Getting Menstrual with Judy Blume

7th Dec 2012

Girls don’t read literature as menstruation instruction manuals, so why would editors or publishers feel the need to change Margaret’s belt to a stick-on pad?


Were you to read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume you would likely find it thoughtful, insightful, cute, feisty and wise. It is Judy Blume in all her pre-teen wonder.

But if you’re a Gen Xer or earlier on a re-read mission, keep the smelling salts handy. Because in newer versions, they’ve changed the sanitary hardware. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a big enough deal to warrant random fainting, but – damn it – it is important.

I can’t remember exactly when I first read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, but it must have been before my first period. Because when I started bleeding, I remember being confused when faced with the sticky-sided pad that was the sanitary item of choice in suburban South Australia at the time.

“But, where is the belt?” I wondered.

In the version of the book I read from the 70s, blood catchers were held in place with a belt and the one-sided sticky thing I was presented with were not yet a flicker in a marketing guru’s eye.

By the time I got onto the scene, the belt was just a memory for many, except for those who used them … and those of us who read Judy Blume.

When you read books you get transported to other places and other times – it’s one of the best things about books. Often it is the things that are different and strange that we notice and remember the most.

We learn that we are a small part of a continuum, understand that life is not simply the same everywhere, but different depending on the time and the place. Books challenge our assumptions and our ideas about what is ‘normal.’

The belt in all its glorious inaccuracies is one of the things I remembered most about the book. It meant I never assumed that sticky-sided pads were the only way. Never.

I’ve always known there are other options and that most women in the world don’t buy packets of white, disposable, sticky-sided sanitary napkins marketed by the proverbial girl on a horse on the beach.

Why? Because I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret when I was a girl.

The people who thought it would be a good idea to change the sanitary hardware were a bit daft for thinking girls were too daft to work it out. Perhaps they thought girls couldn’t cope, but the truth we already had.

Not being piss-weak, we read about the belts, looked at the sanitary napkin at our disposal, perhaps asked a few questions, pulled that piece of plastic off the back of that pad, stuck it on our knickers and never looked back.

I have faith that all the girls who read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret come out wiser to the ways of the blood, not more confused by it, regardless of whether they use the same equipment in the book or not.

When girls read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret they are not reading it to learn about the literal mechanics of not getting covered in blood, they are engaging in conversations about feelings, friendship, ethics, and fears – with a good dose of theology thrown in.

Of course, now the menstrual mechanics have moved on again. Across the globe women are calling god out for approving a fundamental evolutionary design fault when not equipping us with Mooncups from the outset.

With Mooncups and a few fancy silk clip-ons a lass is set up with a decade of menstrual freedom for the same price the old disposable tampons and stick-ons can collect a few months worth of uterus linings for.

Does this warrant an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret update? Perhaps it is vital that in these times of austerity we change classic works of fiction in order to teach people the most economical approach to periods. (I shouldn’t have said that because some fool will likely go and do it).

My friend Martine is the first person I was counselled by when I realised what they’d done. She remembered the belt too and was a great source of emotional and technical support. “I think it’s terrible historical revisionism,” she said via email. “I don’t recall Flaubert, Joyce etc (etc!) being rewritten to reflect current practices.”

She’s right, and when they try changing literature, it stands out like a red flashing light. *Flash* *Flash* Someone bleedin’ fucked up *Flash* *Flash* Sometimes they put in footnotes by way of explanation, but changing the text? How odd.

Here’s the heart of the matter: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is literature, not an instruction manual. It’s sophisticated, complex and nuanced and this is what makes it a piece of classic young adult literature. It is classic because – unlike belts, stick-ons, and cups – it transcends its era.

If it wasn’t in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret I wouldn’t have a clue belts were ever used, and maybe that doesn’t matter, but I really like having that information in my head’s history store. I like that it meant I never thought the way I was taught was the way everywhere.

I feel sad that people might read Judy Blume now and not get to have that too – they only get to learn about the boring menstrual equipment they’re either going to use or are already using.

Like many Judy Blume readers, my friend Martine is bleeding smart; we can read something and manage to work out if things have changed since it was written.

Damn it, readers of fiction like complexity and we don’t mind having to put in some effort, perhaps even ask some questions or look up a footnote to work it out – if we wanted it straight and simple we’d read instructions all bleedin’ morning instead of getting our dainty heads dirty in fanciful works of fiction.

Is it right to update or does this turn the text from fiction into instruction manual? Are the mechanics of menstruation not important enough to count as a significant or serious part of literature? Have you noticed a re-write in a re-read? Please share in the comments below.

(Image via Ephemeral Scraps)


  • Jess says:

    It narks me off so much when then re-work things, part of reading books from different eras is learning that things were different back then, but fundamentally nothing changes.

    Another one that’s done this is a book I loved when I was a tween, Just Don’t Make a Scene Mum,the ‘Leehampton’ by Rosie Rushton (if you haven’t read them do, they are hilarious, but find the early 90s versions…) they were republished in 2006 and I bought them for an 11 year old last year and was horrified to discover they’d changed all the terminology, slang we would have used, the gear they had, the bands they listened to, I felt like someone had taken my childhood and told me it was no longer marketable. It made me so angry, for no reason!!!

    • Libby says:

      I agree! It seems that Judy Blume updated the kit 25 years ago (http://Judyblume.com/blog.php). She says the books not a historical text, but I guess as a reader I disagree – it gave me a sense of history and difference that has remained with me in a way that historical texts never did. Thanks for your thoughts Jess.