Who remembers the episode of The Cosby Show where Rudy starts her period? “There I was in English class,” she quips, “The teacher’s talking about punctuation… and I get my period.” She mortified and wants to downplay the whole thing, which isn’t a reaction to which Clair–the mother that, frankly, most black girls reared in the ’80s wished they had–is accustomed. She wants to lavish Rudy with attention and make her menstrual inauguration a big to-do. It’s a tradition–one that Rudy’s older sisters eagerly welcomed and encouraged her to milk for all its worth. After all, Vanessa even got lunch at the Russian Tea Room.

This may not have been one of the series’ classic moments for you, but for me, as a viewer born the same year as Keisha Knight Pulliam/Rudy and thus hitting all her milestones in tandem, it’s emblazoned in my memory.

I saw the episode after I started my own period. I remember it as a startling, pre-sunrise experience. I shuffled groggily to the bathroom, eyes still half-sleep slits, only to be jolted awake by a bright blot of blood in my Day-of-the-Week underwear. I felt momentary panic, even though about a year before, a gym teacher or school nurse had separated our fifth grade class according to gender and explained to all the girls that this day would come. It was different, in real-time. I called down the hall for my mom. She was already in the throes of her morning flurry, getting herself ready for work. She looked at the blood, looked up at me, went into a cabinet, and pulled out a maxi pad. “That’s your period,” she said.

It was a truncated version of a conversation we’d have later, when time wasn’t so crunched. I don’t remember the details but there wasn’t any triumphal celebration involved.

I didn’t even know that was a possibility–that you could be delighted about your period or that your mom could be–until The Cosby Show. What a novel concept.

Now that I have a daughter, I’ve been contemplating how I’ll break all kinds of news to her about womanhood in general and black womanhood in particular. Periods were pretty traumatic for me; they were always accompanied by raging cramps and occasionally punctuated with vomiting. Even two decades after their onset, even after I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of their regularity, I still have a hard time associating them with joy.

In fact, in talking to my peers and older relatives, I’ve realized that their first period moments involved rejoicing. Some recalled their mothers weeping–but not happily. They were worried over their daughters “becoming women,” over their ability to bear children now, regardless of emotional readiness. They were mourning the loss of their little girls, dreading the looming sass and rebellion attendant to puberty. Or else they were very matter-of-fact about it all, sometimes referring to it as The Curse, and sometimes reducing it to a simple, utilitarian act the body must perform, whether you want it to or not.

In light of responses like these, The Cosby Show’s treatment of black women’s menstruation was revolutionary.

These days, the doomsday approach to discussing first periods is, hopefully, a thing of the past. Modern mothers feel more comfortable treating periods as less of a cryptic punishment and more of a bodily function whose symptoms can be easily managed (or even suppressed for all but four times a year) and a social rite to be celebrated, not feared.

I’m constantly finessing my future First Period Speech. Granted, I’ve got close to a decade to finalize it; my kid’s not even two yet. But I already know it will involve long gloves and ornate church or derby hats, petit fours and high tea, an evening at the theatre. And perhaps, just for laughs, we’ll watch this novel little Disney short I discovered for the first time last week. It’s from 1946 and was used as an instructional video in schools until the ’60s. Even though some of the info is obviously outdated, I thought it was alternately adorable and really informative for a grade-schooler:

One thing’s for sure: the word curse will not be uttered.

Do you remember how your mom handled your first period? If you plan to become a mother, do you intend on using the same approach, if you have a daughter?  

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  • Ashley

    I woke up one Sunday morning before church to use the bathroom, and I honestly thought that I had “crapped” on myself. I panicked and ran to my mom. She said in her southern accent “Lawd, ya got your period.” My dad was right there. It was weird. LOL My mom called her sister and said “Hey girl, Ashley got her period.” Like it was some celebratory moment. LOL My mom had already told me about pads, and that I should never use tampons because I may get Toxic Shock Syndrome and die. The funny thing is that I remember it happening while I was in the 7th grade and all of my girlfriends had gotten theirs. I wanted to be like them so I prayed to God that my period would come. When it came, I went to school and ran down the hall to my friends yelling “I GOT MY PERIOD YA’LL.” They were so happy. We jumped around in a circle. Ahhh, childhood. HAHAHAHA!

  • Krysie

    I was at my dad’s house when it happened and I called my mom. I remember the exact conversation. I told her, “My stomach hurts”. She replied, “Did you start your period?” I said “Yes”. She says, “O my God!” and then a long pause followed….

    Later that day when I went home I wasn’t really explained anything but was assured that this sort of thing happens to every women and it is normal. I bet the early stages of that fateful conversation will be similar when I tell her I am pregnant.

  • Sue

    @African Mami, LOL! But I’m sorry you had to go through that, I had a friend that thought the same thing because no one had told her anything. To add insult to injury, her mother was on a business trip so it was her father who had to deal with it. He actually took her to a doctor because she said she had a serious problem…

    I’m glad my Mum had explained the changes way before. Still,I wished I would be the exception somehow…SMH. I noticed a stain one chilly morning when I woke up and went to the bathroom. I already had pads given during one of the lectures organized for all the girls at school. Still, it felt inconvenient and scary She gave me some painkillers to take incase I had pain which came in handy because I did. She told my aunt who came over, pretty excited–I wasn’t because I thought it should be a secret. But looking back, I’m glad someone cared enough to make a big deal of it.

    My first period lasted a few days and then disappeared for months and I was thrilled. That break gave me time to get used to the idea psychologically.

  • Sue

    Wow, such a beautiful story. I also like the idea of new undies, practical and celebratory at the same time.

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