You have all heard the classic female tale. Whether bleeding through your khaki uniform pants and your mom telling you, “You’re a woman now,” losing your virginity in the back of an old pick-up truck at summer camp, or becoming a mother after a seamless pregnancy and having your perfectly round-headed and healthy baby placed on your ready-to-breastfeed chest, you know these movie quality stories to be wildly uncommon. You instead, as resilient you are, guide yourself through the untold truth of femininity.

You throw away 100 tampons before knowing how to use one. You lose your virginity on a messy, confusing, and imperfect night and you experience birth in a deeply personal and courageous way that likely completely deviated from your best-laid birth plan. Yet, you, as a powerful and resourceful force of nature, figure it out. You talk to your friends, converse with the Google Search Bar, and overcome the unknown. Welcome to Self-Taught, where we discuss how women teach themselves about their bodies—because we’ve all been failed by school courses, perplexed by movie scenes, and embarrassed by conversations with parents and peers.

For far too long, flawed systems and unrealistic media have depicted the female body—the female experience—as too skinny, too fat, too messy or neat, disgusting or pristine, but rarely the truth that lies between every extreme. In Self-Taught, we’ll share stories of how women uncovered flaws in systems, products, and lore, and taught themselves that there is a better way—and they deserve better. 

As a determined and motivational force of Gen Z, Kate Glavan, a pre-law student at NYU, has used her platform to speak out against climate change and women’s health issues. After struggling with a childhood eating disorder that prevented Kate from getting her cycle, she has learned to get in touch with and take care of her body, using her period as a marker for progress. 

Were you ever given the “period talk?” If so, by who? How did it go? How did it make you feel? Given your circumstances, was it helpful?

I have an older sister and she didn’t really talk about her period. I told myself, “I have what my sister has” and there was a conversation with my mom about what it all meant. I was told I was becoming a woman and all those phrases that you often hear. 

In fifth or sixth grade, we had some sort of talk where the girls and boys were separated. We watched a very archaic and scary video about what would happen to our bodies, especially nodding to the fact that we would get boobs and pubic hair. It did not feel welcoming or encouraging, but more like we were being told to “watch out.”

I have seen on your Instagram that your goal is to study law and eventually practice environmental law. How does your love of the environment lead you to create a more sustainable period? 

I try to focus a lot on my own individual waste because I find it so important to be in line with what I am preaching. I have looked into organic period care, but more specifically single waste products that I am using. I haven’t tried a menstrual cup yet, but I have tried period underwear. I am very open to trying new things, as well. 

This is a place in my routine where I am really looking to reduce my impact. I feel pretty confident in most aspects of my life that I am reducing my waste, but recently, thinking about how many tampons I use per cycle has made me want to alter my routine. 

As an aspiring lawyer, what is one thing you wish to see implemented and think would help give visibility to and advance women’s healthcare─specifically in the space of menstruation?

First off, there needs to be better education from the ground up. The Trump Administration has rolled back a lot of sex ed, accompanied by a lot of push back from the Religious Right to include Biblical teachings rather than science. Teaching people that learning about hormones and their bodies goes against the Bible is, in my opinion, a very regressive measure. 

Women of color also struggle most in this country with gaining access to healthcarespecifically reproductive healthcare. Legislatively, there needs to be more to provide access to reproductive healthcare. I would love to see a new health care package after the 2020 election that helps more women. I wish there would be more bipartisan compromise to push that forward. I would really love women’s healthcare to be viewed through more of an intersectional lens to help more women of color and those in minority communities. 

eating disorder and menstruation

Image courtesy of Kate Glavan

On your Instagram, you talk a lot about running and your exercise routine. Does your exercise routine change while you are on your period?

I got my period today and went on a run yesterday, actually. There isn’t much variation, but being a very active kid, doctors really brushed off the fact that I was not having a regular cycle as a result of an eating disorder simply because I was athletic. I used to think that not having my period was a normal symptom of exercise. 

I don’t feel that there was any education on the importance of having a regular menstrual cycle. As soon as I got to high school, I realized I wanted a regular period, especially before going to college. I got some tests done and doctors told me that my bone density was like an 80-year-old woman. My doctor told me that I needed to exercise, which I was shocked by because I was working out every day, if not twice a day, for volleyball. She never asked what I was eating. 

I don’t know how any of this was possible. When she told me I needed to do more weight lifting, I told her I was lifting more than the average girl my age. Without the nutrients, my bones were deteriorating so quickly. That is when I realized that not eating enough had long term health implications and that my body was not able to support a menstrual cycle as a result of being malnourished. 

I am very independent and asking for help is really hard. I told my mom that I had a problem that was likely not visible to her, and that problem was my bad relationship with food. 

In an athletic community, a lot of your worth and standards are tied to how tall you are and how fast you can jump. There are a lot of body image standards that are imposed upon you and in a way, decide your future. The conversation in my head was telling me that if I was thinner, I would be able to jump higher and X school would want me. Looking back at that, it is crazy to realize how image-based sports are.

I didn’t have a regular cycle until last year. I went to eating disorder recovery and was told to gain weight, which I did, but wasn’t taught to address my actual eating problems. Once I got out of out-patient therapy and had a regular cycle, I lost it again in about two months. The program did not teach me how to have a good relationship with food. 

When things in life aren’t going well, you resort to what is comfortable and not eating was, for me, comfortable. When I moved to New York for college, I was doing pretty well athletically but my period was not as consistent as I wanted it to be. In the past year, I have told myself I want a regular period and have supplemented my routine in areas that were not allowing me to have a regular cycle. I consider the nutritional side of my period much more seriously than I ever have. 

It’s taken me a long time to get my period consistently, but it feels great knowing that I have gotten this under control for my body. 

Self Taught Blood and Milk

Image courtesy of Kate Glavan

Can you talk about what it was like to regain your cycle? 

I will still text my mom on the first day of my period feeling so excited. The first period I got, after going into therapy for my eating disorder, felt like the happiest day of my life. It was like when you’re 13 and you get your first period and you’re scared of itーI was getting my first period again but was so excited by it! I feel like my first period when I was 13 didn’t happen. Due to the gaps in my nutrition, some doctors have told me that I didn’t really go through puberty and my first period didn’t actually trigger the hormonal reaction it should have. 

Every time I get my period, I feel so happy. To me, it is a sign that I am nourishing my body and taking care of myself. When I was a kid, I felt like I didn’t know what was happening, but now it is a mental check-in that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. 

What makes you feel most empowered when you are on your period?

When I am on my period, I don’t worry so much about food, exercise, and body image. My period makes me feel secure that my body is giving me a signal from the inside. A lot of your health, you can’t see. You may have good skin or shiny hair, but it is empowering to know that my body is giving me a signal that I am doing something right. 

What is one thing you wish your younger self knew about your period? 

For a while, I tried to avoid dealing with my period─it felt like a burden to take it seriously. I wish I could have told myself when I got my first period, before having eating problems, that I was going to have serious health implications if I did not take seriously the ability to have a regular period. 

If the rhetoric could have been switched from, “you’re an athlete, don’t worry about it!” to “let’s give you the second cycle of your life,” I would have felt a lot less scared. Getting my period is an important marker of my health, and I wish that was a message I could have grown up with. It is not something to feel ashamed of or something you feel you can’t ask questions about. Respecting and treating yourself kindly is so important in accepting your period. 

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