Is there anything more awkward than turning 13? You’re too old to feel like a kid, too young to be grown up, and too embarrassed to talk about any of it. At 13, I got my own makeup, and gave myself pinkeye four times. I blasted the song “Like a Virgin” from my bedroom, except for when Madonna cooed the word “virgin,” I hovered over the sound button just to turn it down for fear that my mom would hear. (I didn’t know what a virgin was, but I knew I couldn’t be associated with it without melting into an abyss of embarrassment in front of my mom.) Neither of us were prepared for my emerging adulthood.
That’s the subject of Pixar’s new coming-of-age movie, “Turning Red”. Mei Lee is Chinese-Canadian and the only child of loving parents with traditional values. She’s a straight-A student who loves the fictional boy band 4*Town just as much as her three equally nerdy besties. She’s loud, opinionated and adorable. We meet Mei Lee at the start of a familiar struggle: being a perfect little girl, and experimenting with her more rebellious side as a young teen.
She’s headed straight for puberty, and everything that comes with it. So much of her story is so relatable, with two exceptions: a family curse (see below) and one quick scene. Yes, I’m talking about that scene, but not for the reason you might think.
“I have pads!” That’s mom Ming’s reaction to Mei Lee as she wails from behind the shower curtain about how she’s a “red monster.” While Ming never says the word “period,” she thinks Mei Lee’s starting her first. That’s when mama Ming kicks into high gear.
“Did the red peony bloom?” Ming asks through the door. Seconds later, she produces every possible variety of pads for her daughter, like a blackjack dealer fanning out feminine products. Then come the knowing suggestions. Need ibuprofen? These vitamins will help. How about a hot water bottle? Her daughter is changing, and though not in the way she thinks, the whole scene is amazing if only for the sheer fantasy.
Whose mom did this? I don’t know of a single one.
But boy, am I here for it.
To be clear, this movie is about a family curse that turns its post-pubescent women into giant red pandas when their emotions get out of control. But for a lot of us, the real fantasy is the way that Ming explains periods to her daughter.
For example, cut to my own experience with starting my period. It’s a shorter story.
I didn’t tell anyone. And I certainly didn’t tell my mom. My mom? I couldn’t think of a more embarrassing person to discuss any type of womanhood with. No thank you. Forever. Not because she was mean. She isn’t. But the culture I grew up in simply made it impossible.
Menstruation was gross, and that was something everyone agreed on.
I would rather say nothing, sneak into the cabinet of our shared family bathroom where my mom kept her own bulky pads and try to get one stuck onto my underwear by myself. No one the wiser. No questions asked. No searing humiliation. Just no. Periods were so embarrassing. And that wasn’t limited to my experience as a kid.
The shame stuck.
I was a college graduate working for a famous magazine in New York City who walked to the office bathroom with a tampon carefully inserted up her sleeve. (All of my coworkers did! Where do you think I learned the sleeve trick?)
I was 30 years old and buying half a dozen random things at the store just so a box of tampons and liners wouldn’t be alone on the conveyor belt. This pineapple is just what I need. Also these mints. Beef jerky? Don’t mind if I do. And also, let’s pretend this isn’t happening, okay?
I was bedridden after foot surgery and too embarrassed to ask my husband of 12 years to buy tampons. He’s the father of my four children, but I couldn’t ask it out loud. Instead, I texted him a picture of the tampon box. No stranger to treating periods with a ten-foot pole, he nodded solemnly and went to Walgreens with a smile, but without a word. That’s the first, and only, time he’s ever run this particular errand.
But in Pixar’s version, Ming treats it with no shame at all, which means Mei Lee doesn’t either. She simply explains to her daughter that she’s a woman now and her body is starting to change. It’s not embarrassing. Puberty is simply part of life. The way spring changes into summer.
The metaphor behind “Turning Red” is spot on for life as a 13-year-old girl. The new hair. The new smells. The new feelings. “It’s a young girl who thought she had everything under control,” director Domee Shi shared. “Then [suddenly puberty hits and] she becomes big and hairy, an emotional wreck.” In Mei Lee’s case, she literally becomes a big, hairy monster whose fear of what’s happening is only surpassed by how embarrassing it is.
In the movie, this mother and daughter have lots of power struggles, but none of them are about how to handle a period. That’s just a given. Ming is prepared for her daughter’s physical changes in a way that I’d guess most of our mothers weren’t.
But “Turning Red” isn’t a movie about periods. It covers the much bigger topic of puberty in all its messy, awkward, rebellious splendor. “The period scene” is short. And yet.
I have three daughters and one son, and this quick mother-daughter interaction in the bathroom reinforced so many conversations I’ve had with friends in the last year. My oldest girl turns 13 this summer and while she doesn’t need them yet, I just set out a little basket of petite pads, liners and tampons in our guest bathroom. Why? Her friends come over. My friends come over. And we all need to get more comfortable with the products that go with our bodily needs.
But because old habits die so very hard, my first thought was to worry about the guys in our house, my son and husband. Would they feel uncomfortable? Repulsed? Would the idea of women bleeding so publicly be just too gross? Except: no one is ashamed to have the toilet paper sitting out. Why should pads be any different?
The shame of it all—that’s the real red monster.
Puberty is coming and there’s no sense in dreaming otherwise. I didn’t ignore my kids’ earlier phases. Can you imagine pretending that your toddler wasn’t talking? Do we look the other way when our fourth graders need new sneakers? It could be the blood. Or that slight hint of sexuality. Whatever it is, we’re getting over it.
I was too mortified to ask my mom about periods (or any other part of growing up) but that’s not how it’ll be for my girls. Media is changing. Society is changing. That means our girls—and our boys—are changing too. And it’s long overdue.
Because what’s the alternative? Continue to shame girls (and grown women!) for a natural, physical, monthly experience that’s already uncomfortable enough?
The shame of it all—that’s the real red monster.
And we’re done with that around here.