Okay, real quick, think of a classic superstition commonly held by sailors. Got one?
It’s about ladyfolk on boats, isn’t it?
A few weeks ago, I was myself a ladyfolk on a boat. Furthermore, I was doing the ladyest of lady things- menstruating. Now, those of you who are regular readers, or who better yet know me personally, have probably already figured out where this was going. (Because research!)
If I was a girl on a boat pretending to be a ship’s boy or somesuch, could I pull it off? Since everybody on said boat knew that I was a girl, could I at least go without anyone realizing I was on my period? Could I do it without modern tampons? (Tampon history, go!)
I figured this was experiment enough for me. Setting aside all the other advantages I would already have over those swashbuckling heroines, I at least already knew I could make myself look like a boy. Just cutting my hair off was enough to get myself repeatedly called ‘sir’ in the grocery story. With the added benefits of breast binding and manly clothing, I’m confident I could blend in.
But then comes the ladytimes, and that’s where things would get tricky for me. I imagine this is true for most women, but despite the commonness of the girl-pretends-to-be-sailor-boy trope, menstruation almost never comes up. And I don’t know why! It seems darned important! (For just a few nautical cross-dressing examples, let alone the bazillions of books about girls whose stories cover months if not years of their lives without periods ever coming up, see Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, The Pirates! series by Gideon Defoe, Gentle Rogue by Johanna Lindsey, Bloody Jack: Being An Account of the Curious Adventures of Mary “Jacky” Faber, Ship’s Boy by L.A. Meyer, etc. [My husband argued that some of these stories have the lady in question being taught how to change her rags, but I don’t think that cuts it. Just because you know how to murder someone doesn’t mean you know how hide the body and evade prosecution.])
Menstruation is pretty taboo, I get it. I just don’t get why. I mean, half the population of the planet will in all likelihood have to deal with a leaking uterus for half of their lives. So why can’t we talk about this, even now that it’s been so thoroughly sanitized? I think that a story about a female pretending to be male would be much more realistic, not to mention more interesting, if we get the full spectrum of what that would mean for her and how difficult it would be.
Despite the hands on research, I think this experiment raised more questions than it really answered. For example, I took to sneaking used pads off the boat whenever we were in port, but what if I was at sea for months? Would I need a giant stockpile of wool rags? Where would I put all that? In a boat full of guys and devoid of privacy, how would I change them? How would I clean them? And if I couldn’t clean them, could I sneak them into the surgeon’s galley and stow it with dirty bandages or something like some kind of saltwater ninja?
One thing was thoroughly proved, though. I am not cut out for gender-bending cabin boyhood. Even after crumbling and using tampons four days in- between the crabbiness, the sleepiness, the vague but insistent refusal to jump in the water, and the half dozen daily chocolate raids in the galley, I was busted before the week was out. Had I been busted by an eighteenth century sea captain instead of my mother-in-law, I probably would have been tossed overboard during the first storm. *sad trombone*
Alas, a pirate’s life is not the life for me, which just brought up even more questions. How does this work?? How are these characters not half-stupid with worry for at least a quarter of their time? And how are they so clever at evading detection, but that’s not even worth a mention throughout the story?
I already know I’m a failure, but how would you readers (or at least your characters) succeed at hiding? What clever menstrual hacks would you employ? I’m itching to write a historical fiction now, so give me some ideas!
(Can’t get enough of menses? Go read Madison Dusome’s Menstruation and Magic! It’s great!)