When I was twelve, a lady from Tampax came to talk to the girls in my year about periods and that dreaded phrase ‘feminine hygiene’.
She had come to the school many times over the years, chatting to the new girl pupils and giving them samples to take home. Unfortunately for us, the year above mine had used their sanitary towel and tampon samples as:
- humorous things to stick on the backs of unsuspecting boys
- decorations for the school trees
So we didn’t get any samples to take away, in case we were similarly naughty with them. We were given a phone number we could phone to have some delivered ‘discreetly’ to our homes, but I’m not sure how many twelve year old girls would do that.
I digress. At our talk, which was as painful and embarrassing as any other sex ed talk back in those days, we were all piled in to a classroom in the home economics department. It was open plan and from time to time a boy would walk past and gape, but otherwise it was just us girls and the Tampax lady.
We didn’t know each other very well by then. It wasn’t at the very start of high school, but it was near enough that there were unfamiliar faces. It was a big school, too, lots of girls in the year. Lots of mortified twelve year olds, some of whom wouldn’t have even needed the talk, some of whom would have been completely mystified by it.
After she had shown us pads and tampons (no mooncups back then), then Tampax lady pointed at me.
‘What’s your name?’
Me, twelve year old Laura, who is so shy that she doesn’t speak in class, who is so shy that she only pretends to sing in choir, who is so shy that she has just started going to a Youth Theatre in order to gain enough confidence to talk to other people outside her small group of friends (a tactic which didn’t work).
My cheeks start to burn.
She nods. This is correct.
I feel it begin, a little surge of dread, a feeling that something bad is going to happen.
All other eyes are on me now, kind eyes and nasty eyes. Friends and strangers, bullies and nice people alike. They’re all looking at me.
I try to convince myself that nothing bad is going to happen. Nothing worse than everyone looking at me, at least, which is already at the limit of my bad things radar.
‘Laura and I are going to show you how to use a tampon.’
The bottom falls out of my small world. My cheeks, already red, are on fire. Actual, literal fire*. I feel like a laughing boy has kicked a football directly at my stomach and then called me a nickname, I’m so completely winded by this. A white hot tremor runs through me, quickly turning the marrow in my bones to cold lead. It is among the worst feeling I’ve felt up to this point in my short years, and I don’t know what to do.
Eyes widen around the room. People thanking their lucky stars it wasn’t them that she looked at. People terrified about what they are going to see. People looking gleeful.
I open my mouth to say no, please no, I’m not going to do that, but my mouth is dry with the horror of it all, and I really can’t speak in class. Even fear doesn’t help me with that.
She sees the faces around, sees the terror writ in my eyes.
‘Nononononono, omygod nono, I didn’t mean that. I just want you to switch the overhead projector on. You’re closest to it.’
I am closest to it, because I was trying to hide behind it for the session. The button is right in front of me. I push it, trying to ignore the laughter, the knowledge that this is going to be a good story to tease me with later. My cheeks have now turned to lava, my stomach to a swamp. It’s amazing that I don’t vomit, and nobody sees my tears.
There are two positives, though. One, no boys were there to see this trauma, especially not The Boy I Liked, and two, I do not have to randomly strip down, out of my white Jeanster jeans and Tammy Girl pants, and expose myself to the class.
The lesson continues, talk of my mortification soon fades, but the scene lingers with me forever.
Last night, more years later than I care to think about, the memory comes back to me with a vengeance as I worry about putting myself ‘Out There’.
Self-esteem, shyness, a lack of confidence, these things continue to plague me as they plague so many people. I’ve been growing bolder lately, at least in talking to people, but that twelve year old girl is still part of me. She always will be, sitting there, panicking, trying to persuade me to hide behind a pillar (not a projector, as we learned our lesson that day. They are unsafe. Pillars and plants are the things to go for).
I have come to a conclusion about the things I do now which push me, that force me to confront the issues I have with my own self worth – whether it’s stuffing a sock down my pants and pretending to be a man on stage, swimming in the sea for a feature film, networking with people In The Know, sending my script to producers or competitions, or publishing one of my own books.
The conclusion is this: no rejection, no boo, no bad review, could EVER feel as bad as the Tampax lady made me feel for those ten seconds.
So I might as well go for things.
* not really, pedants.