“Soon, my period would start… so mama performed the ritual”
I was eight years old when I first felt two lumps begin to develop on my chest. I was an early bloomer; every mother’s nightmare in a world where girls’ bodies are treated as a sight for sexual pleasure. A world where whistles and hisses immediately accompany the development of breast and hips as if one cannot exist without the other. So, like any other mother, she panicked because what this meant was not only would I be prone to sexual harassment, but soon, my period would start and my young mind might not be able to manage it. So mama performed the ritual. A ritual every fearful mother, grandmother or aunt would perform on a young female to protect them from nature. In my mother tongue, we call this ritual ‘ukuthanyela’ which means ‘to sweep’. Someone close to you takes a short grass broom and sweeps it across your developing breasts to make them go away. Some people use a wooden spoon to hit them down. And funny enough, it works. It worked for me. To be very honest I was glad it did. I was scared, extremely terrified of becoming a woman way before my time. I was 8, my older brother was 11, I could see his concerned face as he swept away at my chest, fingers crossed in hopes that he could keep me young a little longer. He understood very well what it meant to become a woman ahead of time. Just like my mother, he wanted to protect me, delay the process for as long as he possibly could.
Fast forward a year later, at the age of nine, my breasts began to reappear. A second attempt at sweeping them away was made, but this time it was met with resistance. My breasts continued to grow and I slowly became self-conscious. I no longer walked around topless, I tried to shrink my womanhood by developing a hunchback to prevent anyone from noticing the changes. It didn’t feel normal, none of my friends had breasts growing so fast.
The comments started to fly around, none of the people meant harm but the unending astonishments contributed to me becoming even more self-conscious and even more ashamed – and maybe a little angry at nature for stealing my childhood away. I started developing stretchmarks too; on my love handles. I felt very embarrassed and I failed to understand what the point of this was.
It seemed nature was working in 12-month intervals because a year later, at the age of 10, I had my first period. I remember that evening very vividly. We were sitting in the lounge watching TV when I got up to go and use the toilet because I was feeling a bit of moisture on my panties.
I remember sitting on that toilet seat, looking down and screaming, ‘Period!’ My mom and aunt came running; they immediately ran some water for me to bathe, and I put on my first pad and a pair of fresh panties. I remember my aunt saying, ‘Welcome to womanhood’ in those exact words. And that was it. Everything before had been leading to that moment. I returned to my seat feeling like a star, but that feeling wouldn’t last forever.
The years after that day were filled with embarrassing and painful moments. Leakages and cramps that made me question why I even had to be a woman. Well, the leakages got better when I discover winged pads. For some reason, I spent the first year using pads without wings with no idea that anything else existed. I don’t know how my mother missed that, but she did. Maybe she wasn’t reading the pad packaging assuming that the ones she was buying were winged? To be fair some details are easy to miss.
Then I spent another set of years experiencing cramps that would make me roll over in tears. Cramps that made me wish to rip my uterus out.
Then I spent another set of years experiencing cramps that would make me roll over in tears. Cramps that made me wish to rip my uterus out. To me it made no sense why the process needed to be painful. It made no sense at all.
Then I went through a phase of prolonged periods. Sometimes they would last two weeks. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone, even my own mother. My peers were starting to get on their periods and they would only last three or four days. One day, I had a leak and I remember my mother asking, ‘But didn’t you have your period a week ago?’ I was too ashamed to tell her that these prolonged periods had been going on for months. I said it was the first time it had happened. She asked if I wanted to see a doctor but I convinced her that I would be fine.
There were days when my mother would travel and I would forget to ask her for pad money, so I used tissues. I was ashamed of asking anybody else. I had been told that periods were too personal and no one should know about them. Although I knew that my mother had left money for any emergency situation, I was too scared to ask for it, so leakages happened often. I would get into trouble for it at times and it came across as me just being careless. The stains on the sheets were impossible to hide. I was ashamed of my bodily anatomy. I had still not reconciled the fact that mother nature stole my childhood, robbed me of the pleasure of running around topless and playing with other kids outside, and had also brought me pain. All that occupied my mind was the thought of being a woman (I wasn’t even 15), having the ability to get pregnant and needing to start acting differently.
I have tears in my eyes writing this. To be honest I never realised how ashamed I was. I never realised the extent. But looking back now, I don’t think anyone deserves to feel that way. At age 22, 12 years since I had my first period, I am more confident in my womanhood. The journey to love myself completely started two years ago and it has taught me that self-love is more than accepting my face without makeup; it’s also learning about how my body works from the inside and taking care of it. I want every woman and girl to feel empowered so I share about periods all the time. I respond to comments like, ‘Your skin is glowing’ with ‘Oh, thanks, I’m actually ovulating!’ and these responses always lead to an educational conversation with whoever gave the compliment. I no longer hide my pads or shove them down my sleeve. And I talk to the men in my life about periods all the time. There is so much liberation. I am liberated and I think liberation is contagious.