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?