. I had just sat for my common entrance examination to high school [in Accra, Ghana]. The results were not yet in, and the full school session was not yet out, so the teachers organized classes preparing us for high school. The boys in my class described me as arrogant and proud and said that I loved to rub shoulders with them. This was because I was always the top-ranked or second highest ranking student and that angered them. I was aware of my academic superiority over them so I also threw my weight about a little but my first period was to humble me.
"In my well-ironed purple school uniform, the class teacher had asked me to go up to the chalkboard to solve a math problem. Completely oblivious of the big dark-brown patch at the back of my dress, I walked defiantly, as usual, to go and display my mathematical acumen. I heard giggles, which grew louder, and then a thunderous laughter. I turned round and someone pointed to the back of my dress. I turned and there it was.
"I thought I was sick and dying. I rushed to the bathroom and got more horrified. That was my first time ever to know that something like that existed and was part of womanhood. Nobody had ever told me anything about it. I just burst out crying. I was scared. I wrapped a cardigan around my waist and went home crying, told my mother, and guess what? She referred me to my big sister, who did not explain what was going on but gave me a huge pad. She did tell me, though, that I should expect that experience every month. She also did warn me that now that I had had my period, a sexual relationship would make me pregnant!
"And guess what? The boys in my class and the girls who had not experienced it yet taunted me so badly the days following after that. Bottom line? I was a bad girl to have blood ooze out of my private parts!"
12. Katherine Switzer, 1959
"I was 12 when I started running. I was the youngest in my class, and so while I was still playing with dolls; girls around me were already getting their period. I did not get mine till I was 14, and at that point I was desperate for it to happen. I was doing breast enhancement exercises in front of the mirror, and buying Kotexes. I had heard that if you gained weight that might accelerate the onset of a period. So to boost my caloric intake, I started eating peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate before going to bed, and I gained about 15 pounds. When my period came, I remember being so happy. I always loved having my period. It reminded me how life is a cycle, and how I was a creature of nature. I felt powerful because of it."