There’s a scene in Judy Blume’s Are you there, God? It’s Me, Margaret, where the 11-year-old protagonist and her friend ‘bravely’ purchase their first sanitary products from a drug store.
Margaret silently hopes that God isn’t judging her – and that her mother won’t find out – as she buys the box of ‘Teenage Softies’. She takes the pads home and hides them in a desk drawer, too afraid to experiment with wearing one overnight – in case there’s a house fire and she is found out.
It’s hard to believe today that any young woman would rely on such cloak-and-dagger methods to prepare for her first period, but in 1970 when the seminal book was first published, life was very different.
The novel went on to sell over nine million copies worldwide, suggesting society was ready to start talking about menstruation. Now, as the movie based on the book is released in the UK, metro.co.uk looks at how the novel shaped young lives, and whether enough period-progress has been made.
‘It really shocks me how little Year Sevens know these days’, says Katie Pratley, a parenting coach and teacher who runs PSHE classes. ‘While they would gladly say “dick” or “tits”, they often can’t bring themselves to say “breasts” or “vagina”. There’s still an intrinsic sense of embarrassment about their bodies.’
‘When talking about periods, there is a real thirst to understand, especially from boys. When they ask questions which are pertinent to them and their gender, there’s sort of a cheekiness. But questions about girls are really respectful. They are genuinely interested in what’s going on in the body and how does that work? How does it feel? How do you know when you’re going to have a period? The book is timeless because it addresses these timeless questions.’
It’s why Blume’s story is just as important now as five decades ago, Katie argues.
Starring Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon alongside Rachel McAdams, Elle Graham, Benny Safdie, Echo Kallum and Kathy Bates, the movie follows Margaret as she moves from New York and addresses the thorny issues of bras, boys, kissing and periods with her new-found friends.
The film depicts Margaret and girl squad giggling over diagrams of genitals in textbooks, searching for naked pictures in Playboy and carrying out breast-growth exercises, chanting the mantra: ‘I must, I must, I must increase my bust’. ‘Judy Blume gave America permission to say the word “period”, permission to talk about a pad,’ the movie’s producer Amy Lorraine Brooks says.
Katie adds: ’The things kids talk about today are exactly the same as when I was younger, and how I felt when I read the book at the age of nine in 1988. There is an assumption that kids today know everything, but actually there’s a lot of confusion. I hear questions like: If you have bigger boobs, do you produce more milk? If you have sex for longer, are you more likely to get pregnant? It all resonates so much with the character of Margaret, as she’s trying to make sense of a world which is all new.’
The element of menstrual embarrassment of 1970s Margaret lingers for young people today, Katie says. Like many teachers, she has helped young girls who have been mortified by unexpectedly bleeding through their clothes. She says: ‘It can be very distressing for them. So I take charge, wrap a jumper around their waist and get them sorted. I tell them that it happens to us all.’
So if it happens to half the population, why is there such a deeply ingrained shame around menstruation? Could it be to do with the nonsense and mythology in which it has historically been shrouded?
Before the 19th Century, doctors didn’t realise periods were linked to ovulation and sanitation wear wasn’t even developed until the First World War when nurses realised disposable cellulose bandages they used on wounded soldiers were so good at absorbing blood (previously they had been using rags, cotton or sheep’s wool).
Readers of early editions of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret may remember being bamboozled by a mysterious contraption known as a sanitary belt, which was taken out of later editions when disposable pads became common.
Period products of the eighties and nineties came with a heavy dose of shame; they were advertised as being ‘discreet’, and inexplicably shown absorbing blue liquid instead of blood.
Shame around periods remains today, according to Ruby Raut, who was born in Nepal and was banished for bleeding when she started her periods.
As a menstruating teenager, Ruby was told she was ‘untouchable’ for seven days, that she should avoid contact with any men or going into the kitchen. Ruby, now a menstrual health expert, launched WUKA period-proof underwear in response.
She tells metro.co.uk: ‘In a world where we’re obsessed with the gory and bloody scenes in Game of Thrones and The Vikings, how is a bit of period blood unacceptable? I wanted to smash the taboos surrounding periods and empower everyone with a period to not be held back by this completely natural bodily function.’
Society has some waking up to do, Ruby, who regularly receives streams of hate online, believes. One man wrote to her: ‘Companies like yours who feel the need to show the public disgusting sights of blood clots dropping on the shower floor. One has to wonder what type of disgusting humans feel the need for this type of gutter advertising. I’ve just shown my wife your disgusting advert and she was equally shocked. Filthy and trashy – that’s all that comes to mind. WUKA is a foul company.’
She gets hundreds of messages like these.
Ruby calls for better education and a more informed approach to women’s health: ‘Why are still girls having to raise their hands or show red cards to say that they need to go to the toilet?,’ she asks.
‘A staggering 44% of survey respondents told Betty for Schools [which provides menstruation education] that they didn’t know what was happening when they got to their first period. Only 57% said they’d been told about periods at school, and more than half said they were just too embarrassed to tell anyone they’d even started. This all trickles down into adult life.’
Menstrual shame is a complex issue with many layers to be unraveled, according to Karen Abi-Karam, a mentor and celebrant, who has been studying societal attitudes to periods as part of her PhD.
She says: ‘It is impacted by workplace policies, embroiled in politics, law and healthcare and in everything else from advertising strategy to religious practice. It is so ingrained, we are often complicit in keeping it alive ourselves without even realising it; so many of us hide our period products when we go to the bathroom, suppress any discomfort we experience and downplay, or even disconnect, from where we are in our cycle.’
Karen read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret when she was 10, when just seeing the word ‘periods’ in print felt important. ‘I can see that the open and direct language would have been very compelling as many of the other topics tackled – including bras, crushes and faith – weren’t discussed in most homes in the early 1980s,’ she says.
But despite the fact that so many years have passed, sadly, it seems there is still a long way to go. In the US, a new bill proposes to prevent young girls from talking about their first period in Florida, as lawmakers consider a draft law to ban any instruction in schools about menstrual cycles before the sixth grade.
Meanwhile, in parts of conservative Afghanistan, menstruation is considered a taboo, with young girls associating it with something negative, shameful and dirty and some parents refusing to discuss it with their children.
A survey from Plan International found that more than one in three boys think periods should be kept a secret. Boys from Brazil, Indonesia, the Netherlands and Uganda told researchers menstruation is a ‘private matter’ for girls and women and that they frequently associated periods with words such as ‘dirty’, ‘embarrassing’ and ‘disgusting’.
Which is why Blume’s books – which have been translated into 39 languages and sold more than 90 million copies – resonate now as they did in the 70s when the author would receive 200 letters per week from children alone.
Blume remembers: ‘I have a letter from a woman who says, “I had no idea what was going on, and I hid the evidence because I thought maybe I was dying and I didn’t want my mother to know. So I didn’t tell her.” Imagine feeling so afraid and not knowing that your period is natural and normal and a happy thing.’
Why we still love Margaret fifty years on.
Lucy Pearson, 37, is a book blogger and founder of the Literary Edit. She lives and works in Bondi Beach, Australia.
‘I grew up on a diet of American teen literature; Nancy Drew, the Baby-Sitters Club books and Sweet Valley High. I remember going to the library in Horsham where I grew up and taking Judy Blume books out, and then I would go and buy them all for myself.
I came from a fairly conservative Catholic family, and I would conceal the fact that I was reading them. There was an element of secrecy around her books, which seems mad now. I read Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret when I was 11 and I just loved it. I don’t remember anyone else writing about puberty in the same way.
At that time there was still a lot of shame around buying bras and sanitary towels and Judy Blume’s books just spoke to me and my friends in a way unlike any other before.
We all remember Margaret desperately wanting to start her period and desperately wanting her boobs to grow. And I remember being in exactly the same position. You read that book and felt you weren’t a freak. You didn’t feel alone anymore – you just felt understood. I think we all identified with Margaret.
Going through puberty is a confusing time, and there is something about seeing it written down there on the page that Judy Blume did so well. She endures because if you take away the markers of time, TikTok and Instagram, the problems that teenage girls face are the same now as they were then.
Judy got thousands and thousands of letters about her books from readers who felt seen and felt heard and felt understood. That’s testament to how powerful her work was. She just nailed it. She managed to produce a really beautiful body of work that that has stood the test of time in a way that no-one else ever has.’