By Catherine Santino
Apparently, when a 16-year-old still hasn’t gotten her period, it’s a major red flag.
I came to realize this at an annual physical when I reported to my doctor that no, I still hadn’t received my monthly visitor. I was well used to this song and dance by now, having been asked the same question each visit for my entire adolescence.
But my 16th year was different. When she learned that I still hadn’t gotten my first period, my pediatrician ordered a series of tests and procedures. I spent an afternoon chugging glass after glass of water so that a lab technician could clearly see my insides on the ultrasound machine. I had blood tests and a physical exam. I probably don’t need to tell you that my first pap smear at a prepubescent 16 was uncomfortable and downright terrifying. I was even put on estrogen and progesterone pills that forced my body to menstruate before it was naturally ready.
“We thought maybe you didn’t have a uterus,” my doctor told me after the tests were complete and I was deemed “normal” — just a late bloomer.
She went on to tell me that in some cases, women are born without uteruses, having no other symptoms other than a lack of menstruation. But, she said, I was fine, and I proceeded to proudly announce to my very uncomfortable father “I have a uterus!” when I returned home from my appointment that day.
I didn’t end up getting my period on my own until the summer between high school and college, at almost 18 years old. Some might see this as a blessing (I never had to deal with a period during gym class), but it made me feel like a huge outcast during my adolescent years. I couldn't relate to my friends and peers in a major way, and I felt like a freak.
It was also just straight up confusing for me. I had grown accustomed to living inside one body type (stick thin, no chest to speak of) and suddenly had an entirely different one (hips, large breasts, not to mention the 5 inches of height I gained in a very short amount of time). It was physically and emotionally jarring to change so drastically, so quickly, and so much later in life than everyone around me.
Even now, at 27 years old, I'm still catching up. Because my body developed so late, I didn't experience sex until later than most. I was going through puberty in college, when everyone else was well past it. I was getting reacclimated to my own body, relearning how to dress myself, and move through the world as this new entity.
My tears in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room were not only because of the lack of options for bigger-busted women, but also just purely out of confusion. Every time I felt I had finally gotten a grasp on my body type, it would change. If a workout app were to ask me what my body type was for a fitness assessment, I would have no idea what to choose. And that’s an unsettling feeling.
Until this point, I hadn’t realized how closely my physical person was tethered to my identity. We might not like to think that our bodies have this much impact on how we see ourselves, but in a way, it’s inevitable. Our bodies carry us through all of our experiences, and we unknowingly internalize the response to those interactions. Sometimes it’s negative and sometimes it’s positive, but regardless, it all contributes to the way we view ourselves.
Throughout my life, my ears perked up whenever I heard someone mention that they got their period late. “How old were you?” I’d ask, hopeful that someone else on the planet may have had the same experience as me.
They’d answer that they were 13 or 14 years old, which based on the national average of 12, is technically a bit later than usual. But even at 14, I was four years away from getting my period naturally, and hearing that I was so far beyond what’s considered a “late” first period was always disappointing.
Over time, I’ve made peace with my imperfect journey through womanhood. If anything, it allowed me to examine my relationship with my body and come out the other end a more confident person. Though we may be made to believe that there are certain benchmarks and timelines to maintain, every person’s experience is truly unique.
If you take a closer look, you’ll see that every human is grappling with their own demons, confronting the various ways in which society makes them feel outside the realm of normalcy, whatever that even means.
Have any of your period experiences made you feel abnormal? How did you handle it? Share in the comments!
Catherine Santino is a writer in New York City. She’s written for Bustle, HelloGiggles, Levo, La Femme Collective, and many others. Currently, Catherine is a contributing editor at LADYGUNN Magazine, where her work has been featured online and in print. Follow her on Instagram to see lots of pictures of dogs that aren’t hers.