The spring after my daughter Anna turned 13 and got her period, I invited close adult women friends over for a ziti dinner to celebrate this turning point in her life. My husband took our younger daughter out of the house so it would be a special “older girl” event. We sat in a circle and shared memories of getting our periods and also shared favorite memories about my daughter.
While a little embarrassed, Anna seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps it wasn’t full of instruction or deep meaning like other rituals, but it made a special memory for her. I also hoped that it sent the message that she was welcomed into the world of womanhood and that the changes in her body were to be honored and celebrated, not something to feel ashamed about. After the celebration, my younger daughter Katie stated quite seriously that when it was her turn, she wanted macaroni and cheese, not ziti.
Soon it will soon be Katie’s turn, so I’ve been thinking more about menarche and how other families might be observing this important and often frightening time of life. Even though many of the taboos about talking about our bodies have broken down, menstruation is still generally talked about privately and in hushed tones. We usually use euphemisms and funny phrases like “on the rag,” “that time of the month,” or “a visit from Aunt Flo.”
Most girls nowadays learn about menstruation and puberty through a book, perhaps a talk with Mom, an older sister or friend, and at school assemblies. Yet as much as 10 percent of American girls are clueless about what’s happening to them when they get their first period, according to Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, authors of “Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation.” While the body-shaming of yesterday doesn’t happen as often (we hope) in America today, menstruation is treated as, at best, a problem of hygiene and mood swings.
The scant research on the topic shows that girls’ attitudes about menarche and menstruation seem to be overall negative. Kim McClive-Reed, LMSW, PhD, a social psychologist, notes that one problem in these studies is in the kinds of questions, since they’re focused on symptoms and worries. One study that asked more positive questions garnered an attitude that viewed menstruation as more of a normal, healthy part of being a woman.
Also, she notes, the age of menarche has gone down, which means girls are going through this transition at younger ages than ever. The studies show a correlation between negative attitudes and this downward trend in age. Perhaps this indicates a need for earlier preparation and education, and a re-affirming of the positive sides of this transitional time.
Why do we find it so hard to talk about menstruation? While some of the negative attitudes and taboos around menstruation are most certainly because of a long, entrenched history of body shaming and fear of women’s power and fertility, some of it certainly also comes from a feminist desire to downplay what might be seen as an essentialist, traditional understanding of a girl’s development.
In other words, we tend to want to show appreciation and positivity for something a girl has done (like obtaining her driver’s license or graduating from high school) rather than something that simply “happens” to her because she’s female. But even this well-meaning approach can have unwanted consequences: Marianne Williamson has reflected that growing up, she realized that she felt loved for what she did, not for simply being who she was.
While some of the approaches to menarche in different cultures are frankly frightening – like cutting open the abdomen to encourage fertility – many other cultures offer an array of more positive, life-affirming ways to mark a girl’s menarche. Best-selling wellness author Dr. Christiane Northrup supports the idea of a positive, personalized coming-of-age tradition for our daughters. She points to examples of positive rituals in indigenous cultures and shares examples of ways other women and girls have observed this turning point. A rite of passage acknowledges that this is a time when “explosive energies of individuation that are released at puberty require some kind of container in which they can be channeled constructively.”
Northrup also believes this is a lack that teens feel acutely in our current culture. “In the absence of culturally-approved vision quests, meaningful coming-of-age ceremonies, or genuine tests of physical and psychological strength, too many young teens fill the void with drugs, alcohol, dangerous relationships, or compulsive consumerism.”
Some of the ways that other cultures, like in rural India, Bali, and Ghana, have celebrated menarche include ritual bathing, dressing the girl up in jewels and fine garments, having a feast or party, and showering the girl with gifts. In other cultures, girls might spend time with an older female relative. Still other traditions include physical feats, like the Nootka Indians, who, according to Stein and Kim, row the girl out to sea and require her to swim back to shore, where her family and friends cheer her return.
Perhaps we don’t have to have a big party to honor this time of our daughters’ lives, but simply shrugging our shoulders and treating it as nonchalantly as a nosebleed ignores the very real way that the experience of menarche lays the foundation for how a girl feels about herself for the rest of her life.
A mother’s attitude “sets the tone for how we embrace, or subtly (and not-so-subtly) reject, our awesome but culturally taboo creative powers as women,” notes Dr. Marcy Axness, author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers.” A positive, affirming ritual, whether it’s formal or informal, can help convey the message that getting your period is a time to honor yourself and your own cycles, rather than something to be ashamed of or simply “deal with.”
I can’t say my daughter has come to be fascinated with her period and loudly proclaims when it’s her time, or that she’s become a blogger for The Red Web. But hopefully at least, she can look back at least one bright spot when she felt welcomed, loved, and honored, and can re-visit some of those rituals, either for herself, or perhaps, for her own daughter. I look forward to getting her input as we prepare to acknowledge her younger sister’s coming of age. And of course, we’ll have macaroni and cheese.