Interview: New Haven Register (Mar. 29, 2010)
Period Piece: Yalie's book on menstruation adds new stories in 2nd edition
By Sandi Kahn Shelton, Register Staff
When Rachel Kauder Nalebuff was 12, something rather ordinary happened to her which ended up changing her life.
She had her first period. This event happens to approximately half the population, of course, but Nalebuff, who is now a freshman at Yale, took this experience and transformed it into something much larger than her own simple story of embarrassment, bewilderment and waterskiing in a yellow bathing suit with only her widowed grandfather and a wad of paper towels around to come to her aid.
Nalebuff became fascinated with the way we in our culture talk about—or rather don’t talk about—periods. And she started collecting first-period stories from family members and friends, asking women everywhere to tell her their tales of attaining womanhood, whether these were stories of confusion and awkwardness, of fear of dying, or of celebration and rejoicing.
One of the first stories she heard was from her great aunt, who had experienced her first period while on the train fleeing Poland into France. She had been taken from the train by Nazi soldiers and stripped along with the rest of the women, but just before she was to be examined, she noticed blood running down her leg. She was spared from the brutality of the exam because—well, the Nazi officer was disgusted.
“My great aunt had never told anyone this story,” says Nalebuff. “No one in my family ever knew. My reaction was: Why didn’t I know this story? How come no one in my family even knew this story?”
Nalebuff decided that there were probably millions of these stories that had never been told, and that for the sake of posterity, she herself would have to “commit social suicide” and start collecting them. She asked her friends and her teachers, got contacts from her mother (Helen Kauder, an arts activist and former executive director of Artspace in New Haven) and from English professors. She attended a master’s tea at Yale to meet an author she loved. She visited authors’ Web sites. And bit by bit, she managed to coax stories from both the famous and the not-so-famous, the young and the old, from women of lots of different cultures, and women who never would have dreamed of speaking about these private matters but who willingly and bravely joined in.
This collection of stories became her senior project at Choate, where she became known as “period girl,” she says with a laugh, because of a speech she gave before an assembly of students and teachers, telling what it was like to be a young woman having periods. To her surprise, the students—even the guys—were respectful about the topic, laughing at the funny parts and listening closely to the traumatic ones.
“When I first started to talk, I heard moans and groans from the jocks at the assembly,” she says, “but by the end, everyone was laughing. One of the jocks came up to me and said, ‘Damn, Rachel, that took balls!’ and his friend said, ‘No, man, that took ovaries!’”
Nalebuff took the collection, created a book proposal, submitted it, and last year “My Little Red Book,” ($14.99) was published by Twelve Publishers, a small but elite publishing house that specializes in books with a different perspective. Since their founding in August 2005, Twelve has published just 30 books, and 15 of those (including Nalebuff’s) have become New York Times bestsellers.
A second edition of the book, offering many new stories in addition to the originals, will be issued on April 12, and will include an essay by author Judy Blume, whose young adult novels were often mentioned in the stories Nalebuff collected, as the main dispenser of information about what it’s really like to menstruate.
“A whole generation of girls has gotten most of their education about periods from Judy Blume,” says Nalebuff. “I got most of mine there myself. It’s amazing to me to have her write an essay for the new edition.”
Other famous people included in the book are: Jennifer Baumgardner, Meg Cabot, Erica Jong, Maxine Kumin, Patty Marx, Joyce Maynard, Megan McCafferty, Tamora Pearce and Cecily von Ziegesar. Gloria Steinem contributed a very funny update to her essay, “If Men Could Menstruate,” in which she claims that if guys had periods, menstruation would become an “enviable, boast-worthy, masculine event.” There would be rituals and stag parties to mark the onset of “men-struation” and women would be pitied for not being able to participate in this life-giving ritual.
Nalebuff, who was raised in New Haven, doesn’t just see herself as “period girl” anymore now that she’s a student at Yale. She has other interests, including cooking, traveling, playing the ukulele and doing creative writing.
But still, she is interested in seeing the way the culture is changing when it comes to being more comfortable with talking about taboo subjects. “Things are definitely changing,” she says. “I get tons of e-mails from girls and women, so I can see the change happening.”
She has a Web site, www.mylittleredbook.net, where women are invited to submit their first period stories for sharing. And on there is a video of two guys talking—acting as though they are the ones who have periods, reflecting on their own first-period stories.
“It’s funny,” Nalebuff says. “You see the warped way that we can all have a sense of humor about periods. It’s changing, but there is still so much room for us to improve and be more open.”
To read this article (and watch the related video) on the New Haven Register website, click here.
Interview: The Faith Middleton Show on WNPR (Apr. 13, 2009)
Listen (mp3) to Faith Middleton's interview with MLRB editor Rachel Kauder Nalebuff as heard on WNPR.
Review: New York Times (Feb. 24, 2009)
In the Open at Last, a Secret All Women Share
By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D.
My Little Red Book
Edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Twelve, publisher. 225 pages. $14.99
Seldom can a book stretch to accommodate both its author’s and its publisher’s fondest hopes: that it be original yet universal, artistic yet practical, and likely to sell briskly for centuries to come.
To understand why Rachel Kauder Nalebuff’s “My Little Red Book” manages all of the above, you need only muse for a moment on the fact that your local Victoria’s Secret, that high temple of undress, has private dressing rooms. Or that “Hair” on Broadway features full frontal nudity on stage and the usual segregated men’s and ladies’ rooms at intermission. Or that sex education still routinely proceeds in single-sex classes.
In other words, for all our public exploration of everyone else’s bodies, our own personal specimens remain quite private. So when it comes to the onset of menstruation, it is the rare girl who will launch an enthusiastic dialogue with family or friends on the subject. Far more typical is she who enters the feminine-products aisle alone (and returns there alone for the duration).
To 18-year-old Rachel Nalebuff, this particular privacy made no sense. Reasoning that every lonely soul wandering through Walgreens has a story to tell, she was inspired to assemble a collection of 92 short reflections by women on the subject of their first period.
At this point, male readers may want to go outside and toss a ball around for a while. No matter how sympathetic, how curious or how deeply interested in life’s little yuck factors you are, this collection is unlikely to hold more than the mildest intellectual appeal for you. But it is hard to imagine any woman, from the most straitlaced and body-denying to the most uninhibited and body-embracing, who will not read right through it with pure enjoyment, small flashes of recognition and the urge to buy it for every female preteen in sight.
Contributors range in age from teenagers to the very old, and they come from all over the world. Either Ms. Nalebuff or her editors had the good sense to prohibit all of them, especially the well-known writers, from droning on. Most pieces are a few crisp paragraphs that manage to avoid both the chirpy “You are a woman now” song of the Tampax box and the lugubrious musings on blood, moons and fertility of the feminist academic.
Ms. Nalebuff’s Great Aunt Nina, for instance, got her first period on a train out of Poland at the onset of World War II, while being strip-searched by guards at the German border. Her first napkin was a railroad-issue toilet paper roll, and her first intimation of a better life ahead was her mother’s hissed promise that sanitary products in France, where they were headed, were far better than Polish versions.
Sixty years later, Ms. Nalebuff herself spent a horrific afternoon waterskiing in a stained yellow bathing suit stuffed with paper towels, in the company of her tongue-tied grandfather. Her younger sister Zoe, on her day, simply text-messaged her best friend a big red dot and a sigh: “Only 40 more years.”
The author Patricia Marx was furious at her first period, having decided by age 15 that she was going to be lucky enough to skip the whole thing. Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the “Gossip Girl” series, was one of untold thousands to be flummoxed by a box of applicator-free O.B. tampons. The runner Kathrine Switzer had to prime the pump with calories: only after she gained 15 pounds with peanut butter and chocolate milk did she begin to menstruate.
Even Gloria Steinem makes an appearance, with a reprint of her hoary 1978 classic, “If Men Could Menstruate.” (“Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea to help stamp out monthly discomforts. Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free.”)
Like other menstruating women in Bangalore, India, in 1962, Shobha Sharma was banished from the family home to an isolated room in the back garden. In New York in 1942, Thelma Kandel was forbidden to water the houseplants (scientists once claimed that menstruating women secreted potent plant-killing “menotoxins”). More than one immigrant mother slapped her daughter across the face, for reasons none of them can quite remember.
Ms. Nalebuff, who will enter Yale this fall, has established a Web site for readers to contribute stories, but one suspects that a giant menstruation chat group will be just a little too much. The discipline of hard covers here is perfect for letting the reader sense themes without being bludgeoned by them.
Two surface over and over. First is the remarkably durable adolescent conviction that no matter who you are, where and when you were born, you are freakishly abnormal — too young, too old; your flow too thick, too scanty, too brown. The writer Joyce Maynard sums it up: “Before I started being ashamed of getting my period I was ashamed of not getting my period.”
More intriguing is that even among the carefully prepared adolescents of the late 20th century, one contributor after another writes of her utter conviction that the stain on her underwear meant that she was dying.
The book’s great beauty is that these themes are left unexplored. No one draws a moral (see, everyone thinks she’s different!), or offers up the poet’s lament that all life’s landmarks spell a step to death. The reader is left alone to absorb it all in privacy.
To read this article on the New York Times website, click here.
Review: New York Times Book Review (Mar. 15, 2009)
There Will Be Blood
By ALEXANDRA JACOBS
The news that someone has published a bunch of women’s memories of their first menstrual period is bound to provoke snickers, if not sneers. Ever since the success of “The Bitch in the House,” a 2002 anthology of personal musings by frustrated upper-middle-class wives, editors have enthusiastically hacked the layer cake of modern female experience into narrower and narrower slices. Have you fretted about money? Suffered through a painful break-up? Had a close gay male pal? There’s an anthology for you, sister girlfriend.
But . . . periods? Really? What’s next, a collection of ruminative essays about bowel movements?
Yet there’s much that is distinctive about “My Little Red Book,” named in touching homage to Chairman Mao’s revolutionary manifesto. For one, it wasn’t compiled by a professional, but by one Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, a soon-to-be Yale undergraduate and avid unicyclist who has been amassing anecdotes about other ladies’ “Aunt Flo” — now there’s an icebreaker for the freshman mixer! — since she welcomed her own at age 12, stuffing paper towels into her bathing suit during a waterskiing expedition with her grandparents in Florida.
Though it includes contributions from Erica Jong, author of the ovular sexual-liberation novel “Fear of Flying” (she was on the ocean liner Île de France when she got her period), and Cecily von Ziegesar, creator of the popular Gossip Girl series of young adult novels (she was, incongruously, wearing overalls and walking goats), the bulk of the material is from obscure sources, and cloaked in fewer pseudonyms than one might expect. Young Ms. Nalebuff deserves points for striving for socioeconomic diversity in a genre too often devoted to the concerns of 30-something white magazine writers in Park Slope. There are reminiscences from grandmothers and instant-messaging teenagers; from women in Turkey and Ghana and India; from entrepreneurs and poets — including one whose daughter’s menses inspires her to exult: “Tonight you delight me like a lover / so that my thigh muscles twitch.”
Indeed, “My Little Red Book” is as much a referendum on mothering styles as a mass chronicle of menstruation, whose details, frankly, grow mundane upon repetition: the widening surprise splotch, the cramps, the sense of life’s great unfairness. Customarily told the news first, some moms laugh, others cry, others distribute supplies without visible emotion. They humiliate (by telling everyone in sight); or intimidate (issuing dire warnings about teen pregnancy); or celebrate, with florid gifts and arcane ritual.
What they don’t do enough of, it seems, is instruct. In advance of the big event would be nice. A startling number of storytellers gathered herein believed, decades after Francie Nolan in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” that the rite of passage signified by the blood exiting their bodies was death (one contributor, heartbreakingly, burned her stained underwear in an effort to spare her loved ones the bad tidings). Or that, as virgins, they could not use tampons.
Into the void left by absent-minded mothers beam advertisers, health-ed teachers and Judy Blume, a kind of Glinda the Good Witch of American adolescence. The protagonist of her young-adult classic “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” walks around in perpetual anticipation of her first menses outfitted with sanitary napkins — “a bit like those doomsday prophets who wear the sandwich boards,” dryly remarks one former fan quoted here.
A more surprising heroine materializes in the form of Jacquelyn Mitchard, best known as the author of Oprah’s maiden book-club pick, “The Deep End of the Ocean,” and mother of seven, who tells her daughter Francie, a sixth-grader: “This means that your body is getting ready to be a woman, not that you are a woman. When you are a woman is up to you.”
Alexandra Jacobs is an editor at The New York Observer.
Read this article on the New York Times website.
Listen (mp3) to the March 13 Book Review Podcast.
Review: Salon (Feb. 5, 2009)
The great girl gross-out: Female writers are getting more graphic than ever about the messy realities of their bodies. Is it too much information, or enlightened honesty?
By Rebecca Traister
Feb. 05, 2009
"What would happen if one woman told the truth about herself?" is the familiar question posed by American poet Muriel Rukeyser. Her response, in verse, is: "The world would split open."
Or maybe it would get 50,000 hits on the Internet, which is what happened last year when former Jezebel blogger Moe Tkacik wrote about the time she accidentally left a tampon in for 10 days. She described how, on the advice of her editor, she squatted on the floor and started rooting around for the source of the acrid discharge that had been plaguing her for days of sex and drugs and drunkenness. "It was far. I had never reached that far. It was gross-far, nearing the anus zone far."
There were certainly some grumblers in Jezebel's comments section, including one who wrote with anatomical exuberance that Tkacik's odyssey was so disgusting, "My vadge recoiled so hard that I could basically feel it slam into my duodenum." But there were many, many others, expressing sentiments like, "Moe I feel your pain. I was 16 and it was summertime ..." And "Um. This happened to me once. I never told anyone. But one day, after having sex, it just kind of slid out. I'd been wondering what that very strange odour was coming from my yoohoo ... I was very happy to read that I am not the only one this has happened to." One respondent offered, "Midway through, I almost threw up. And yet, kept on reading. At the end, I laughed my ass off. It def. sometimes sucks to be a chick, but at least we can all laugh about the nasty shit together."
Laughing about all the nasty shit -- or crying about it, kibitzing about it, whining about it, bragging about it, confessing it, writing about it, and most important, exposing it -- it's all the rage. Jezebel, the popular women's offshoot of the Gawker empire, has been the leader of the oversharing crusade, with vibrant, aromatic and really graphic posts about everything from lodged tampons to yeast infection remedies to bloody period sex to female ejaculation. (The last, in Tracie Egan's piece, "Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Gush," also includes Egan's report that "I live my life perpetually suffering between either mild dehydration or a UTI, meaning that my piss is (ab)normally cloudy, stinky, and dark" ).
But Jezebel writers are not the only ones reveling in graphic female self-revelation. Other recent, mainstream expressions of the form have included Elle magazine's brutal piece last summer by Miranda Purves, called "The Ring of Fire," about how giving birth to her child tore her vagina asunder. An English translation of Charlotte Roche's German bestseller "Wetlands" ("It is difficult to overstate the raunchiness of the novel," read a story in the New York Times about "Wetlands," "and hard to describe in a family newspaper") is due in April. It opens with the sentence, "As far back as I can remember, I have had hemorrhoids." And this month, a younger iteration of the lay-it-bare form: the publication of "My Little Red Book," an anthology of more than 90 women's stories of the first time they got their period. It includes contributions from well-known authors Jacquelyn Mitchard and Erica Jong and writers of popular tween novels Cecily von Ziegesar and Meg Cabot, as well as ruby red reminiscences from 1916 to 2007, by women who first began to bleed everywhere from Connecticut to Canada, Paris to New Zealand, India to Istanbul. Unsurprisingly, there's an accompanying Web site where others can contribute their stories.
"Every woman remembers her first period," the book, edited by 18-year-old menarche enthusiast Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, begins. "Yet ... almost no one talks about it ... Why? Because first periods are an awkward subject." Nalebuff calls the collection -- with its 240 pages of stained skirts and clogged toilets and crimson puddles left on classroom chairs -- "an effort to help us embrace and therefore end the awkwardness."
Oversharing is in. And for a lot of people who are doing the sharing, or experiencing it, it's not so much "too much information" as it is the next, necessary step in personal-is-political, enlightened honesty about the female body. It's a tack that has been taken in the past, by second-wavers who threw parties at which women were encouraged to take a gander at their cooters with hand mirrors, and by Riot Grrrls, whose zines and music teemed with expressions of female body anxiety. But all that communal celebration or shouted fervor for the female body and its effluvia was always a little too marginal, too embarrassing, reeking of moon-tides and red tents and creaky second-wave earnestness.
Today's version of these revelations can also be celebratory (see "My Little Red Book"), self-punishing (Tkacik and her tampon) and angry (the "Ring of Fire" essay). But it is also often funny and conversational, casual and exhibitionistic. Here are frank, explicit physical descriptions in glossy women's magazines, on a blog that also covers celebrity fashion, from teenagers who are allowing their period stories to be published in a book that everyone might read!
We have edged away from a time when talking openly about the female body was necessarily a brave political statement and into one in which it can be self-promotional, potty-mouthed and kind of sweet. It is the merging of a decades-old, well-intentioned but often embarrassing feminist health project with a liberated Internet age in which people have few qualms about airing their very dirty laundry to as wide an audience as possible, and in which women have immediate access to the experiences of their peers and elders, no matter what intimate abysses, emissions or embarrassments those stories entail.
This new graphic femininity creates a space in which women can tell their own funny or scary stories and provide tips, advice or cautionary tales for others who might harbor silent curiosities about their bodies and what can go wrong (and right) with them. This is certainly the case with "My Little Red Book." Readers who for several generations have turned anxiously to Judy Blume's "Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret?" for everything they need to know about "becoming a woman," will now have 90 more stories with which to compare their own fears, yearnings and embarrassing relatives. It's a mini, purely anecdotal "Our Bodies, Ourselves," but for a genuinely Internet-friendly age: the first-period story from Nalebuff's little sister comes in the form of an IM conversation. Think: "OMG did yu get ure period????"
In the same category is a recent post by Jezebel's Sadie Stein about her attempt to cure a yeast infection the homeopathic way by leaving garlic tucked into her vaginal canal overnight. (It stung, and it didn't work.) "I am a big believer in women not being ashamed about the intricacies of how their bodies work," said Jezebel editor Anna Holmes. "Particularly their reproductive systems. Yeah, it can be 'gross,' but I don't find it gross. Personally, I find it fascinating, and there's something cathartic about it."
What's cathartic is getting over the silence that is often imposed on some of women's ... moister qualities. Ladies have long complained about the wall of silence that has surrounded certain aspects of their anatomy -- a silence that persists even in an age in which Sarah Silverman can do comedy routines about licking assholes, and women can write blogs about how much sex they have.
"My Little Red Book" is studded with stories, both modern and several generations old, of women who believed themselves to be dying when they began to bleed, of girls who, even when they told their mothers or sisters or teachers or friends what was happening, were met with silence.
A similar information chasm swallowed pregnant Miranda Purves, leaving her confused, self-hating and ultimately abstinent for nearly a year after giving birth. Upon reading in "What to Expect When You're Expecting" (the ultimate compendium of maternal paranoia) that women who had given birth vaginally might find that sex will change thanks to the stretching (and tearing) of their vaginas, Purves realized that "No one, not a single one of my friends who had already given birth, not my mother, not a doctor, not another book, no one had told me that there would be a permanent 'slight increase in roominess.'" And so, perhaps as a public service, or perhaps just to get it off her chest, Purves described in Elle how she made the final push through the so-called ring of fire. "I ripped like old sheets, and the (my) baby's head burst free," she wrote, going on to describe the unsatisfactory healing of her granulated vaginal skin, her lack of sensation when her husband attempted to stick a finger inside as foreplay, and how, when she finally braved a look at herself in the shower, "what had once been smooth and pale pink was a weird tortured purple. It conjured jellyfish, dead and torn."
Purves' tale is not a funny one. It may also not be a typical one, every woman's experience of childbirth being different. But many of the new confessionalists believe that confiding nightmare scenarios can be as helpful as sharing mundane but historically murky ones.
Recalling an episode of "The Tyra Banks Show" featuring a woman with a condition that made her body odor (especially her vaginal odor) smell like fish, Jezebel editor Holmes said, "This is one of all women's greatest fears: What if someone can smell my B.O.?" To hear from someone who has experienced it, or who has had their vagina ripped apart, or who has lost a tampon, or who had bled buckets during math class, provides some sort of comfort -- perhaps because someone else has worse things going on than we do, perhaps because it reminds us that people can live out our worst physical terrors and come out the other side. Maybe it's just that we want to believe that if we do live out our worst nightmares, we could survive to tell the tale ourselves.
"If somebody goes out there and humiliates themselves and says 'This is what happened to me,'" said Tkacik, "then other people can talk about it happening to them."
So it was with her tampon post, if the comments in response are to be believed. Tkacik also said that one of her "most posh and cultured and beautiful and always together friends" admitted to her that she too had lost a tampon, for even longer than 10 days, and that she'd had to go to the hospital to have it extracted and that "it was lime green when it came out." To have this "beautiful, dazzling" person admit that "yeah, guess what, I get a period too and sometimes you fuck up," was very comforting, Tkacik explained.
It's a cycle of hearing then sharing that produces conversation familiar to anyone who spends time online. While it would seem that Egan's sexually graphic blog, One D at a Time, would be a place for readers to almost exclusively goggle at its author's escapades, or at the very least try to trump them, her commenters' responses to unappealing confessions like "What's weird is that my crotch smells exactly like balls right now" or "I have poop issues on a daily basis" is far from revulsion. Instead, readers expressed sympathy, empathy, gratitude! Yes, their crotches smell like balls! Yes, they have poop issues! And yes, they are relieved that there is a context in which they are not just allowed, but actively encouraged to gab about it!
Nalebuff, who is taking a gap year before beginning at Yale, and who is donating royalties from "My Little Red Book" to women's health and education charities, began her period story excavation with the older members of her family. "You see how surprisingly brave women who are now old and decrepit and seem like they were never your age can be," she said. "You realize that they lived through the same thing you did." Asking them to tell the story of their menarche, she suggested, returns them to their pubescent mind-sets, but because many of them had never told the story before, "it's not some theatrical monologue they've done before. It forces them to think back on it and feel those emotions for the first or second time."
Most of Nalebuff's subjects warmed up to the idea of sharing their stories after a little cajoling. The only exception was when she saw the actress Glenn Close on the street, and in a red-blooded fever, ran up to her, introduced herself, and with almost no preamble, asked her for her first period story. "She looked as if she'd just eaten something really disgusting," said Nalebuff. Close coolly proclaimed, according to Nalebuff, that she had no interest in sharing her first period story.
But others, like Nalebuff's great aunt Nina Bassman, told tales that they had never mentioned before. Bassman's first period came in 1942, as she was crossing the German border out of Poland, her yellow star hidden in her shoe. When the SS boarded the train to perform a strip search, the dramatic arrival of Bassman's first period halted them.
"The thing that's remarkable is that she never told anyone," Nalebuff said of her aunt's tale. "Her first thought was that no one would want to hear that story."
It's an attitude that lingers, even among "My Little Red Book" contributors. "I agreed to be in it hoping that I would get a royalty every time someone gets their period," said writer Patty Marx, who takes a more traditional view on personal self-exposure, worrying that to confess vulnerabilities -- from getting a period, to being tired or sick -- is to admit weakness. In the anthology, she describes her fury at having her period come at age 16. "I think you're supposed to be happy," her mother tells her at the time. "Well, I'm not," responds Marx.
And then there are the very young women, the ones who haven't yet grown into themselves, who don't yet live completely on the Internet, or know Sarah Silverman, or have the vocabularies to feel OK about the discomfiting stuff happening to their bodies. "Some of the girls who were really young felt awkward about it and that's understandable and to be expected," said Nalebuff. "I knew there was this problem. Ten years from now, if there's a second edition, I hope that will be different."
The way Tkacik sees it, it would benefit lots of young women to learn early that the expectations that they be delicate flowers of womanhood will at some point be shattered by a leak or tear or smell or stain. "Women's bodies emit so many gross fluids, that I think it's sort of funny that we're expected to be the cleaner, more groomed, less crass sex," said Tkacik. "Because our everyday experiences involve a lot of vile things happening to our own bodies."
Whether or not you view female excretions as vile, or whether, like Nalebuff, you view menstruation as "cleansing impurities out of your body," there is no question that many women find the process of self-revelation, as Holmes said, cathartic. It's about breaking certain silences, yes. It's about letting loose with long pent-up questions and anecdotes and curiosities and fears. It's about laughing about things that might otherwise make you wail with shame or pain or fear.
And at the same time, it can be about getting attention, performing, flaunting and acting out your own vulnerabilities, getting noticed for your willingness to debase yourself or win a gross-out contest that once could have only been dominated by boys. It can be painfully self-punishing to read and self-objectifying to write. It can be liberating, and poignant, and it can also be irritating and crass. All at the same time!
As Tkacik pointed out to me, that story about the forgotten tampon wasn't just about a nasty feminine product, but also about her own perception that her body was telling her, unpleasantly, that she was living the life of a steely and debauched teenager, while inside, "there's this clock that wants you to have had children by now and wants you to have defecated all over the hospital bed in the process and wants you to have found somebody who will accompany you through this odyssey of grossness." Tkacik paused, and wondered aloud whether many readers caught that lonely subtext. "You write gross things for page views too," she said.
— By Rebecca Traister
To view this article on the Salon website, click here.
Review: Jezebel (Feb. 3, 2009)
Aunt Flo Visiting? My Little Red Book Demystifies Periods
By Anna N., 12:30 PM on Tue Feb 3 2009
When I got my first period, I was convinced I was dying. According to My Little Red Book, a compilation of first-person, first-period essays, this is actually pretty common!
Six of the contributors to My Little Red Book*, edited by eighteen-year-old Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, were convinced that the streaming of blood from their vajayjays heralded certain death — which makes me feel a little less neurotic. Making me feel more neurotic are several stories of intrepid girls who managed to stuff tampons up themselves right away, whereas I spent an entire day crying and yelling, "I can't do it! They look like missiles!"
Perhaps the best story in the book is Ellen Devine's "Hot Dog on a String." Devine writes:
Between moisturizing her legs and blow-drying her hair, my mother paused, placed her right foot upon the toilet seat, reached between her legs and removed a hot dog on a string. [...] It was not the possibility that my mother might occasionally store foodstuffs in her lady parts that shook me. Hot dogs were ubiquitous in my childhood. As far as I could tell they were used for everything from meaty filler in macaroni and cheese to 3-D eyes and noses on the paper snowmen we made during craft time at daycare. It was entirely conceivable that they might also be capable of serving some function in a vagina, though I had little sense of what functions a hot dog or a vagina might have. Similarly, the concept of placing foreign objects into one's orifices was not unfamiliar, as I had a friend who delighted in sticking marbles in his nose. The source of my pprehension and the reason I felt so shaken, was that my mother had inadvertently revealed that there was something I did not know about her.
Even if you do have a rough idea of the functions of hot dogs and vaginas, periods can be mysterious. Which is one reason why some girls dread their periods, some girls crave them, some girls think they're not normal until they get their periods, and some fear they're abnormal when they do get them. My Little Red Book takes a little of that mystery away, replacing it with humor and information — not just about tampons, but also about how girls in Kenya, New Zealand, Brooklyn, and Oklahoma reacted to their first visit from Aunt Flo. The book would make a good addition to a first-period kit — if I'd had it when I was fourteen-and-a-half, I would have felt like way less of a weirdo.
* Yes, the Mao reference is intentional.
To read this article on the Jezebel website, click here.
Review: Booklist (Jan. 1, 2009)
My Little Red Book.
Kauder Nalebuff, Rachel (Author)
Feb 2009. 217 p. Twelve, paperback, $14.99. (9780446546362).
Borrowing her title from Mao Tse-tung’s classic, 18-year-old Kauder Nalebuff presents her own, very different manifesto: an anthology that she hopes will help bring menstruation “into the arena of acceptable discourse.” Ranging in age from teens to seniors, the international contributors speak about their first periods in entries that lead into broader questions of family life, social structure, gender politics, and self image. Western readers will find the global perspectives eye-opening. A Kenyan teen says that in her country, “girls don’t go to school when you have your period because pads are so expensive.” The authors’ candor and accessibility and the extensive appended resource sections make this an obvious choice for teens, while parents dreaming of nurturing, celebratory discussions will be reminded to respect their daughters’ responses, even if, as reported in one essay, the response is: “Promise you won’t tell Dad, and, geez, no Rite of Passage party, ok?” A rich, welcome collection for readers of various ages and, perhaps surprisingly, more than one gender.
My Little Red Book Edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Hachette/Twelve, $14.99 (217p) ISBN 978-0-446-54636-2
These brief, engaging and oh-so-revealing anecdotes (90 in all) about first-time periods are written by a vast array of authors, professionals and youth. Edited by a freshman at Yale with a global mission (the “Do More” section at the back lists women's health and reproductive-rights charities), and modeled wittily on Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, these short essays tenderly cover the gamut of grief and embarrassment, joy and disappointment that accompanies the onslaught of menses, written by women from ages 15 to 101. Mostly, these authors concur that Mom didn't tell us much; we didn't expect the big moment even if we had been prompted by reading Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; and suddenly “becoming a woman” proved rather more irritating than momentous. These accounts are touching and brave—“The Curse, 1939,” in which Lola Gerhard writes of starting to bleed cluelessly in the orphanage where she lived and being simply handed a “big bandage” and a belt (“That was it for sex education”); enduring the Old World ritual of being slapped by one's mother or ostracized, as one Indian author writes in “Locked in a Room with Dosai, 1962”; a more enthusiastic reaction by feminist mothers. Gloria Steinem's reprinted “If Men Could Menstruate” (1978) acts as a fulcrum, while others determined to break the silence rage, reminisce and resolve to banish the shame for their own daughters. (Feb.)
Op-Ed: Huffington Post (Mar. 8, 2009)
When a Period Ends More than A Sentence
by Elizabeth Scharpf and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff
Thatcher Mweu is a high school sophomore at Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious New England boarding school. Two years ago, she was living in a rural Kenyan village. Introducing the new class of 2011, Choate's headmaster told the school of its deepening diversity—there was a girl who had never been in an elevator before. What he didn't know is that Thatcher had never seen a tampon before, either.
Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, most people overlook the serious repercussions of a lack of affordable sanitary supplies in developing countries. The reason? Most people don't know that it is a problem. Others find the subject embarrassing. Even those who do understand think there are more pressing problems at hand. Why spend money on pads when AIDS remains to be solved, when countries desperately need infrastructure, when the economy is collapsing? Because it turns out that providing pads does much more than prevent embarrassing stains. It is a simple solution that can change the standing of a gender, and thus an economy, across a continent.
In the US, sanitary pads first became widespread in 1921, tampons in 1936. As a result girls and women had the opportunity to fully participate in school, sports, and the workforce. These products equaled freedom. And this is why many women say tampons are one of the greatest inventions of all time. They effectively reduced the inconvenience, opportunity cost, and stigma of menstruation.
But in developing countries, periods continue to be a serious handicap. According to UNICEF, ten percent of school-age African girls miss school because of a lack of access to affordable sanitary products. In Rwanda, it's much worse. According to on-the-ground research by Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), half the girls are missing school due to menstruation and the main reason given is that sanitary pads are too expensive. For women, 24% miss work—up to 45 days per year—for the same reason. This not only limits girls' educational and women's professional achievement, but leads to a significant economic loss for nations. SHE estimates that a lack of affordable sanitary pads reduces GDP by $115 million per year in Rwanda alone.
There are also serious health repercussions of not having pads. In Asia, many women still use rags; less fortunate ones use newspapers, banana leaves, even sand or ash. While rags were common before the pad was invented, the problem in developing countries is that often women don't have access to clean water to wash them. And the taboo of menstruation means that many women cannot hang their rags to dry in the open. So, instead, they hide them in dark, damp places where no one will find them. As one might imagine, infections are rampant.
The first step is to destigmatize menstruation. Bringing periods into the open won't be easy. The taboo of menstruation is embedded in our religions, culture, and history. The Quran declares that menstruating women "are a hurt and a pollution." Indian women are exiled from their own homes. Orthodox Jewish women are forbidden to have sex. French housewives can't make mayonnaise. In ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that contact with menstrual blood "turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, grafts die, ..., the edge of steel and the gleam of ivory are dulled." Today, Pliny seems ridiculous, but discrimination and ignorance remain.
To change attitudes means breaking the silence. Our hope is that this article will help start a dialogue with the women and men around you. Almost every woman remembers her first period--where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, and even what she was wearing. Girls should know the stories of the women in their family. Sharing these stories will help mothers and daughters (and dads, too) talk more openly about this natural process.
Equally important is to change the economy of menstruation. Sanitary pads should be affordable and safe. This is an investment not only in women, but economies.
Thirty years ago, Gloria Steinem published one of her most famous essays, If Men Could Menstruate. There would be no taboos. Men would brag about how long and how much. And sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. It's time we do a better job helping our sisters around the world. P&G is contributing $5 million over five years to provide sanity supplies in Africa. SHE is jump-starting local businesses to produce affordable sanitary supplies around the globe. Individually, we can all help end the taboo by talking. These are the ways to truly celebrate International Women's Day.
To read this article on the Huffington Post website, click here.