Girl to Girl: Honest Talk About Growing Up and Your Changing Body

CHAPTER FOUR
Let’s Talk, Period
What You Need to Know About Menstruation

For most girls, getting their period is the biggest moment in the entire puberty process. Sure, your breasts will grow, and you’ll probably have a growth spurt. You start wearing deodorant, and you might start shaving your legs. But getting your period—that’s a big deal, even compared to all of that other important stuff!

Getting your period is a rite of passage. It’s a physical sign that you are becoming a woman, because it’s an important part of being able to have a baby one day. That’s a long ways off, but your body goes through this process now. That’s why your mom or health teacher might say that once you start your period, you’re a woman.

But what are the signs leading up to your first period, and what happens when you actually get it? How will you know it’s started, and how long will it last? How much blood will there be? Will it hurt?

Don’t worry! We are going to walk step by step through what it means to have your period so that you are prepared and confident when yours starts.

Before Your Period Starts
Pubic Hair

Before you actually start your period, your body does a number of things to prepare itself, kind of like practicing for a piano recital or shooting hoops before a basketball game. These are important steps for your maturing body and usually happen before you get your first period. One of these steps is growing pubic hair.

Your pubic area is a few inches (or 5 to 9 centimeters) below your belly button, between your hips where your legs meet.

Over the next few years, your pubic hair will grow in the shape of an upside-down triangle. You will grow hair between your legs on your vulva, the outside of your vagina. Some girls grow pubic hair on the inner, top parts of their thighs, and for some, it grows up toward the belly button.

Your pubic hair will likely start to appear about the time you begin growing armpit hair. It might be only a few fine and light-colored hairs at first. The thickness, texture, and color of pubic hair is different for each girl. It may or may not be the same color as the hair on your head. As you get older and farther into puberty, your pubic hair will get thicker, and it usually gets curly and coarse.

Discharge

After you start growing pubic hair, you might notice a milky white or clear, sticky substance in your underpants. This is called vaginal discharge, and it is released by your body because of the estrogen in your system. Estrogen is a hormone that is important for your period and eventually will help you to have children.

Girls usually see discharge six months to a year before they start their periods, but again, every girl is different. Discharge is a sign you might get your period soon, but it’s not like an alarm clock that will tell you exactly when it’s going to happen.

Although healthy vaginal discharge is not odorless, sometimes discharge develops a stronger odor than normal or looks thick like cottage cheese. If you notice these symptoms, or if your vagina is itchy and red, you might have an infection. Fishy or rotten-smelling discharge is like a warning sign that you need to see a doctor.

Your vagina is a place where bacteria can grow easily, because it’s between your legs, doesn’t get much fresh air, and is moist. Just like you clean the rest of your body, you need to wash and care for it. Beware of scented soaps, bubble baths, and perfumed lotions, which can irritate the sensitive skin of your vagina. Swimsuits, leotards, and other tight, stretchy clothing also trap bacteria, so it’s a good idea to take them off right after you’re done with activities.

To keep your vagina clean, wash every time you take a bath or shower. Then dry between your legs completely and wear breathable, 100 percent cotton underpants. Avoid brands that have even a tiny bit of Lycra or spandex in them, since it’s hard for air to get through those fabrics. Be sure to wear a clean pair of underwear every day.

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Girl Talk:
Are Certain Smells Normal?

Dear Sarah,

I have this smell coming from my undies. I have discharge, but I haven’t started my period yet. What is the smell coming from?

Mia

Dear Mia,

Most girls notice a slight smell coming from their vagina after they start puberty. Our bodies just have smells; it’s part of being human. It’s important to keep your vagina clean, but you will probably always have a light odor like what you smell now.

You may hear about products that claim to get rid of vaginal odor. But these aren’t healthy, because the perfumes and other ingredients in them can cause irritation. If you notice that the smell gets fishy or rotten, talk to your mom. All women get infections from time to time, and they are usually easy to clear up, but you do need to see a doctor to get the right diagnosis and medicine.

One other thing: Nobody notices the smell but you. Promise! We are all in tune with our own bodies, and smells are a way they communicate with us.

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Getting Your Period

No one can predict exactly when you are going to get your first period, but it generally happens about two years after your breasts start growing and six months to a year after you start noticing vaginal discharge. It would be great if one day you woke up and your body said, “Today you will start your period.” Then you would know! But it doesn’t happen like that. So the best thing you can do is learn what to expect, watch for some of the signs that your body is maturing, and be prepared for when it happens.

Registered nurse Elaine Plummer works for the company that makes Tampax tampons and Always pads, and knows a lot about periods. She says “the average age for girls in the United States to begin their menstrual period is age twelve, but it’s not unusual to begin as early as age eight or as late as fifteen.” She says it’s important to remember that every girl develops at her own pace, so even though these are general guidelines, you will get your period in your own time. If you haven’t started your period by the time you turn sixteen, she says it’s a good idea to visit your doctor or health care provider to make sure your body is on the right track.

What Will Actually Happen During My Period?

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During your period, you bleed from your vagina. The blood comes from your uterus, which is a reproductive organ that will one day help you have a baby.

The idea of bleeding might seem scary, but it’s a normal part of being a woman and not something you need to be grossed out by. And it’s not like when you cut your finger. When you get your period, your body controls the whole process. It knows exactly how much and how long to bleed.

During your entire period, which will last between two and seven days, your body will lose about one to six tablespoons (15 to 90 milliliters) of blood.

What Is Mestruation?

Menstruation is the proper term for “having your period,” and chances are, it’s a word you will hear a lot during puberty. It comes from the Latin word for “month,” which itself comes from the Greek word for “moon.” This is because you usually get your period about once a month (twenty-eight days is the standard time between periods), and in some cultures, people use the roughly twenty-eight-day cycles of the moon as the basis for their calendars.

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Words You’ve Probably Heard: Cycle and Flow

Cycle:

Your menstrual cycle is measured from the start of one period to the start of the next. The average cycle is about twenty-eight days, but it can vary from twenty-one to forty-five days in teens. Nurse Plummer says not to worry if your cycle doesn’t fall into a pattern right away. “It’s not unusual to have an irregular cycle for the first two years or so after you begin menstruating. Mark on a calendar when your period begins and keep track of how long it lasts. After a while, you will likely notice a pattern developing. This should make it easier to predict when your next period will begin. Once you have established a regular cycle, if your period stops happening regularly or stops completely, you should check with your doctor.”

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Flow:

The word flow is used to describe the rate of bleeding during your period. For example, if you are bleeding a lot, your flow is heavy. If you are bleeding less, your flow is light. Your flow will likely be lighter at the very beginning and end of your period, and heavier during the middle.

Girls Who’ve Been There:

First Period Stories

“Throughout seventh and eighth grade, I lied to my friends that I had my period. At sleepovers, when everyone was complaining about how terrible periods, cramps, pads, and tampons were, I would say things like ‘Oh, I know. Cramps are the worst!’ I didn’t want them to know I was the odd one out. When I actually did get my period, I felt overwhelmed. I was at my house, and my mom wasn’t home! But my older sister hooked me up with everything I needed. I remember learning what a period was in third grade and then I didn’t get it for another five years. I wish I had known that there was such a wide range of ages when you can get your period. Maybe then I wouldn’t have felt like my timing was so off, because in reality, it wasn’t.” —Shelby

“I got my first period in the beginning of seventh grade, but I didn’t get it again for about five months! I remember my mom asking if I had actually gotten my period the first time. I did, in fact, get my period when I thought I did, but it was irregular for the first two years, which is normal but can be confusing.” —Margaret

“I got my period when I was fourteen, on the very first day of high school. I was convinced I would need to wear a tampon or pad all the time, for fear blood would just start pouring down my leg at any moment. But it’s not like that at all. It’s much more controllable than I thought it would be.” —Paige

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Getting Your First Period

I remember feeling a little scared about getting my period, because it was all unknown. It’s natural to feel this way. In fact, most girls do.

When your period does start, you will probably feel dampness in your underpants. You might see blood, or you might notice small dark brownish, reddish, or nearly black spots (from dried blood). Spotting is a sign that your period is coming, and you can be prepared for a heavier flow by wearing a panty liner or pad.

Not every girl’s period will begin with spotting. I didn’t notice anything unusual until I went to the bathroom and there was blood in my underwear and on the toilet paper when I wiped myself. I called for my mother, and she came to the bathroom. She was happy, but I started to cry! I just felt really emotional and couldn’t believe I had started. I put a pad in, and I went to the bathroom every few hours just to make sure everything was okay. After a few days, I started to get a sense of my menstrual flow and wasn’t so worried about checking my pad every time I could. It takes a little while to get a feeling for your period and your body, but you’ll figure it out.

IF YOU START AT SCHOOL

A lot of girls are worried about starting their periods at school. One girl told me she was scared that everyone would be able to tell, and another was worried that she would bleed through her pants. The truth is you probably won’t have so much blood at first that it will seep through your clothing, and you will probably feel dampness or wetness before it gets to that point. If you feel dampness in your underwear at school, stop at the bathroom between classes or ask your teacher for permission to use the bathroom. You don’t need to tell anyone why you need to go unless you want to.

It’s a good idea to keep a period emergency kit in your backpack or locker. But if you start and don’t have a pad handy, you can use toilet paper in the meantime. Fold the toilet paper and place it in your underpants, or wrap it around the bottom part of your underpants four or five times. This will soak up the blood until you can get a real pad.

If you start your period and don’t notice until you’ve bled through your underwear or clothing, tie a sweatshirt or sweater around your waist. Then go to the school nurse or your teacher. They’ve dealt with this before and will be able to call your parents or a family friend who can bring a change of clothes. You’ll be good as new when you get a fresh pair of underwear!

Feminine Hygiene Products

There are a number of feminine hygiene products you can wear during your period to protect your underpants and clothes. Pads, panty liners, and tampons help absorb the blood so it doesn’t get messy.

Pads

Pads, also called sanitary napkins or maxi pads, are absorbent pieces of cloth-like material that fit into your underpants. Most have a strip of tape on the bottom that sticks right to the fabric to hold the pad in place.

Pads come in various widths and lengths so you can get the right size for your body. They also come in different absorbencies. The flow of blood at the very beginning and end of your period won’t be as heavy as toward the middle, which means you will probably want a different absorbency, depending on where you are in your cycle.

Image Light Flow: Use a panty liner. This is a thinner pad for days when your period is light but you still need some protection.

Image Regular Flow: Use a pad. It’s a good idea to change your pad every two to four hours. Any longer, and it might leak or start to smell.

Image Heavy Flow or Active Days: Use a long pad with “wings,” which wrap around your underpants and stick on the outside. The wings give a little extra support and security to keep the pad in place if you are playing sports or during the night when you are sleeping.

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Don’t throw your panty liners or pads away in the toilet. They will clog the plumbing. Instead, wrap them in toilet paper or tissue and put them in the garbage can. Most women’s bathrooms have small garbage cans right in the bathroom stalls!

Image GET CONFIDENT: Practicing with Pads Image

One pediatrician I know suggests that girls practice with pads before they start their first period. Talk to your mom about getting a box of pads. Then, at home, take some time in the bathroom to practice inserting the pad comfortably into your underpants. You might want to walk around with it in for a few hours, so you can get a sense of how it will feel. This way, when you start your period, you will be prepared and confident.

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Image GET CONFIDENT: Make a Period Preparedness Kit Image

Since you can’t be sure when your first period will come—or when it will start when you aren’t yet regular—it’s a good idea to keep an emergency supply or period preparedness kit in your book bag, backpack, or locker. Just knowing that you have the supplies you need can take away some of the stress about starting your period, especially at school.

If you think you’ve started your period and don’t want everyone to know why you are going to the bathroom, you can tuck a pad into your pocket or shirtsleeve before you walk from your desk to the bathroom.

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You can keep everything discreet by putting your period preparedness kit in a cute pencil case, a small makeup bag, or even a brown paper bag.

Period Gear Checklist

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Image 2 or 3 pads

Image 2 or 3 panty liners

Image A clean change of underwear

Image 2 or 3 tampons (if you want them)

Image A bag to hold everything

Tampons

Tampons are another form of absorbent feminine hygiene product. They are inserted into your vagina and absorb the blood from inside your body. Tampons are shaped like thin, solid tubes and are made of cotton and other absorbent material. They have a thin string on the end that hangs outside your body when the tampon is in your vagina, so that you can pull it out when you need to.

Tampons come in various sizes and absorbencies, like slender, regular, and super. These sizes tell you how big the tampon is and also how absorbent it is. Some companies offer a version created especially for light flow days; these are also good for girls who are just learning to use tampons, because they are small and easy to insert. Tampons come with different types of applicators. The applicator is the piece of cardboard or plastic that covers the actual tampon and helps it slide into your vagina. Some tampons don’t have applicators, and you use your finger to push them into place. These require a little more practice, so you might want to use a kind that comes with an applicator until you get the hang of the process.

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Plastic Applicator

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Cardboard Applicator

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No Applicator

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To help cut down on waste and keep the planet healthy, use tampons with cardboard or biodegradable applicators—some companies even make applicators from recycled materials!

WHEN TO START USING TAMPONS

There’s no specific age when a girl can start using tampons. It is a personal decision, and you don’t have to make it right when you start your period. You can get used to pads first, and then, when you feel ready, make the change to using tampons. Many women use tampons and pads at the same time, and some women choose not to use tampons at all.

When Nurse Plummer’s daughter started to menstruate, her advice was, “Your period is manageable and should not interrupt your life in any way. Tampons help with that.” It’s an important lesson to remember because, yes, your period is new and it’s a big deal, but it shouldn’t stop your life. You can still do the same things you did before it started.

Like anything, practice makes things easier, and you will need to practice inserting a tampon before you get the hang of it. To help this process go more smoothly for you, Nurse Plummer shared some of her first-time tampon tips, and I’ve added a few tips of my own.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF IT’S IN CORRECTLY?

When the tampon is in, a few inches (or 5 to 9 centimeters) of the string should be visible and hanging between your thighs. When you stand up, you shouldn’t be able to feel the tampon. If it hurts, it probably isn’t far enough into the vagina, or it might be off center. Remove it by pulling the string and start over with a fresh tampon. Keep practicing until you can’t feel the tampon inside. Then wash your hands, and you are done!

Tampons 101: How to Insert a Tampon

1) Gather up your supplies: a few slender or junior-size tampons, a small mirror (a compact makeup mirror is great for this), some water-based vaginal lubricant (you can find this at the drugstore or ask your parents for help, but definitely don’t use Vaseline or petroleum jelly!), and some patience. Make sure you have plenty of time for this first session. Rushing through it will make the process frustrating!

 

2) Wash your hands with soap and water and make sure your vaginal area is clean. You don’t want to get bacteria inside your vagina, since that could lead to an infection. Then sit down on the toilet.

 

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3) Use the hand mirror to help you see what you’re doing. You might need to use your fingers to gently separate the folds of the labia.

 

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4) You’ll see two openings—the first, highest hole, is the urethra (where you urinate from), the second is your vagina, where you will insert the tampon. You can still use the bathroom normally while using tampons.

 

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5) Unwrap the wrapper. Holding the applicator with your thumb and first two fingers, insert the round tip of the applicator slightly into your vagina.

 

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6) Gently push the applicator into your vagina at a slight upward angle (not straight up or back). After the outer tube of the applicator is inserted all the way, push up the inner tube with your forefinger. This positions the tampon up into your vagina.

7) Pull the entire applicator out, wrap it in toilet paper, and throw it in the trash can (not the toilet).

 
 

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Hint: If you are having a hard time pushing the tampon in, add a few drops of lubricant to the tip of the applicator. This can help moisten the sensitive skin of your labia so it doesn’t hurt when you insert the tampon. Get a new tampon if you need to. It can take a few tries to get this process down.

REMOVING THE TAMPON

After four to six hours, it’s time to remove the tampon. Take a deep breath to relax your vaginal muscles and pull down gently on the string. The tampon will slide out of your vagina. You can wrap it in toilet paper and throw it away in the garbage. Some bathrooms have strong enough plumbing systems to handle flushing a tampon, but to be safe, throw away used tampons.

I remember worrying that the string would get lost or get stuck inside my body and I wouldn’t be able to get the tampon out, but the truth is you can still remove a tampon, even if you can’t find the string, by using your fingers to gently pull it out.

Do You Know . . .

the Symptoms of TSS?

Some of the symptoms of TSS are like the flu, but they can become serious quickly. If you are experiencing these symptoms, especially if you’re using tampons at the time, tell an adult and talk to your doctor right away.

Image Rising body temperature (102 degrees Fahrenheit/38.8 degrees Celsius or higher) Image Vomiting Image Diarrhea Image A sunburn-like rash Image Muscle aches Image Dizziness Image Fainting or near fainting when you stand up

Once, at a sleepover, a friend told me that sometimes a tampon can get stuck or lost inside you, but that’s a total myth. There’s no chance that a tampon can get lost in your body. The only other opening inside your vagina is your cervix, and—unless you’re in the middle of giving birth to a baby—the opening is so small that only liquid can get through. A tampon can only enter and leave your body through your vagina.

Nurse Plummer says, “Never wear a tampon for more than eight hours, and remember to remove the last tampon you put in at the end of your period.” You can sleep with a tampon, but she suggests you use the lowest absorbency you can, and that you use a pad if you sleep longer than eight hours.

Wearing a tampon can lead to a very rare but serious bacterial disease called Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS). Tampons don’t actually cause TSS; for reasons still not fully understood, your body can produce a substance that causes TSS when you use them. Your vagina is a potential breeding ground for bacteria, and inserting an absorbent tampon and leaving it for a long time seems to create favorable conditions for certain dangerous types of bacteria. To reduce the risk of TSS, it’s important that you do not leave a tampon in for longer than eight hours and that you use the lowest absorbency tampons you can, even if it means changing them more frequently. It is also important to know the signs and symptoms of TSS, and to remove your tampon and call your doctor if you experience these while using a tampon—as long as TSS is recognized early and treated promptly, it is nearly always curable. Every box of tampons also comes with information on TSS, and it’s a good idea to read this material.

What Else Happens During Your Period? Cramps, Moodiness, and Bloating

Many girls notice side effects like cramps, moodiness, and acne before and during their periods. That’s because your body is reacting to all the hormones in your system—hormones that make your period possible. Take it easy on your body, and your brain, when it’s your time of the month. Make sure that you get enough sleep, get some fresh air, get some exercise (moving your body is great when you feel achy from your period), and eat healthy foods (salty foods can add to that puffy or bloated feeling that can come along with your period). Extra sugar and caffeine also increase cramps, so it’s a good idea to stay away from them, too.

Image Girl Talk: What Is PMS? Image

Dear Sarah,

When my sister is in a bad mood, she says she is PMS’ing. What does that mean? Will I start PMS’ing when I start my period?

Kimora

Dear Kimora,

PMS stands for premenstrual syndrome. When you have your period, you are menstruating. A few days before your period actually starts, when you are in “pre” menstruation, your body releases hormones that are important for your cycle. These hormones can make you feel moody. Some girls also get tender breasts, headaches, backaches, acne breakouts, and anxiety.

It sounds like your sister is experiencing moodiness as a PMS symptom. You might also feel moody, or your body might react differently. Keeping track of your period will help you know when to expect your period, and if you find yourself feeling anxious or stressed or even a little achy before it starts, you’ll know why!

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How to Handle Cramps

Many teenage girls get cramps—aching or intense pain in their lower belly area or backs—just before they start their period or during the first day or two of their cycle. Cramps are caused when your uterus, an important reproductive organ, contracts and expands. Imagine it like a fist opening and closing inside you.

As a teen, I got really bad cramps, and a few times my stomach hurt so badly I had to call my mom to come get me from school. The spot below my belly button had a sharp, almost piercing pain, and I had to bend over or curl up in the fetal position while it lasted. The pain would last a few minutes, then go away for a bit, and come back every half hour for a few hours.

For some girls, cramps will be more of a dull pain or tightness that lasts for a day or so. It’s also common to get headaches or a little bit of nausea. Other girls don’t get cramps at all.

Taking a warm bath or using a heating pad for a little while on the places that are cramping (like your abdomen or lower back) can help ease the pain. Exercise is good for cramps, so if you feel up for it, go on a walk or shoot some hoops. There are also medicines that can help reduce intense cramps. If your cramps are really painful or make you sick, talk to your parents or doctor about getting something to help ease the pain and other symptoms. It’s not fun to be in pain every time you get your period!

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Sarah’s Tip: Stretch It Out

Over the years, I’ve found that stretching is one of the best things I can do to help relieve cramps. These are two mellow stretches I do whenever I have cramps.

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1) Knees-to-Chest Stretch: Lie on your back on the floor or on your bed. Hug your knees to your chest and hold them there gently for fifteen to twenty seconds. Be sure to breathe! Then release and let your legs extend straight out. Take a few breaths and do it again two or three times.

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2) Child’s Pose: This one is a yoga pose. (I love doing yoga when I have cramps. It’s a good form of exercise and also helps relax the muscles in my entire body.)

Start with your hands and knees on the floor, your back flat like a tabletop. Spread your knees out about 6 inches (or 15 centimeters), and touch your big toes together. Slowly lower your stomach to the floor and bring your butt back past your knees (almost like you are squatting). Extend your arms out in front so you can feel the stretch in your lower back.

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Hold the pose for twenty to thirty seconds and then come back up to your hands and knees. You can repeat the pose. Remember to keep breathing the entire time and listen to your body. If something hurts, don’t do it.

Dealing with a Heavy Period at Night

It’s frustrating to wake up and find that you’ve bled through your pajamas. And it’s even more frustrating when you bleed on your sheets! To help prevent it, check to see if you need to move your pad forward or backward. (You will get an idea of this based on where it looks like the blood leaked through.) You can get extra-long pads for nighttime use and wear a pair of shorts or slightly tighter pajama pants at night to help keep your underwear and pad in place if you move around a lot when you sleep.

If you wake up and there’s blood on your pajamas or sheets (or if you get spots in your underwear or on your clothes during the day), rinse out the blood with cold water and then use fabric soap or put them in the washing machine. Be sure to set it for a cold water wash, since hot water sets bloodstains in fabric. Get a parent to help you with the washing, but do it as soon as you notice the stains. The sooner you get the blood rinsed out, the better chance you have of it not staining permanently!

MYTH BUSTER: You Can Still Go Swimming While on Your Period

I was on the summer swim team growing up and heard from some girls in the locker room that you couldn’t come to practice or swim in the meets when you had your period. Luckily, that’s just a rumor. You can definitely swim when you have your period, but it’s best to swim with a tampon. A pad will get wet and absorb water instead of your menstrual blood, and if you go swimming without a tampon, you risk having blood become visible when you get out of the water. Wearing a tampon will block your flow and isn’t obvious in your swimming suit.

Bathing and Showering During Your Period

A few girls asked me if they could still take a bath or shower while they were having their periods, and the answer is YES! If you take a bath, there might be some blood in the water, so some girls would rather shower when it’s their time of the month. You can also put a tampon in before a bath, but it’s not necessary. And don’t worry about blood running down your leg while you’re in the shower. Any discharge or blood will be easily washed down the drain with the flowing water.

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Don’t worry if all this advice seems like a lot right now. Whether you’ve started your period yet or not, you’ll figure out what works best for you and your body. Just be patient and give yourself some time. And remember that even though it might sometimes feel overwhelming, growing up is exciting, too!

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