The schoolday I’ll never forget: ‘We were told about periods – and I wanted to disappear’
Let me take you back to south-west London circa 1988. Eddi Reader singing, “It’s got to be-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee-ee perrrrrrrr-fect” on the radio and Margaret Thatcher in No 10 for all eternity. A time when internalised misogyny is so deeply internalised that no one knows it exists. I’m nine-ish, sporting a dark-blue checked dress and a nonchalant expression – and at school we’re learning about periods.
By this point, everything I know about menstruation, nay life, probably comes from the author Judy Blume. My best friend Galia and I start writing letters to one another that begin “Are You There God? It’s Me, CHITRA!” In a few years copies of Forever will be traded in the playground with a vigour currently only applied to Garbage Pail Kids cards. It’s a difficult period (the other kind). I’m one of those children who loves being a child and – spoiler alert – will turn into an adult who, in fundamental ways, remains one. I’m deeply unhappy about the dark hair sprouting in places I don’t want to know about and the budding discs of tenderness in my chest. The word puberty makes me dissolve into giggles or pull faces. Time, as far as I’m concerned, can be rewound as easily as a pencil inserted into a C-90 cassette tape. I don’t want to grow up.
The memory of the class, which must have been taken by a health visitor, has been hollowed out by the passing of time. Also displaced by drawings from Claire Rayner’s The Body Book, which Galia was given by her mum to help her understand puberty (ick!) and which we found as illicit and titillating as if it were The Joy of Sex.
So I don’t know who breaks the news that, at some point in the near future, we will begin to bleed out of a place no one can name. Every single month. And then we can have a baby?! There is talk of blood in knickers. Sanitary towels the size of single mattresses are held up. Sample bags are handed out to the unlucky 50%. The boys titter. The white girls who can blush, do. I just want to disappear.
Afterwards my other best friend, Zan, and I walk along a zigzag path. Zan, who in just under 30 years will be pregnant at precisely the same time as me, both carrying daughters in our bellies. Right now, we feel precisely the same about this appalling situation. Periods are disgusting. We don’t want them. We will never have them. And so we open the sample bags, take out the contents one by one and solemnly shred them into a school bin. The innards of the sanitary towels are yanked out. The tampons, which – oh, sweet horror! – must apparently be inserted while standing with one leg raised on a toilet, are ripped apart. The deed is done. The future has been arrested. We trot off to our next class.
In my memory, we set the bin on fire, Wicker Man-style, which is impossible because we had neither lighter nor matches, nor Girl Guide skills. This may not be how it happened, but the image is right. I see it now for what it was. A ritual. An act of defiance in an unkind time. We were setting fire to the adolescence that was coming, and the childhood that was almost gone. And we were displaying our burning shame.