Periods, Summer Camp, & Embarrassment
In 1999, at thirteen years old, I arrived at sleepaway camp. I quickly fell in love with Camp Wa-Klo, an all-girls camp at the foot of Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.
Each day we swam, kayaked, and sailed on idyllic Lake Thorndike. In a small cabin named Dance Inn, I bunked with seven other thirteen-year-old girls. As we were about to enter eighth grade, periods were a main topic of discussion: who had gotten theirs, and who had not.
I had not. Like Margaret from Judy Blume’s famous book, I was obsessed with the arrival of my first period. My menstruating bunkmates seemed so grown up when they oh-so-casually announced the first day of their periods, making a big show of unwrapping pads and tampons. I seethed with jealousy.
I was the girl at camp who hadn’t gotten her period yet.
The menstruating girls had a certain aura about them. I saw them as more mature, more experienced, less naive. When they complained about their cramps and PMS, I felt like a child. For years I’d checked my underwear for blood each time I used the bathroom; I wanted my period so badly.
One evening, walking back from movie night, I tripped and fell on one of the camp’s unlit paths. My toe stung, but I was unable to see anything in the dark. After limping back to Dance Inn, I examined my foot in the light. To my horror, I found dried blood coating my Birkenstock, with fresh blood still dripping from my toe. Whoops!
I don’t remember if it hurt much. What I do recall is the late-night ride in the director’s golf cart. My fellow campers and I thought the golf cart was beyond cool, and I felt special riding in it. At the nurse’s office, my foot was cleaned and bandaged. I was instructed to return for daily bandage changes and given a note to excuse me from swimming.
The next day at swim class, I handed over the nurse’s note to the swim counselor, who I’ll call Louise. She read it, groaned, and rolled her eyes.
“Tampons!” Louise shouted.
My cheeks burned. What did tampons have to do with my foot?
“Girls! Use tampons so you don’t miss swim class!”
She narrowed her eyes at me before heading to the dock to teach. I was mortified on multiple levels. Louise had assumed I was not only on my period, but so embarrassed by it that I had conspired with the nurse to concoct a story about a cut foot.
A competitive swimmer since age six, I loved the water. I would never lie to get out of swimming! I really did cut my foot! I can’t remember how I occupied my time during swim class; I assume I read a book. I know my cheeks never stopped burning. I was humiliated.
I mean, yeah, I didn’t use tampons. But that was only because I had never had a period! I couldn’t decide which was worse: not being cool enough to use tampons, or not being cool enough to need tampons.
Like many embarrassing moments in life, I now find this story funny. If this happened now, I would interrupt her tampon speech by revealing my bloody toe. But this embarrassing moment sticks with me as a lesson in how we treat young girls.
Even at an all-girls camp, I didn’t feel comfortable discussing my period (or lack thereof, as it were). Even if I had been on my period, I didn’t deserve to be shamed for not using tampons. Choosing menstrual products is a deeply personal decision, and it does not merit judgment or scorn.
My experience is an example of how an offhand comment can haunt an awkward kid. As an adult, I remember my humiliation as a lesson in how not to talk to kids about periods. To thirteen-year-old me, this was a nightmare. To Louise, she was simply making what she saw as an important point about tampons.
But why should anyone be forced to use tampons? Anticipating one’s first period is often an already scary moment that tends to be full of anxiety. Let’s not make the confusing time that is puberty any worse by judging kids. I had a note from the nurse, and that should have been enough.
If you have kids in your personal or work life, I urge you to respect their boundaries around their bodies. Even if I had gotten the note because I didn’t want to use tampons, so what? Who was I hurting by not getting in the lake that day? Though tampons may seem like an obvious choice to an adult who’s been menstruating for years, that may not be the case for someone new to periods.
It saddens me to think of the shame and powerlessness I felt from Louise’s judgment. Let’s acknowledge that, for kids, periods are new and scary and disorienting. Let the kids in your life know that you can be trusted to listen to their concerns, to answer questions, and to never shame them for their periods (or however it is they choose to handle them!).
All of that aside, this story has a happy ending. 21 years later, I am still in touch with Louise. In my following years at Camp Wa-Klo, I loved to tease her about her tampon rant, gleefully telling her I hadn’t even menstruated yet.
But I’m not mad at Louise. Surrounded by so many girls and women who had already started their periods, I just felt like a fish out of water. I was simply a normal teenage girl who hadn’t reached that stage of puberty yet (and who had cut her foot).
On the second to last day of camp that summer, I got my first period. 21 years and approximately 250 periods later, I’m not sure what my hurry was.