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?  

45 Comments

  1. My mom and I are very close. She explained menstruation about a year before I had my period. She always showed my the pads and made sure I knew how to put one on. I just always thought it would be forever until I had to use them. So, whenever she explained it, in my mind I said, “Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. ” So as I was taking a shower womanhood began and my conscious said, “Noooo.” I was angry and I thought this happens now; I don’t want a period. How am I suppose to play at nine years old with a pad. I said to my mom “Now I have to wear these pads, just great.” My mom on the other hand was elated. I’m thinking what’s so exciting about this; it’s like wearing a diaper.

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  2. Alesia

    I remember my 12 year-old self waking up one hot July morning to use the washroom, when I saw all the blood on my underwear (I felt it while I was asleep but I thought I was sweating, LOL). I automatically knew what it was and what to do. I cleaned myself up, got on a pad and kept it moving. After breakfast, I called my mom at work (we were at home with my Aunt) and told her what happened.

    We’ve never had a conversation about periods, but thanks to school and my inquisitive mind I knew what it was and how to handle it. She asked how I knew it was my period and if I knew what to do, I told her “yes”, then she said “welcome to womanhood!” and asked to speak to my Aunt. I knew she told her because after speaking to my mom my aunt smiled at me broadly and said “Congrats, baby girl!” and that was it.

    My mom and I are very close now, but my mom is not really good with certain subjects, neither is my dad, so all I can say is Thank God for health class (taught me about sex, puberty, periods, everything… parents never touched those subjects at all!).

    I was so happy to get my period, and I am still very grateful for it (as it is a sign of good health) but I really do have a love-hate relationship with my period. Some months my PMS symptoms aren’t as bad, and they go away within the first day, but other times I suffer tremendously both emotionally and physically (mood swings, breakouts, back pain, severe headaches, nausea AND diarrhea) for the first three days! Still, I’m happy I have healthy monthly periods.

    I hope that when I have children, they will know that my husband and I are their primary source of information when it comes to those things, and they won’t have to learn it all through library books, and sex-ed like I did.

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  3. Alexandra

    My mother didn’t explain it to me until after I had it and she was kinda upset because I tried to hide it from her. I didn’t know anything about menstruation before that. I only remember one of my brothers telling me about something he learned in health class, where girls bled during puberty. I was so grossed out and I said something like ‘never me’, and he told me ‘all girls get it stupid’.

    And a year later, I had my first period. I was 10 and it was summertime. I had forgotten about what my brother told me and ignored it. I threw my underwear in the trash, put on a new one and went back outside to play. Next thing I know, I hear my mom calling for me down the street with a sad look on her face. She asked me why I threw my brand new underwear in the garbage. I was scared to explain, 1). because I wasn’t sure what was going on with my body, 2). her being upset made me uncomfortable.
    Then she pointed to the blood in my underwear and asked me if I knew why that happened. I said no, then she sat me down and explained for an hour, why I would continue to bleed and what I needed to do when it came again. I was relieved. I was never really close with my mother when I was young (we are now), but from then on I felt more comfortable talking to her about certain things.

    If I ever have a daughter, I’ll hopefully explain to her what menstruation is before she gets it, especially if she’s developing fast. That’s the only thing I wish my mom would’ve done, because I developed really early.

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  4. 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!

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  5. 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.

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