I was really really young. Just finishing 4th grade and going into the 5th.
I had no idea of a concept like this until I got it. I didn't know a word called menstruation existed. My mom wanted to wait until she could have this uncomfortable conversation with me, maybe until I got a little older. Schools in India didn't really speak about this and even those other early birds in my class were very shy to speak of it. We were all taught not to talk about it openly or in front of boys/men.
I don't think I even understood what it meant the first year I got it. It was simple in my head - it is a monthly cycle and everyone gets it but nobody really talks about it. Nothing more. I remember being home on the summer vacation of 2005 when my mom noticed a big red spot on the yellow bright skirt. She called me to the bathroom to check and confirm that I have grown into a "woman" at this age of 11 going on to 12 soon. For my family, it was a matter of joy. Relatives calling and congratulating me. I had no idea why. Until my mom told me that I was "eligible" for marriage. It seemed absurd. It still seems absurd.
My mom comes from an orthodox upbringing where women were confined to a small area at home, in most cases her bed, for the first three days of getting it every month. Women were not allowed to touch vessels in the house. Elderly men and women in the family wouldn't go next to them because they were considered "impure". All the clothes, even slightly touched but not used were also washed before stacking it back in the wardrobe with the rest of the clothes; they couldn't be kept in otherwise. Most often my grandmother came to visit us during summers. Those months were the worst for me every time I got my periods! I was young, unaware, and shy. I had to keep a plate, a cup, a spoon and a mug aside under my bed to use specifically for those three days. I was not allowed to mix them with other vessels in the kitchen. So after every meal, I had to wash and keep them aside so as to not make the rest of the kitchen "impure". On the fourth day of periods, we had to shower and wash our hair very early in the morning to be considered "pure" again. We all had to listen to our grandmother. There was no way out. So for those few months, our lifestyle would change! Of course, I loved having her around. She was a badass woman for her age in her own regard. Having born 10 children to her husband, she lived a healthy life till 94. She was compassionate, loving and kind. She was the most patient person I have ever seen in my life till date, but she was also very hard and fast with religious customs. Somehow we all learned to peacefully coexist.
When my grandmother was not around, my mother was pretty liberal. I was allowed to live "normally" without feeling ashamed every month. I could be however or do whatever I wanted. Eventually, I grew and moved away for college and then periods wasn't the worst thing ever. It changed. Everyone was okay with it. My guy friends know when am going through it and are always so helpful and kind. Talking about it with my friends is as normal as talking about eating or sleeping.
Now, I reflect back on those days and I can't believe I actually lived through them! I just think if families, including men, spoke to their children about it from a very young age the taboo around it will cease to exist and would make it easier for young girls to cope with it in the initial years. It is so important to talk about hygiene yet somehow it gets drowned in all the customary practices. Breaking taboo would mean girls from a very young age have better access to information on hygiene and health.
We have come a far way from how my mother or grandmother suffered during their days. Having to use old worn out clothes as pads, to wash and reuse it again next month sounds extremely uncomfortable; but we still have a long way to go in breaking the silence.