Last year while on a beach vacation, my daughter, who normally loves to swim in the ocean, announced that she was going to have to sit it out. She bumbled about the cottage and sat on the lawn chair outside looking tentative. I suspected the reason, but I asked anyway. She hushed her voice so my husband and son could not hear. She had gotten her period the night before, for the first time.
The news should not have rattled me, but it did, given that my daughter was only 11 years old. I had been well into my 14th year of life when menarche struck me one summer morning. I was fairly prepared, emotionally and resourcefully, when it happened to me. I was ill-prepared for it to happen to my daughter and when we were traveling. I hadn’t even brought many pads.
To my surprise, my daughter had packed herself an emergency kit. I asked her where she got the idea to do that. She said it was recommended by a book I had given her some years ago to better understand puberty. In that moment, all the ways I had thought I had failed her seemed to fade. She was ready, and she had prepared herself for what was to come, as I had on the way to adulthood, by reading about it.
In third grade, I remember my friends Margaret K. and Michele giggling over a particular page of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. I tossed my backpack next to theirs as we waited for the school bus. They held up the cover of our school’s only copy, a tattered paperback, as if that were an explanation. I wasn’t yet acquainted with the book, though.
The author, however, I was fortunate to know already. The summer prior, my mother had purchased me a stack of paperbacks at a garage sale. Among them was Blubber, the story of a girl bullied by schoolmates. It was the first novel that made me ache knowing the story would have to end. Judy Blume pulled me into the universe of Jill Brenner, a bystander to the torment of the bullied Linda Fischer, and I had not wanted to leave.
Margaret K. and Michele had turned to the chapter in Are You There, God? where protagonist Margaret Simon and her friends purchase sanitary napkins in advance of getting their first periods. (The text was later changed to refer to them as Maxi pads, but I’m sure the copy at St. Raphael’s School contained reference to the belted apparatus.) At the time that Margaret K. and Michele were amused by the mention of menarche, I was still in the dark. I had a vague sense that these were the kinds of products women used for something that, at best, seemed like a bother.
I had seen bloody wads of toilet paper flushed down the toilet after my mother came out of the shower. I had wondered why, if my mother had been bleeding, she didn’t just toss the tissue in the trash like I did when I got a cut. She had told me when I looked aghast that this was period blood and it’s something that would happen to me. I doubt that, I had thought, because I will do anything in my power to prevent it.
I was perhaps the exact readership that Judy Blume had in mind when she wrote Are You There, God? I was a girl with very little information about sexuality, human development, and genetics. My parents did not give me any books about what was ahead; rather, they assumed that the family planning unit my Catholic school offered in the fifth grade would provide a sufficient education.
The most I ever heard about menstruation from my mother, other than the clipped message that it was coming for me, was in the sixth grade when we got to the Maxi pad aisle in Marc’s Drugstore. She tossed a pack of Stayfree pads into the cart and said, “Here. You’ll probably need these at some point.”
The lack of intel I had in middle school about my changing body led me to consult Are You There, God? I would read Blume’s iconic novel intermittently when our class had study halls in the library. I did not find the information sufficiently gynecological, however; all the spiritual and relational layers of Margaret Simon’s story interfered with the procedural information I craved. How did it feel to wear a pad and a bra and how often did Margaret shave her legs and how on earth did tampons work? I had to supplement my knowledge with the TEEN and Seventeen magazines I wheedled from friends or furtively borrowed from the library.
When my period finally arrived the summer after ninth grade, I was surprised by what ended up being two solid weeks of hemorrhaging. This overlapped with a Catholic youth retreat I was to attend at a campground. Every hour in a latrine teaming with flies, I had to change my pad. I ran out of pads by the second day and had to bum the rest off of other girls on retreat.
If I had told my mother that I had finally gotten my period, she would likely have responded pragmatically but supportively. I just didn’t want to give her that satisfaction.
Like most teenagers, I was wildly curious about sex. I was also wildly busy trying to earn some kind of piety award at my all-girls Catholic high school. My sure-footed rhetoric around the importance of abstinence was airtight. I was a vehement pro-life crusader; my locker senior year bore a magnet that said, “Choose Life! Your Mom Did!” I read about abortion and right-to-life legislation in pamphlets and books and all kinds of magazines to which I subscribed. If I had been a character in a Judy Blume book in high school, mine would have been a monolithic minor role, inserted solely for comic relief.
Just before I graduated from high school, a retired police officer visited our theology class to warn us about the hazards of being a female living on a university campus. The officer presented several case studies of young women (overachieving, overprivileged) whose stories were all the same: raped because they left their dorm rooms alone at night, probably to do laundry.
At the time, this was perhaps the most directly an adult had ever spoken to me about sex. And it was not about sex, per se. It wasn’t about relationships or physical boundaries or pacing or pleasure. It was about sexual violence and its inevitability. The message was essentially this and only this: You, as young females away from your parents, are a vulnerable population and you will be preyed upon. The best thing you can do is prepare for what to do when an assault occurs, either to you or someone you know.
If the theology department at my high school had consulted Judy Blume, I expect we would have heard an entirely different lecture. I can well imagine the kind of lesson plan Blume might have suggested for the girls of Magnificat High School.
Just a month shy of my 40th birthday, I finally read Blume’s Forever, which would have been the touchstone novel to read in high school. Forever’s themes and messaging are oddly evergreen, although it was published in 1975. Blume writes in the introduction that the novel was written for her daughter. The daughter had requested a book where the characters have sex and the girl doesn’t die. Indeed, the young lovers are very much alive in Forever. Michael and Katherine, both high school seniors, are learning how to navigate a serious romance and a responsible sexual relationship. Consent and the lack thereof emerges in some of the earliest moments in the book, and the matter is handled in the very way I see it addressed in YouTube videos targeting young adults. The female characters are assertive and communicative with their parents. From the first romantic encounter between Michael and Kath, Michael asks permission to kiss Katherine first. She asks him if he always asks and he says no, but he’s not sure with her. Their first time having sex is hilariously amateurish, but refreshingly honest in its foibles and the discomfort experienced by both parties. Kath says she can’t imagine what it would be like with someone you didn’t love, given the vulnerability of failing to mirror the passion and perfection of the movies.
Forever contains a whole chapter about learning to ski that serves as a giant throbbing metaphor about falling in love and becoming sexually active. I’m confident this metaphor would have eluded me when I was this book’s target readership, but an adult reread offers a sharper lens on the ways Blume treats sex—as a kind of recreation that requires communication and practice.
The canon of Blume’s young adult novels is largely directed at girls and women, prioritizing a proactive attitude toward one’s sexual health. Her books were broadly banned on the heels of the election of President Ronald Reagan. Blume has said that she saw censorship not just as the parental reflex of control around what children were reading, but as a means of protecting themselves from being questioned. Blume said in an interview with NPR, “It’s what we don’t want our children to know, what we don’t want to talk to our children about; and if they read it, they’ll know it, or they’ll question it.”
I think Blume’s critique of censorship addresses both approaches to sex education I received. There was the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell approach of my own parents. And then there was the Scared Straight model offered by the retired police officer in high school. One was negligent. The other was aggressive. Neither presented sexuality as wonderful, and neither presented sex as something to be entered into carefully and with agency by both parties.
My own approach to sex education with my daughter has been oddly instructive—for me. I have tried to broach different topics, but I’ve been amazed by how much my daughter already knows about the spectrum of gender and sexuality. Her textbooks are not Blume novels but rather YouTube videos and TikTok testimonials. I only have to invite a conversation about the content she consumes, and she will often share with me more of what is shaping her world and her view of it. I have learned that sex education is not a trickle-down teaching but one exchanged in all directions, among all generations. It is not, as the retired police officer would have us believe, something to be feared, but something to be explored and questioned together, perhaps even with a higher power.