Like most girls, I vividly remember the first time I got my period. That mysterious, sore-tummy feeling in the days before it came. The fresh swirl of blood in the toilet. The first awkward attempts at learning to use pads and tampons. Feeling like I was the only one who leaked and stained, the only one whose cramps made her want to curl into a little ball and weep.
And because I was just 10 at the time, I felt like I was the only one in the entire fifth-grade-universe who had her period. I’m sure there were at least a few others who did too, but certainly no one was talking about that in fifth grade, so I was truly convinced I was the only one. It was a lonely, and sometimes shameful, feeling.
I was lucky in that I had a supportive mom who taught me how to handle the whole thing with some grace and never made me feel embarrassed about what was happening to my body. But I remember thinking, even at the time, that I wished the whole subject weren’t so awkward to discuss, so hidden and off-limits. I wished it weren’t so cloaked in guilt, humiliation, and the feeling that what was happening somehow made me “dirty,” weak, or less than in some way.
Girls deserve nothing but respect and admiration when they get their periods. Maybe even a little fanfare too—after all, the arrival of Aunt Flo means that the girl is now transforming into a woman, which is nothing short of miraculous. If we welcomed all girls into womanhood with honor and accolades, can you imagine how that might change the course of their lives— their relationship to their bodies, their reproductive systems, and their sexualities?
The thing is, the idea that a girl’s first period (or “menarche,” in clinical terms) is something taboo that should never be discussed is actually pretty specific to our culture. In other cultures, a girl’s first period is acknowledged and actually celebrated. Periods are viewed as a girl’s entrance into womanhood, and for that she is revered. As she damn well should be.
Now, for those of us who have lived all our lives in a culture where periods are hardly ever discussed, the idea of a “period party” or anything resembling such a thing, might sound pretty foreign, and maybe even embarrassing or unnecessary. But for girls who have grown up in cultures where this is part of normal life, that is not the case at all, and these celebrations actually serve a necessary and important purpose in a girls’ maturation and developing sense of self.
In an article for Globe and Mail, V. Radhika describes the Sri Lankan coming-of-age tradition called poopunitha neerathu vizha. The ritual has two main components: a private religious ceremony, followed by a large, public party. This is how one mother, Malarvilly Karunagaran describes it:
“When a girl gets her first period, close relatives are informed and she is given a bath with saffron and milk (the ‘bath’ is symbolic; some families merely sprinkle tinted milk over their daughters). A few days later, a priest is invited to perform a small ceremony to bless her. She also wears a sari for the first time, marking her transition to womanhood.”
Soon after, there is a giant gala, replete with limousine service, cake, and endless festivities. It’s attended by everyone in the community (yes, including boys), and costs some families as much as $20,000.
To many of us, this sounds totally strange, am I right? Why draw such attention to such a private matter? But the amazing thing is that this is not how it is experienced for the girls involved. Why? Because a lavish period party like this a normal, common part of life, much like a Sweet Sixteen, Christening, or Bar Mitzvah would be to many of us. “All my friends had it, so I am happy to have it too,” says Senthura, one of the sisters interviewed for the Globe and Mail profile.
The Sri Lankan menarche party is just one of many traditional cultures who have coming-of-age rituals surrounding a girl’s first period. The Beng women of the Ivory Coast, for example, view a girl’s first period as a time of blossoming, and celebrate it by showering with her gifts and celebrating her “like a queen.”
And check out this “first-period” celebration from the Navajo culture: The celebration spans several days, and girls get to be dressed in their finest clothes, are fed well, and pampered, and are treated to four days of singing and dancing. And yes, there is cake. (I mean, what would a party be without cake?).
Are you starting to be convinced that “period parties” might be a pretty cool thing to do for our girls too? You’re not the only one. Although our culture is still rife with plenty of secrecy and shame surrounding menstruating girls and women, some families out there are looking to change that.
In 2012, an website called Menarche Parties R Us (hilarious name, right?) stepped onto the scene, with period party kits for sale that come complete with decorations, instructions, games, and more. And if you are more of a DIY-type, Pinterest has been exploding with “period party” crafts, recipes, and party ideas.
You might even remember the viral story from early this year about 12-year-old Brooke Lee, and the awesome “period party” her mom threw for her. Between the “Congrats On Your Period” cake (with red icing, no less) and the gift-wrapped tampon and pads, the party was amaze-balls. But it was also Brooke’s grinning face, and the fact that she seemed proud and totally unembarrassed about it all that made the story noteworthy.
But whether or not a “period party” is the way to go for each and every one of us, it would behoove us to all think about making positive changes in how this momentous event is handled for our girls and daughters. Getting your period for the first time should not be a stressful, shameful experience, but a memorable one in which your fierce power and utter gorgeousness as a woman is celebrated and respected.