One of my favorite stories about the arrival of maidenhood (a lovely euphemism for getting your first period), involves shoes. “Tina” is now a bubbly, vivacious mom of 2 teens, who doesn’t recall any conversation whatsoever from her mother or anyone else about what puberty was going to do to her before it happened. She’s sure there wasn’t any formal sex education in her small-town Texas middle school. She does remember a gym teacher who was always warning against “getting stinky”; lecturing in the locker room about the disgusting odors that start emanating from girl’s armpits, feet, etc., and the need to combat them with soap, deodorant, and powder. So a few months later, just around the corner from her eleventh birthday, when she opened up the cabinet underneath her bathroom sink to find a pretty pink box of “feminine protection,” she knew what those little oblong cushions were! Yes, Tina’s shoes were a bit tight, but she walked taller on her pillowy shoe inserts, knowing she was fighting the war against unseemly odor.
The First Period Celebration
Not all girls around the world and throughout history have been greeted by silence in response to their changing bodies. There is the Jewish tradition of being slapped across the face by one’s mother, possibly signaling to the newly forming woman that fertility is no walk in the park. There are families less bound by the current cultural taboo against menstruation that celebrates with a round of champagne or sparkling cider when a daughter gets her first period.
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably either given or received several books about “your changing body”, or plan to attend fun and informative events that explain puberty in all it’s glory (like Be You Girls!). Then there are places still, where ancient customs and elaborate ceremonies mark the occasion of a girl’s first period as a momentous rite of passage.
Various tribes in West Africa hold celebrations each year for all of the girls who have started to menstruate, after which intensive mentoring begins to teach them about their bodies, intimacy and the special powers of a fertile woman.
One Bangladesh religious sect performs a special ceremony involving a cocktail of menstrual blood and coconut milk, which is drunk by the celebrants to provide restorative powers.
More appealing to our Western palate, the Navaho tribes have a ritual called kinaalda, involving a four-day celebration and an enormous corn cake. The new maiden wears a traditional buckskin dress and is sprinkled with flower pollen, giving her a golden sheen and symbolizing her new fertility. She starts each of these special ceremonial days by running as fast as she can towards the sun and is mentored and massaged with oils by the older women in the tribe who take her aside to teach her about being a woman.
The Period Secrecy
While these exotic rituals can give us ideas about how we might design a meaningful ceremony for our daughters to mark her first period, many customs were designed to protect the rest of the community from the perceived dangers of a menstruating woman, or to protect menstruating women from harm. Many cultures have prohibitions against menstruating women having relations with men, including Orthodox Judaism, Rastafarians, and Islam.
In some places, such as Nigeria, parts of South India and Bali, women are still separated when they are on their periods, living in “menstrual huts” where they can be relieved of their regular duties and avoid cooking so as not to contaminate their families. An idealized vision of a place to which women can retreat for mutual support and comfort which was popularized by the book “The Red Tent” (1997) by Anita Diamant. In the book, biblical characters were required to sequester themselves during menses or childbirth.
Modern Day Period Taboos
In our modernity, as women have worked so hard to achieve some measure of equality with men in the world of work, keeping menstruation private has been critical. When being on your period is seen as a potential weakness compared to men who don’t have to deal with PMS, cramps or feminine hygiene issues, it does make sense just to brush it under the rug, so to speak.
As we redefine feminism for ourselves and our daughters, it makes sense to let go of the secrecy and taboos that have kept us in the dark about our bodies. So why not throw out the negative stereotypes about “the curse” and embrace pro-female rituals to celebrate our girls and create a community of women to support and mentor them through their journey into womanhood!
Please share with us your ideas or experiences with a maidenhood celebration or your version of a Red Tent sanctuary.