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Reading this very honest personal account by Mira Saraf about puberty, the first period, and sex ed at school, makes us realise that we’ve often forgotten our own horror, and the awkwardness we went through.
The Indian girl child is told often enough that she doesn’t deserve better. That she’s nothing more than a womb. That she can’t possibly ask for more. Yet, women refuse to give up on the dream of equality, of seizing their place in the sun. Starting 6th October 2018, as part of the conversations we have at Women’s Web for the International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October, we present a special series in which a few of our best authors write about #GirlPower. Some write from their own experience as girls, some about the significant girls in their lives, and some even to future daughters – a rich tapestry of emotions that is woven with love, bravery, inspiration, hope, fear, pain, and so much more.
While talking about herself as a young 9 year old, and then as she grew older to 13, Mira Saraf says, “I felt a little lost about the whole thing, but what I did know is that there were many things to be feared, and an alarming proportion of them were male,” adding about the sex ed classes at school that “the ridiculousness actually made this entire reality a little more light-hearted and helped us accept the changes that we really didn’t have a choice about anyway.”
When puberty hit me, I was utterly unprepared.
My only introduction to it occurred when I was about nine or ten years old. It was the early 1990s, and I remember I was sitting in the sandbox with two or three of my classmates. I was a student in junior School at the British School in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.
“Have you got your period?” I don’t remember who asked the questions, in fact I don’t even remember who exactly was there with me.
“What is it?” I had never heard of this before.
“Well you get it and you bleed every month.”
I kept my cool, but quite frankly, the whole thing sounded bizarre and grotesque. Anything involving a regular exit of blood from your body, just did not sound natural or right. I had never been taught about the changes that physically transitioned us from childhood to adulthood, and so the whole thing just seemed like unnecessary torture.
None of us had got it, and so the discussion was basically the blind leading the blind. Perhaps it would have been good if one of us had actually experienced it firsthand. At the very least, I might have been a little better prepared for what came next.
But since I was to remain ignorant, I felt this strange curdling at the pit of my stomach. Whatever this business was, I wanted nothing to do with it, and decided to disregard it as some vague future thing I could worry about later.
I don’t think it had even occurred to my parents (though my mother later was always almost uncomfortably open about it), to speak to me about it, because the likelihood that they would have received the same talk was remarkably slim, and I’m sure they didn’t want to think about the reality of me growing up. And so, I continued, blissfully unaware of my uterus and its ambitions, for the next several months.
About a year later, when I actually got my period, I had no idea what was happening to me: I was frightened, and yes, a little ashamed. Though I had not completely forgotten our sandbox conversation, in my first few days of my first period, I did not make the connection.
My mother fortunately discovered it and told me that I should have spoken to her sooner. But truth was I was embarrassed. I thought this was something that was happening because of my own negligence or fault, though I didn’t understand what it could be. It was then that she explained to me about menstruation and told me that this would continue to happen once a month until I was about 45.
I finally remembered that conversation back in the sandbox, and was pretty horrified about the whole thing, because I really didn’t fancy the idea of going through this torture for five days each month for the next 35 odd years. Nobody had told me it was semi-permanent! It seemed like a prison sentence.
Though my mother, at that time, told me about menstruation, she did not explain the broader context, so I just thought of it as an unfair reality of being a girl, and the truth was that after that, everything changed. My mother told me because I was growing up now, I needed to be more careful.
Suddenly, I was different, and because I did not really understand the context, the change did not seem to really make sense for me. I felt a little lost about the whole thing, but what I did know is that there were many things to be feared, and an alarming proportion of them were male.
We moved to Singapore for my father’s job about a year later. I had finally gotten comfortable with the idea of the monthly cycle was armed at all times with a ready stock of sanitary napkins.
On a completely irrelevant side note: I remember at that time, having two choices: one with an adhesive on the bottom, second was some sort of weird string contraption that somehow was supposed to tie around your waist and hold the whole thing up. When I discovered the concept of flexi wings, many years later, and then tampons and the cup, they brought me more joy than I can articulately express.
Back to my story: I was in science class at my school in Singapore, when I first understood how babies were made. You have to understand that this was an incredibly traumatic moment for me. I had always dreamed of being a mother, and now I was having trouble coming to grips with the fact that I would have to engage in such an unpleasant sounding activity in order to do so.
The whole thing sounded so invasive, and I remember thinking that there must be a better way (as I get ready to freeze my eggs, this is a somewhat hilarious irony).
When we returned from Singapore circa 1994, I went back into the international school system, which allowed me access to one thing that most of my peers in the local system did not have: a mandatory sex education course.
The second time round I was a bit more mentally and emotionally prepared. The sessions were overdone and cheesy, sometimes split by gender, sometimes mixed gender.
They showed us corny videos, which were most definitely shot in the 1980s, with rampant overacting and poorly written dialogue, but their ridiculousness actually made this entire reality a little more light-hearted and helped us accept the changes that we really didn’t have a choice about anyway. Slowly my attitude began to change.
At 13 years old, I was very chubby, and with a ton of body issues that I wouldn’t be able to accept for years, but somehow, I was able to come to terms with the reality of how, as a girl, I was different from my male peers and my younger brother.
Though the full conditioning of our monthly cycles being a dirty secret thing would still take some time to wear off, for me conquering my fear of and discomfort with it was enough to get me by. Eventually, I would learn to shake that off as well, but for the moment, acceptance, the fact that it was natural, and the possibility that it could even be beautiful, was way more than enough.
Image source: Pixabay
Mira Saraf was born in Canada, grew up in New Delhi, and went to a
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