Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, who graduated from high school last year and will be a freshman at Yale next fall, is the editor of My Little Red Book, a new collection of women’s writings about getting their period. Every woman, she writes in the introduction, remembers her first period—where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, even what she was wearing. And yet. . . almost no one talks about it. Even fewer people write about it. Why? Because first periods are an awkward subject. My Little Red Book is here to change that.” Nalebuff’s collection includes essays by Gloria Steinem, New Yorker writer Patricia Marx, Gossip Girl author Cecily von Ziegesar, and many women you have never heard of, with a range of backgrounds and experiences. I have not yet gotten my period, so I sat down to talk with Nalebuff and learn more.
In your introduction, you write that this book “shares the revolutionary spirit of Mao’s Little Red Book.” In what way is this book revolutionary?
I like to think of it as a little manifesta. It’s revolutionary in the sense that the whole project has spread by word of mouth and through a grassroots network of women. And it’s about ending a stifling silence and replacing it with a proud dialogue. The other aspect of the project is to benefit women’s health organizations. The proceeds are going to organizations. The more stories I heard, the more I realized [menstruation] wasn’t just a cultural taboo. There are tangible limitations that periods pose. One girl from Kenya told me there girls miss school because they don’t have pads. They would be homebound. When I learned about that, I decided every time I ask a woman a story I will tell her that. And from an Indian contributor I learned about untouchability and serious restrictions women go through—they can’t eat off the same silverware. So I found a charity that helps women in India.
One of the essays in your book is by Gloria Steinem; it’s an update of her famous 1978 essay “If Men Could Menstruate.” Had you read that essay as a child?
I read the essay right after I started collecting these stories. I immediately connected with it. My own first period was a travesty, and I had a skewed, dramatic view of what a first period was. So her essay showed me you could write about it with humor and still get your point across. And even though it was written in 1978, and I read it in 2003, every word was relevant, which is kind of disturbing. But the original version had some pop-cultural references that were dated, and she updated it. She had Muhammad Ali Rope-a-Dope tampons, and Joe Namath pads. She changed the TV shows: Happy Days became Law & Order.
I don’t think I will ever forget the story of the woman who got her period on a train while in flight from the Nazis. What were the most unforgettable stories for you?
It’s hard to pick just one. I categorize them by the feelings they give me. In my Happy and Inspiring category, I love Nina Bentley’s story—she gets a stain on her skirt, and instead of freaking out, she draws and turns it into a flower. But the sad ones hit me the most. The most important story in the book is Joyce Maynard’s, which talks about shame, and how being shameless isn’t so bad after all. I love her work. One other essay I really like is by Sandra Guy, and it’s about a girl who gets her period shortly after her sister dies, and how she really wishes she could stop time, because when you have a death in your family you don’t want anything to change, but her body keeps moving forward. Her period is the final straw—she has to grow up.
Throughout the book, women write about feeling ashamed of the onset of menses. Only one woman, as far as I could tell, wrote about believing that her menses was private—a more positive word. What would you say to someone who said that menses, like other bodily functions, isn’t bad, but it ought to be private?
That’s totally fine. Jacquelyn Mitchard has a good line that getting your period is like getting a sports bra: an essential but annoying part of womanhood. You should be able to deal with your period however you want to deal with it. Previously privacy and keeping quiet were the only options. You should have the choice. And celebration can be going out for a fancy dinner and getting a red cake and a rose—or it can be telling your mom. There’s a whole spectrum in each situation.
You went to Choate. Do boarding school girls have a unique experience of their periods?
I really don’t think so. Girls are getting their period younger and younger. Most girls get their periods before they get to Choate. But because it’s a diverse group of people—the girl in my book from Kenya I knew from Choate—they offer very different stories. There is one story in the book that explores what I think you’re trying to get at. She got her period in an orphanage during the Great Depression. Who do you tell? She had to tell the headmistress.
What do you want to do when you grow up?
I was talking about this with my mom today and saying I don’t think I could be in any office. I am really interested in food. I am working at Zinc [in New Haven]. I love writing. I am really interested in sustainability, and in women’s health. I don’t know, man. I could see myself working at a cool magazine. But I don’t know. I don’t know!