By the time I was 11, I wanted to be a teenager. I wanted it fiercely. I felt too big for my pre-adolescent body, and I longed for some kind of starting gun to wake my physical self out of this strange holding space of inactivity. I wanted to feel grown up, and in my head I saw getting my period as the solution to all my discomfort and uncertainty.
All my friends and I talked about on the playground and in the changing room was what was about to happen to our bodies: puberty.
But while we were debating the virtues of underwired bras and speaking of tampons in hushed but unhesitant voices, it didn’t seem like the adults in our lives enjoyed the same openness. In school, we girls were ushered out of the classroom to talk to the school nurse about “the changes in our bodies” as though it were a state secret. The boys, left behind, were pretty bemused (and curious) for the rest of the day. It seemed less like “the chat” was being kept quiet so as not to embarrass us, but in an attempt to not embarrass the general world.
I didn’t know what had happened, but suddenly the things I wanted most – to have a period, to slip out of a training bra and into a real one, to, in my eyes, stop being a kid – became an indiscretion. The adults around us made us feel that the more modest we were at hiding puberty the more we were worth. When the female teachers talked to us about being “mindful” of crossing our legs so nobody could see up our skirts when we sat in assembly, when we were bombarded with leaflets spouting cold, clinical fact – words like “menstruation,” “discharge,” “Toxic Shock Syndrome” – it began to feel like being a girl was being the well-meaning but indisputable enemy. We all surreptitiously discovered a new-found talent: we were very gifted at surgically opening pads in the toilet cubicles as quietly as possible, but not at explaining why we felt we had to.
When I finally did get my first period, I lamented it. I was terrified of tampons, and I’d beg my mum to get me out of any social engagement involving swimming. Only a few months earlier, I would have asked my friends to explain how to use them, to promise me the things wouldn’t hurt, but the mood had changed. We were all subdued. The weirdest realization had hit us: we were growing into young women and wanted to talk about everything, but for some reason we couldn’t quite get to the place where that was okay. It seemed essential to our acceptance that we keep our emerging womanhood private.
The sense of joyous wonder about puberty soon gave way to the realities of my body image. By the time I turned 12, I was obsessed with diet and my periods ceased as I battled an eating disorder for almost two years. My last period before my illness had been something shrouded and shameful. Once it had returned I was ecstatic. By that time I was in high school; the discomfort I felt with my out of control body hadn’t vanished. It had been transfigured. My conversations with friends had made it through the awkward space and nothing about our physical selves was deceitful anymore. There were absolute truths, and ours was that we felt more at ease when we weren’t blushing every time a sanitary towel fell out of our bag.
Nowadays, I don’t know anybody who coughs to cover up the sound of a rustling tampon in the toilets.