It was a miniscule observation that launched the story that would become a horror staple. It’s about as simple as a backstory could be.
Stephen King got the idea for his first published novel after seeing a pad/tampon dispenser in a high school girl’s bathroom during his time working as a janitor. This rectangular tin hanging on the wall was completely foreign to him even though he had been not far from them whenever he walked past the door of a bathroom designated for women.
It’s a joke that audiences see in 1986’s Pretty in Pink when love-struck-obsessed Duckie is thrown into the girl’s bathroom and comments on the pad/tampon dispenser on the wall, in over-emphasized fashion, “We don’t have…what is this? A candy machine? We don’t have this in the boys room!”
During my time as a janitor at a movie theater, while we didn’t have the pad/tampon dispensers (which is some bullshit), I saw urinals in the men’s rooms (gasp) and horrendous messes in all of the bathrooms. I can tell you stories about the bowels of terrors of both designated sides.
While I do resonate with King in that the repetitive and sometimes mindless work gave way for various clips of story ideas to come into your brain, none of my ideas formed a bloody body-horror story.
If you’re a menstruating being, then you remember the first time you felt those tightening cramps and saw blood. Whether it was confusion, fear, or even excitement. It really depends on your education about it, or lack-there-of. In Carrie’s case- it was the lack-there-of education about puberty. Maybe you remember having some books that eased you into it, I’m remembering the A Smart Girl’s Guide To… book series.
In King’s novel, Miss Desjardin recalls getting her period not long after she turned eleven and exclaiming through her house, “Hey, Mum, I’m on the rag!” If this was you then good for you really. My first period was met with confusion because I was relatively young for my first so my Ma and I hadn’t discussed it yet. By the time we got to that “health class” portion at the end of fifth grade, I already knew what was going on and had a small zippered bag that I kept in my locker that was filled with pads.
It doesn’t matter that Carrie is unaware or how much Maragaret tries to deny and suppress it- Carrie is a woman. Carrie’s uterus does not care about her mother’s religious delusions. Your uterus does not care if you have short hair or bind your chest.
Looking back, I never felt feminine. The dresses and lacy socks I wore weren’t really by my own choice. I was observing men walking around freely without shirts during warm weather and wondering, “Why can’t I do that?” I was playing Red Rover and soccer and wasn’t gathering with the girls who were crushing on Orlando Bloom who was starring in the new movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Once my period started, it felt like that line was drawn and I was a total girly girl, no matter how much I didn’t want to be.
It’s not the sole reason behind the events of the novel but it’s the ignition of the powder keg. The locker room scene in the beginning of the story is not the first time that Carrie’s telekinetic powers are demonstrated, but it’s the heavily traumatic stressor that lights the match. It’s the backbone of the story and is the reality in the back of the mind for those who menstruate who aren’t women.
After Carrie returns home, “Like the memory of the stones, the knowledge of menstruation seemed always to have been there, blocked but waiting.” If you don’t have other medical conditions around your uterus, such as endometriosis, you could be lucky enough to ignore the fact that you were born with a uterus for about twenty-eight days or so in between cycles.
In November of 2016, a friend and I went to Ann Arbor for a book signing/acoustic performance for Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of the political punk band Against Me! A few years prior, Grace had publicly come out as a transgender woman in grand fashion but it being the cover story in an issue of Rolling Stone magazine in May 2012. I had listened to Against Me! in passing, mainly remembering hearing their song “Stop!” played on some MTV channel around the 2008 election season.
She had released her journals/autobiography that same month entitled Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. And, earlier that year, she had made the powerful statement of burning her birth certificate on stage during a concert in North Carolina, where they had just passed a restrictive bathroom bill that would prevent transgender people from using the bathroom they were most comfortable in.
As fate would have it, I was menstruating the day of the book signing. I wasn’t on my worst day of the cycle but it was still making its presence known periodically. And what happens whenever you menstruate? You feel the need to pee more. And, as is with most events, the line for the women’s bathroom was exponentially longer than the line for the men’s bathroom. My friend who I was with (who is non-binary), jokingly reassured me, “If you ever wanted a good chance to use the men’s room, now may be your best time.” Which, they weren’t wrong. A bathroom in a not-conservative college town during a book signing of an openly transgender punk singer. The room was full of people of the LGBTQ+ community or allied punk support. However, even with those surroundings, I knew that the stalls in the men’s room wouldn’t have the little trash receptors in them for the purpose of menstrual products and I’d have to make that walk into the busy area at the entrance of the bathroom to that trash can with a wad of toilet paper wrapped around a used tampon.
When the cycle comes around, your uterus shouts at you mockingly like Chris Hargensen and the other girls in the lock room mock Carrie “PERIOD! PERIOD! PLUG IT UP! PLUG IT UP! PLUG IT UP!” Your period is a cruel reminder that you were born with a uterus and you have a vagina no matter what your gender identity or gender expression are. Your period can even announce itself, and potentially “out” you, in public as loudly as shouting high school girls. If you have a story about bleeding through your pants after being unprepared for the start of your flow then you know what I’m talking about. In eighth grade, I had on a pad because I was in the middle of my flow but it wasn’t enough and I bled through the seat of my jeans. It left me nervous about that happening ever again in public and now, if anything, I overstock and over prepare for my period.
While I was just a tomboy getting their period at school, if I had been at say a shopping mall and been wearing masculine clothes, binding my chest, and wearing a packer and I began my period while being unprepared, it could be outright dangerous. While the bathroom debates were focused on transwomen using women’s bathrooms, on the other side of it we have transmen who use the men’s room and carry in tampons, like little sticks of dynamite that scream out “PLUG IT UP!” as you tear open the plastic.
The viral campaign #BleedingWhileTrans was started in 2017 by nonbinary educator Cass Bliss. The following year, Bliss contributed an article to the Huffington Post entitled Here’s What It’s Like To Get Your Period When You’re Not A Woman and, to steal recent internet slang, I’ve never felt more seen before. It’s the simplest summation that not everyone who menstruates is a woman and not every woman menstruates. Bliss tells the world the painful truth about “Using the men’s restroom means that I have to pray that I’m not already leaking when I walk in there and figure out the best ways to keep myself safe while discreetly tending to my period.”
Other period symptoms can include breast tenderness and swelling, which can cause further issues for those who bind their chests. Those who take birth control or those who are taking testosterone to medically transition can have their periods slow down and eventually even stop, but the stop is not instantaneous and your period can come back with a vengeance if you stop taking the medications.
The American Psychiatric Association defines the term “gender dysphoria” as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity”.
Feelings of gender dysphoria can be manifested as “a strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy” and “a strong desire for the physical sex characteristics that match one’s experienced gender”.
Even as I’m sitting here typing this out, I’m at the final days of this month’s cycle. About eight years ago, I had made the switch from women’s bikini-style underwear to men’s boxer briefs and, I gotta tell you, I find them to be WORLDS more comfortable. The issue with being assigned female at birth and wearing them is that there’s that open gap that’s designated for the penis pouch and testicles, which is fine and airy, but come that time of the month there’s nowhere to securely put a pad where it’s actually effective in not making a mess. So, as much as I want to wear these boxers with a Universal Monster collage all over them, I’m forced into a secondary layer of the generic bikini-style underwear from a pack so I can still wear a panty liner and not risk staining these rad boxers.
Clothing brand Toni Marlow sells T.O.M. (Time Of Month) boxer briefs, with the added layer of fabric to hold up pads and liners closer to the vaginal opening. Even their clothing description includes “designed for people who menstruate”.
The brand Harebrained, known for their cartoony Period Panties, put cartoons and movie characters on underwear, made with black bikini lining, with puns such as “Cunt Dracula” (Count Dracula) or “We All Bloat” (Pennywise). While not completely alleviating the gender dysphoria that comes along with my period, at least having horror-themed period underwear makes it sort of fun.
The act of having to buy tampons or pads or other items marked as “feminine care” can trigger stress, anxiety, and feelings of dysphoria in those that are trans masculine or any other gender that’s not of the feminine variety. Commercials and advertisements showing women dancing in lightly colored dresses or female athletes in short-shorts, almost showing the idyllic feminine form, represents a small fraction of those who actually menstruate. The little white cotton pads might as well be littlewhite flags that bring you back to being as woman as defined by her period no matter who you are or where you are in life.
In 2019, the brand Always announced that they would be removing the feminine Venus symbol from their period products
Steph deNormand, the Trans Health Program manager at Fenway Health, championed the brand’s decision to remove the Venus symbol by affirming that it could trigger dysphoria in trans individuals, “For folks using these products on a nearly monthly basis, it can be harmful and distressing to see binary/gendered images, coding, language and symbols. So, using less coded products can make a huge difference. Trans and nonbinary folks are constantly misgendered, and a gesture like this can broaden out the experiences and open up spaces for those who need the products.”
While people may try to reassure you that the cashier at the store isn’t judging you on your purchase, I still keep my eyes down and walk quickly through the aisles as I buy my boxes of tampons.
Carrie herself feels body dysmorphia, in comparing herself to the other girls at Ewen High School and the copies of Seventeen magazine that she had flipped through in the school’s library. Her feelings don’t have to do with her sexuality, gender identity, or gender presentation, but rather with her body overall as she feels like the “ugly duckling”.
Body dysmorphic disorder can partly be defined by “having a strong belief that you have a defect in your appearance that makes you ugly or deformed” and “constantly comparing appearance with others to the point that it becomes your biggest focus or worry”.
LGBTQ+ people can feel body dysmorphia and/or gender dysphoria. However, it’s important to remember that feelings of dysphoria are not “required” to be transgender and that the feelings can develop at any point in life.
This is the only time I will draw comparisons from the book to the movie in this essay, I promise. Sissy Spacek’s original portrayal, which was a classic horror performance in the Brian DePalma film, altered the look of the character for all future adaptations and thought of the character. Spacek was slim with pointed features and long, thin blonde hair. The reader’s introduction to Carrie describes her as, “…a frog among swans. She was a chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks, her wet hair completely without color. ” Quite the opposite of Sissy Spacek and very opposite of Chloë Grace Moretz.
As the images of all of these picturesque girls swarm her mind, Carrie thinks to herself about how,
“She could be
(what o what o what)
could stop the chocolates and her pimples would go down. They always did. She could fix her hair. Buy pantyhose and blue and green tights. Make little skirts and dresses from Butterick and Simplicity patterns. The price of a bus ticket, a train ticket. She could be, could be, could be—
It’s all a similar mindset. You could be skinny if you ate healthier. Your skin could clear up if you washed your face more. You could be seen more as a man if you didn’t get your period.
While I personally have come to feel less shame around periods themselves, there’s still a “hush hush” about it. It’s still stigmatized on the grand scale of things.
In November of 2020, Scotland passed The Period Products (Free Provision) Bill. Scotland had already begun providing menstrual products in schools and universities but the bill’s passing expanded to make the supplies available for free in designated places in the public. Scotland’s official Twitter account (because they have one of those) announced the bill’s passing by assuring its citizens, “That’s right, Scotland has become the first country in the world to make period products free for all, Because in Scotland, we believe it’s fundamental to dignity, equality and human rights.”
Just passed in Michigan, too, so that’s pretty cool to have that going for me in the state I live in.
It was announced in a press release on November 4, 2021 that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was signing the first bill to abolish the tax. Representative Bryan Posthumus remarked, “In my view, this isn’t a gender issue or a partisan issue, this is about putting money back into the pockets of Michigan families – and we did that here,” and Representative Tenisha Yancey “Ending the tampon tax is central to making period poverty a relic of the past.”
I feel the need to quote the math that someone took the time to break down in this press release-
“Over the course of a lifetime, the average menstruating Michigander has 456 periods, totaling 6.25 years, and uses 17,000 tampons or pads. Despite the necessity, expense, and frequency of need, Michiganders pay a 6 percent tax when they purchase tampons, pads, or other menstrual products. The typical cost for these products is $7 to $10 per month, which adds up to between $3,360 and $4,800 over the course of a lifetime. Repealing the tax will drive down costs for millions of Michiganders.”
You can’t argue with that math but I’m a bit thrown because I spend at least $15 per month, given the variety of tampon sizes, pads, and panty liners I go through over the arc of the week, but that’s just me.
The other states that have abolished the tampon tax at the time I’m typing this are Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, Washington, and Washington D.C. Some of these states don’t have a tax to begin with while others consider them necessary medical products and therefore they’re not taxed.
They’re small steps towards the destigmatization of menstruation, but we’ve gotta take a victory wherever we can get it.