Monday, March 20, 2006


Messing with menstruation, historically speaking

If you are a woman born anywhere between 1960 and 1990, chances are you’ve read Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (Bonus points if you're a guy and you've read it!) It’s easily one of the most important, influential books I read as a young woman. It was the first time I remember reading a book and thinking, “Oh wow, it’s not just me.”

Did you know, though, that in the late 1990s, the text was updated to reflect the modern state of feminine hygiene products?

Whereas in the original novel, published in 1970, Margaret “attached a Teenage Softie to the little hooks on my pink belt”, in the 21st century version Margaret “peeled the paper off the bottom of the pad” and “pressed the sticky strip against my underpants.”

When I was in elementary school and reading this book for the first time, circa 1979 or 1980, the sanitary napkin belt had been banished, but the maxi-pad dispenser in the school washroom still stocked those diaperish inch-thick pads you clipped to your underpants with safety pins. The revolution to microthin protection and ‘wings’ had yet to occur.

When I first read that the publisher had updated Are You There God, my immediate response was that it was a nice idea, making the story more relevant and accessible to modern readers. But then I started to really think about it, aided in part by a reading of Rebecca Traister’s recent article in Salon (also excerpted in my weekend Ottawa Citizen which, once again, I would link to if the Web site would load).

The more I think about it, the more I wish the publishers had left the original version to stand. For one thing, how often to we go quietly mucking about with literature to ‘update’ it? Should we apply the same reasoning to rewrite Catcher in the Rye and substitute Holden Caufield’s hunting hat for a baseball cap while we’re at it?

More importantly, though, is that by updating some of the seemingly inconsequential details in the novel, we’re cutting tiny threads that tie us to our past. It’s good to know that even though some of the mechanics of the turbulent transition that is puberty might have changed, the underlying hopes, desires and expectations are the same, generation after generation.

Traister, born in 1975, writes:
And while it may seem minor – so very minor, such a few small sentences in a 150-page book that’s just about as much as God and making your boobs grow as it is about periods – I’m actually glad for the sense it gave me that as recently as five years before I was born, girls had very different hassles during puberty. I’m glad I know a bit about what they were. I’m glad other young women know about some of the technology they can be grateful for (wings!) even if they, like me and many others, don’t share Margaret’s undiluted enthusiasm for the onset of monthly bleeding.

I said earlier that Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was one of the first times I thought to myself, “Oh wow, you mean it’s not just me?” And here we are, these many years later, discussing this wonderful, compact and timeless little book on the forum where I now turn to be reminded that no, it’s not just me.

I’ve long intended to stock our bookshelves with Judy Blume’s books for the boys – I think they’d like SuperFudge, and Ramona. I’ll make sure to pick up this one too, if I can find a second-hand copy. They might never read it, but I know I will.

What do you think? Was it a good idea to make the book more relevant to generations who grew up with ‘wings’, or should we have left well enough alone?