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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

Chapter 2


I saw my blood … what happened to me?1

When we think back to our menarche we have all got stories to tell. Memories of time and place, the moment of disbelief at what we saw, the getting used to our own blood and struggling for ways to contain it, the comfort of mothers and close friends, and the stories we were told about what to do and what not to do all contributed to what was an entirely new part of life. As happy as we may have been to confide in close friends and to be confided in, our menarche remained a private concern. Thirty years ago some interest in the social element of menstruation increased in Western societies, but there was little research on the actual meaning of menarche to girls, or of how the experience fitted their expectations.2 This remains the case in Australia today. Although menarche signifies the change from early puberty to maturation by the onset of bleeding, the beginning of a physiological function specific to women, there are differences among individuals, including the age of onset, quantity and duration of blood loss, the presence or absence of accompanying discomfort, and the emotional acceptance or resistance to physical change. In addition to these aspects, I was interested in finding if there was any cultural influence in the ways in which young girls thought about menarche, and also if practices associated with it were intended as methods of control over the newly menstruating body.

My research introduced me to women from many cultures. With one exception, all had experienced menarche in countries outside Australia, and many before the advent of electronic media. Their testimony indicates that, apart from the confusion many had felt, the major understanding of menarche was not constructed by the event itself but by knowledge, cultural attitudes and values imparted by those they informed. This was where meaning was made, and here it might be opportune to explain what I mean by culture. The term has many interpretations, depending on where you might be coming from theoretically, but here I mean: constantly evolving systems of human actions and thought specific to a group of people. Within these systems meanings are embedded in language and social process. Cultural analyst William Sewell proposes two well-defined meanings. One, as a theoretical category of social life constructed from the many facets of human life and two, as a body of beliefs and practices shaped within a tangible and circumscribed world.3 Decidedly ambiguous meanings continued to be attached to menstruation, while in many non-Western countries menarche and menstruation remained topics unfit for general discussion because they were considered ‘dirty’.4 Close family members, and that included sisters, frequently practised silence. Consequently for many girls menarche was a time of ‘mixed messages’, as a young girl tried to negotiate her way through a preview of life as an adult woman.

My interviewees experienced menarche between 1934 and 1969, and their memories are arranged according to the topic under discussion rather than according to culture, age or chronology, in the interests of identifying cultural similarities and differences in non-quantitative data interpretation. The focus is on four questions: what was their initial response to the moment of seeing blood external to the body’s boundary? Whom did they tell? What was the immediate response of that person? What were the broader social responses to the event? It will be shown that the experience of menarche was influenced by prior knowledge of the event and the responses have been grouped accordingly. Some women, as girls, were ignorant or had failed to absorb an earlier explanation; two took an ostrich head-in-the-sand approach that if they ignored the bleeding it would disappear; others associated their blood with disease; some were traumatised by the experience; several had some prior information about menstruation. So there are elements of shock balanced with some sanguinity at what might be called an extra-ordinary happening. On reflection, the same response is not uncommon to loss of the first tooth, but there is some sort of mystique with menarche that is absent from other milestones in the passage to adulthood that I shall try to identify. In structuring this voyage of exploration I will be mindful of American women’s studies academic Janet Lee and researcher in adult development and ageing Jennifer Sasser-Coen, who, in a discourse of the menarcheal experience, describe women’s stories as an interweaving of historical and socio-cultural knowledge and individual development.5

Stories from the first group who were either ignorant, or who had failed to absorb information given because it lacked relevance to them at the time, reveal a grappling with the unexpected but with a certain pragmatism. Athene, Greek, remembered being ‘at school and I felt something wet. I did not know what it was’.6 Violetta, Filipina, also at school, recalled, ‘my teacher told me to go to the blackboard to write my homework. Because I have my homework I stand right away and then my classmate behind me pulled my dress. I said why, what’s the matter? “You have blood on your clothes”. So I sit down and the teacher told me to go to the blackboard and I said “I don’t know Sir”. That’s what I answered the teacher and then he was angry, wanted to smack me, but did not’.7 In this experience classroom achievement was negated by the physiological disturbance that compelled immediate response, demonstrating the interviewee’s awareness of social silence and invisibility of menstruation. It was night when Sri Lankan Daksha noticed blood and her confusion is clear, possibly enhanced by end-of-day tiredness, ‘when I want to go to bed I saw. I told my mother, “Mummy, Mummy what is happening? There is blood”’.8 Netri, Indian, ‘wondered what it was. Surprise’.9 The plight of a young girl, alone, is conveyed in the memory of Saha, Indian: ‘I got up and I saw that my panties had some blood. I have no mother. I had no one really close to me where I could go’.10 Cultural class-structures determine reliance on servants to inform, and be informed of, bodily processes, as two interviewees established. Jung, Korean, recalled ‘I didn’t know and when I got up in the morning my maid discovered it’,11 and Ria, Filipina, remembered ‘I was at home and I told my maid. I said there’s something red, something going on in my … you know?’12 Corazon, Filipina, reveals certain knowledge by association but is affected nevertheless: ‘I was about to start my first year high school when I had a period. I had no preparation at all. What I knew of periods came from my cousins who lived with us. Every month I saw them washing their undies when they have all this, you know? I’m surprised. I have mixed feelings, you know? I’m overwhelmed actually at that time’.13 For some, the menarcheal experience was fleeting and insignificant. Indonesian Rara recalled ‘a day only in the pants, you know? My grandmother, old woman, not tell anything but next day my grandma gave me medicine’14 and for Wani, also Indonesian, menarche was a nameless exudation – ‘when I first had it I told my mother’.15

Two women adopted the ‘ostrich approach’ of ignoring what they saw in the hope it would disappear. Marjorie, English, ‘was going to a church social and I was wearing my confirmation dress which was white crepe. I went to the toilet in the church hall and I saw some blood. I thought if I ignored it, it would go away’,16 and Karuna, an Indian in Kenya, saw that ‘I had a little stain I thought maybe it was simply for some reason and kept quiet’.17 Several of the women immediately connected menarcheal bleeding to sickness, and although there was a shared association, their responses were varied. Meletta, Greek living in Egypt, recalled ‘when I went to the toilet to pass the urine I saw my blood, on toilet paper, some blood, and I say “what happened to me?”’18 Italian Maria ‘was at home but I was scared. I was … scared. I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was very sick’19 and Zosime, Greek living in Egypt, harked back to how ‘I make one fight with my brother. He hit me in the back. It was the start. I tell nobody. I was, like, stupid, I couldn’t understand anything’.20 Alla, Ukrainian, remembered that ‘it was May and at school. Pain in the stomach. I went to the hospital and there they explained’.21 Ruth, Ugandan, ‘woke up and felt wet so I went to the latrine. We didn’t have toilets. It was an outside latrine and I checked myself and it was blood. I thought … something’s wrong’.22 Sicilian Rosalia’s experience was doubly memorable because ‘it was Christmas Eve and I was crying. I didn’t know what’s happened to me and I called Mum and she said “why are you crying? What’s wrong?” and I said I can’t tell you and then I told her’.23 Gloria, Filipina, was ‘playing with the kids and then, something. I run. I run. I told my auntie there’s something wrong with me. I’m sore. I’m bleeding. Look at it’.24 Chinese-Vietnamese Bao recalled ‘I not see nothing. My neighbour saw me [and asked] “when you got the pain of blood?” I said what’s wrong with me?’25

The initial awareness of bleeding had caused considerable fear and made menarche a traumatic discovery for some of the women. There seems little doubt about the effect of the menarcheal discovery, although psychologists Diane Ruble and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, in their examination of girls’ reactions to menarche 30 years ago, asserted the experience was a negative reaction to disruption, particularly in girls who were unprepared in both timing and knowledge, rather than one of trauma.26 Nevertheless, Italian Loretta remembers with some clarity, ‘we had a vegetable garden and we watched these plants with cotton, and I sat like this, and my sister look at me, she say in Italian, “ooh, you have a period” because there was blood. I was crying, you know, because it was a shock’.27 Chilean Melena returns to childish vernacular although, as her English lacked fluency, it may not be the terminology she uses: ‘I felt something. I thought it may be wee-wee. I went to the toilet, saw, and cried, you know?’28 Kateryna, Ukrainean, experienced shock at the unexpected: ‘I was in the train in Ukraine. I saw blood. I was frightened’.29 Italian Alcina ‘was scared but I will tell to nobody when I have my period’.30 Keshini, Sri Lankan, felt anxiety at her mother’s reaction to the news of her menarche: ‘I had my period at night but my mother saw it in the morning and she kept me inside. I didn’t know anything but I felt a bit scared all of a sudden’.31 Egyptian-born Jewish Yanuva’s recollection conveyed the distress of the time: ‘I’d been to the bathroom and I saw blood and I freaked. I came running down the stairs and yelled at the top of my voice to my parents who were somewhere in the corner, “Mummy, Mummy, there’s blood. There’s blood in the toilet”’.32

In a study of women’s recollections, psychologists Sharon Golub and Joan Catalano argue that the significance of menarche as a life event enables the later, detailed recall of the circumstances.33 For example, Virisila, Fijian, remembered ‘the day was a Tuesday, and hurricane season, and we had been weeding in the rain. We all came in into our dormitories and I was wet. I went into the shower, turned on my shower, and I remember taking off my panty. It was called bloomers then, you know? I remember the colour was lemon with elastic at the (indicates waist and leg) and I looked at the stain and I remember feeling ooh my god, you know. I said ooh my god. I freaked out. I really freaked out and I came out with it without realising. I just ran out. I had nothing on and there were senior girls in the dormitory, like there were ten girls in there, but we had senior girls and I was one of the most juniors’.34 The theme of shock was reported by others. Chilean Ramona remembered ‘when I saw my first stain of blood I was shocked. I knew it, but I was shocked because I didn’t know where the blood was coming from’.35 Aleli, Filipina, echoed Ramona. ‘When I first saw it I was really shocked. I was feeling “oh, my God”. I couldn’t tell anyone’.36 Fear of the unknown, of being scared, was a widely shared response. Korean Sun recalled ‘I just nervous and scared’.37 Lola, Chilean, thought back, ‘I was a little bit scared in the way it was coming because I was playing basketball at that moment’.38 Nila, Sri Lankan, recounted that ‘I knew this would happen to you and you were supposed to tell your parents or lady. I did. I felt scared’.39 Chinese-Vietnamese Tu’s memory was of being ‘really scared and I go to school and I don’t know how to use so I go to toilet all the time. After, I go home because all wet’.40

Previous knowledge combined with a certain emotional maturity reduced concern about menarche. In their study on the significance of subjective and objective timing for menarche, the psychologists Jill Rierdan and Elissa Koff found that, by early adolescence, children have formulated a social clock regarding life events that registers a sense of progress in comparison with peers. Girls who sense themselves to be either on time or late at menarche have a more favourable experience than the girl who perceives herself as too early, thus deviant, within her peer group. The girl who considers herself late is reincorporated among her peers by her menarche, no longer the deviant by absence, and is reassured of normality.41 For instance, Cecile, Ugandan, recalled ‘it happened at night, but, because I was a bit late having my period I knew what it was and also I’d seen some girls at school’.42 Armenian Seda explained, ‘I go to the toilet and explore. No, check for it, you know. Then I forgot about it but when it came I am in readiness’.43 Fijian Levani recalled ‘I went home and realised that, yes, it is a period, even though I didn’t quite know what it was going to be like’.44 Lee, Singapore Chinese, was pragmatic: ‘I was watching television and I knew something’s happening, you know? Not comfortable. Went to check, and I get a pad out, just use it, and went back to watch television. That’s it’.45 Nadia, Egyptian-born Lebanese, remembered, ‘I said you were talking about that period and I saw blood in my undies. Is that a period?’46 Qing, Hong Kong Chinese, recollected that ‘when I first saw the stain of blood I was not shocked because I have the prior knowledge. My initial feeling is a combination of fear and happiness’.47 Chilean Beatriz asked ‘what? My turn now? I have to copy my sister. I know how to be like my sister but my sister was very scared about it and I am not going to be’.48 Erlinda, Filipina, ‘was aware and I wasn’t scared’.49 Indian Hetal remembered ‘when I’m in ninth class, age of fourteen years, there are spots. I am living with my auntie and uncle but I have the liberty to have a cloth and put it on’.50 Indonesian Nirmala said ‘when it came I told my mum that there’s this bleeding’.51 Greek Elena was prepared: ‘I feel something wet before telling the girls, my friends. I know a bit from the friends and I’m ready. No fright’.52

With the exception of Violetta, the immediate discovery of menarche carried no socio-cultural overlay beyond fear of bleeding from an unknown cause, fear of which, according to physician Raymond Crawfurd, is universal.53 The young girls simply saw blood as bodily matter and interpreted their finding according to their knowledge. Their stories support Lee and Sasser-Coen’s assertion that there is no typical experience or response by girls to menarche, but one ultimately shaped by the cultural, socio-political and historical contexts in which the event takes place.54 The experiences of the younger girls, Aleli, Loretta, Yunuva and Virisila at 10 and 11, support findings by Koff, Rierdan and Karen Sheingold that the younger the girl is at menarche, the less prepared she will be, and the more likely her interpretation of the experience is to involve shock and fear. They comment on aspects of memory over time, finding memory of subjective events to be less reliable than that for objective events, but that more harmful recollections of the subjective are minimised in recall.55 In a later paper, David Pillemer and Elizabeth Rhinehart with Koff and Rierdan study so-called flashbulb memories of menarche, and find that the younger the girl, the greater the lack of understanding of the event in terms of both cause and effect. She is without any existing mental framework in which to place the experience. As a result her memories are vivid and episodic with future attitudes and behaviours informed by an elaborate memory of the event.56 This is certainly exemplified by Loretta and Virisila’s fragmented yet vivid memories of colour and place. Among the young girls who were informed about menstruation, factual details of menarche were of less significance.57

On becoming aware of the bleeding, most of the girls confided their experience to another woman. Years later the response is remembered, as Rhonda Andresen from Samoa, who was at boarding school in New Zealand at her menarche, recalls: ‘I remember when I first got my period, I ran to the nuns. I had one I could go to who was a grandmotherly type and was very, very kind’.58 For most girls it is their mother who provides information and support at menarche, and this become a major theme in psychoanalytic texts.59 Some women display an unresolved resentment when their mother’s response is evoked over 50 years after the event. Lee and Sasser-Coen in their investigation of older American women’s memories of menarche maintain that recollections, reconstructed in the present, reveal not just the event but later subjectivities and meanings attributed to the event, developed through the women’s life experiences.60 Maternal response influences how the meaning of menarche will be constructed, introducing social and cultural interpretations of menstruation that will be internalised by the young girl. For instance, Mary Suan from Manus Island reflects on the mother–daughter relationship as one ‘never that close because some things just cannot be talked about’. Mary carried this tradition on into her own relationship with her daughter: ‘anything personal like “I did my period” I would say “look, just go and ask your aunties”, I can never talk to her because of my home background where it is forbidden’.61 There were other reasons for silence as historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg found in her study on the development of what she calls the ‘American hygiene imperative’. Among older Italian immigrants to the United States, mothers had rarely informed their daughters about menstruation or reproduction because of the cultural value placed on female virtue and purity.62 At menarche, mothers’ advice was both cautionary and associated with ideas of illness, as Italian Maria discovered when her mother ‘warned me I would get it once a month. She said you’ll get pains in your stomach and she said not to use cold water’.63

Brumberg found that within her oral history interviews, Jewish mothers also revealed lack of communication with their daughters.64 Yanuva remembered being in Genoa, in transit from Egypt to Australia, and how ‘my mother immediately took my sister and said “go for a walk and tell her all about it’. When we came back she said ‘did you understand everything? Now we don’t talk about it”’.65 Lack of communication is also evident in the small secular ritual of face-slapping which is not peculiar to the Jewish tradition, being also associated with women in rural Turkey and Eastern Europe. It is a response by the mother on hearing of her daughter’s menarche and in a mother’s absence may be the prerogative of a female relative. Yanuva, confused and frightened by the menarcheal event, said ‘I can’t remember whether my sister slapped my face or told me that she ought to slap my face. I really can’t remember … but I think she did slap it and told me that she got slapped when it happened to her’. Both the origin of, and reason for, this ritual are unclear. Yanuva was uncertain: ‘I think it’s probably to do with moving from one area of life to another … I really don’t know’. Feminist Emma Goldman, who experienced her menarche in Russia in 1880, recalled the unexpectedness of her mother’s slap, together with an explanation that Goldman found unacceptable: the slap represented ‘protection against disgrace’.66 Iliene Lainer, founder of New York’s Centre for Autism, describes her shock and confusion, asking her mother what wrong she had done.67 From the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, Caren Appel-Slingbaum argues face slapping to be a ‘barbaric’ custom, a minhag or old Jewish custom not in accordance with Jewish law despite being a tradition that had been passed through the generations.68 Psychologist Ayse Uskal, interviewing women from Turkey, found the slap to be a cultural tradition lacking definitive meaning and varying in intent from bringing colour to the cheeks to being a tokenistic punishment for pride in having menstruated.69 In every situation the custom appeared to cause additional distress for the menarcheal girl, particularly one who was very young, at a time when gentle reassurance was most needed.

Psychotherapist Jessica Gillooly, who works with mother and daughter relationships and teaches undergraduate psychology, asks students to write their experiences of menarche. She finds girls accurately pick up on their mother’s feelings about menstruation and are influenced accordingly.70 Gillooly’s findings are relevant to previous generations. For example Wani, Indonesian, recalled, ‘I told my mother and I don’t know why, she looked tense and she just said “ah, this is menstruation”. I don’t know why she was tense. I think she was an unhappy woman. My mother kept saying “you know being a woman is not a happy thing. It’s a burden”’.71 Later events showed Wani was not affected by her mother’s attitude: ‘I went on as usual. I learnt jiu-jitsu. I did other things, I was good at sports. Nothing happened’. Chilean Melena’s experience was even less reassuring. ‘She said “you know what? All women come to this” and folded toilet paper, “you start this, then you get back and you change”. Very nasty. I wouldn’t do that to my daughter. I cried and cried and my mum, this mother very rude. She upset, you know. No nice explanation’.72 This contributed to Melena’s developing attitude to menstruation as a physical hardship: ‘why me? Why me? When my period was heavy and I’m going to school, I don’t want to go to school’. In a study of how girls would recommend they be prepared for menstruation, Koff and Reardan found the maternal role to be complex. One of the many ambiguities that characterise the time of menarche is a girl’s desire for emotional support and physical assistance from her mother, coupled with the need to achieve emotional distance from her. From the mother’s viewpoint, her own emotional willingness or readiness to be involved with her daughter presents grounds for conflict, as we saw with Wani and Melena.73 Consequently, an area is created for mother blaming, attributed to the unwanted negative messages given at menarche, which, according to psychologists Daryl Costos, Ruthie Ackerman and Lisa Paradis, are still embedded in today’s American culture. Costos et al consider negative messages about menarche and menstruation to have been passed on and enforced by generations of women in Western cultures.74 However it is reasonable to assert that mother blaming is not America-specific, but widely entrenched in cultures that promote silence between mothers and daughters about matters related to menarche, menstruation and sexuality.

Women reported variations in their mother’s responses to immediate needs. Meletta, Alexandrian-born Greek, recalled ‘I tell Mum I need a towel that’s special … and she took me and showed me how to wash’.75 Mothers who taught their daughters about menarche/menstruation also responded to their emotional and physical needs in ways remembered with affection, including through the agency of the daughter’s friends. Violetta, Filipina, related how ‘at recess time my classmate went to my house and told my mum that I was already having menstruation. So my mum gave her some clothes of mine and a napkin and we went to Home Economics and there I changed my clothes then I went to the class again’.76 Emotional needs were met for Olena too: ‘I show blood. Mama said that very good. You become woman … you’re normal … no problems. Mama explained everything … so I was not afraid’.77 Fijian Virisila remembers with gratitude the understanding of a surrogate maternal figure at her boarding school. Her menarcheal needs were met when ‘one of the senior girls was there. I remember saying her name and “I’ve got my period. What do I do?” And she said to me “don’t worry, I’ll show you”, and she was about five, six years older than me’.78 Absent mothers, who temporarily delegated others to act as maternal substitutes, resumed their position, ensuring old customs had not been forgotten. For Filipina Ria, the practice had added to her confusion, still apparent in the re-telling: ‘my maid told me to do it. I’m panicking, you know, I saw blood in my undies … you jump down from the stairs three or five steps. My mother came at night time. She told her about it. “Have you done it?” and she said “yeah, yeah”. I can’t remember what other things they said as I was still very young in those days’.79 This cultural folkloric tradition was also recalled by Filipina Erlinda who had some prior knowledge of menarche. ‘I told my mum. She said “that’s what I’m telling you before, first blood of a woman”. She said to jump from the stairs, three, one-two-three, and I jumped because she said it will take only three days for your menstruation to flow. She wet a towel and put it on my hair, on top of my head, to cool me down, she said because our blood is really hot’.80 Trusted older sisters played an important role in reassurance when menarche came early. Italian Neve remembered ‘my sister say what is happening, “No worry. It’s good because people who not have periods, they’re sick”’.81

Some maternal responses involved designating person to who fulfill a particular role, a cultural practice that lead to a later public expression through ceremony. Sri Lankan Daksha reminisced about her mother’s immediate reaction to her menarche. ‘She said “you can wait today. You must go to your room.” So I went to my room. We had to remove everything and when it’s day time my mother bring the dhobi woman, they bring the clothes together. Seven days inside the house’.82 Among other cultural groups menarche had associations with particular practices and caution with anyone other than close kin was necessary. A dimension of concern was added to Ugandan Cecile’s experience. ‘I was going to school. I was staying in another place with an auntie but I didn’t tell her. I was told not to tell her, because she might do something, especially the first thing is very important’.83

Interestingly, in recent studies on the preparation for and experience of menarche, both Koff and Rierdan and Ruble and Brooke-Gunn found girls today place little emphasis on identity transformation to woman.84 Three of the women I interviewed recalled feeling an identity transformation. Indian Hetal expressed it as ‘already I am big. I feel proud’.85 Lola said she was ‘scared to see the blood but happy I was a woman’.86 Erlinda, Filipina, ‘had that feeling, you know, that I’m a real lady and I don’t want to mix with girls anymore’.87 The only woman who associated menarche with having the power of reproduction was Chinese Qing, who placed it in a cultural framework, ‘if you don’t have periods, suppose the secret is revealed, no man will take you’.88 Women also recollected maternal responses associating menarche with sexuality. Greek Athene recalled how ‘she tried to explain to me “you see, you are a woman now, be careful when you go out’’’.89 Retrospectively, Lebanese Maryam observed that ‘parents want to protect their daughters, so when they know their daughters have their periods it becomes, you know, about falling pregnant. It’s like she enters a danger zone in a way’.90

Young girls at menarche rarely self-identify as a sexual subject and may well find the information that they now have reproductive potential threatening.91 There is little internalised connection between menarche and reproduction, and among the women interviewed there was ignorance and confusion about sexual matters at the time of menarche. English Marjorie thought back to ‘when I started my periods I didn’t know anything about sex. I thought if I stood next to a boy I could get pregnant so I used to cross the road if I saw a boy that I knew who might stop and talk to me. I’d just cross the road if I had my period. I didn’t know how you conceived’.92 Warnings given by mothers ‘to be careful’, were not understood because girls’ lacked knowledge of conception. Fijian Virisila related that ‘at home Mum didn’t allow me to play as much. A lot of activities I used to do before my period she told me “don’t do that … don’t play with boys”. I can’t remember if I was interested in boys then’.93 Cautionary warnings by mothers were particularly apparent in countries with a religious and socio-cultural emphasis on pre-marital chastity. In these patriarchal societies mothers acted as agents of control, and the warnings they gave were limited by the culturally censored framework of knowledge. Although the messages were clear, the practices that gave rise to them remain incomprehensible and create anxiety for the young girl, for instance‘, stay always away from a man or boy and especially when you’ve got your period. Be careful because you’ve become a big girl and you can get into trouble. Mum didn’t discuss this’, Sicilian Rosalia recalled.94 The inference of menarche as a prelude to unknown sexual situations, placing the young girl in a defensive role, was further recalled by Chilean Ramona. ‘No one knew in my family, just my mum and she cried with me saying “well, you have to be careful now” because of my virginity’.95

In her study of menarche as central to body politics, Janet Lee found a social response by parents in the immediate post-menarcheal months. Greater control over their daughters was exerted than at any other time and Chilean Beatriz recollected that ‘the mum or the father started the rules. The rules were not to have a boyfriend, not to hide in a dark place or whatever. They have to look after themselves because they can get pregnant’.96 Lee argues that in heterosexual and patriarchal societies, menarche signals both sexual availability and reproductive potential and it is within this framework that the female body is placed, or places itself.97 Levani, Fijian, remembered learning that ‘you be careful with your relationship with men, boys. That was happening to me anyway because I was sixteen’.98 Consequently, women’s memories of menarche are constructed within competing discourses, one being the risk of potential pregnancy. Melena, Chilean, spoke of how ‘the mother says “oh, I have to be more careful now. I have to control her”. That’s in our country for mothers’.99 Nor does control stop with mothers. Lola, Chilean, remembered being puzzled about advice. ‘I have to be a good girl, not around with boys because if I be with the boys I can be pregnant, but no explanation at all. I believe at that time we were very innocent people, not like now. I heard from my sister, my mother, my grandmother, that if you are with a boy you can be pregnant. I always believed that if I was holding hands I’d be pregnant, or if I was kissing him I’d be pregnant. I have to be careful with boys’.100

Two themes emerged from these stories. One is alienation, and Lee refers to ‘alienated bodies’, contending that women recalling menarche speak of themselves as passive objects of a bodily function over which they have no control. Menarche is an invader of the body, creating conflict with self, something to be struggled with, and regulated.101 For instance, Indonesian Wani’s ‘when I first had it’ recalled an experience made difficult by maternal attitude; English Marjorie’s hopeful ‘if I ignored it, it would go away’; Indian Karuna’s attempt to explain ‘maybe it was simply for some reason’; Italian Maria’s fear of possible sickness, ‘I didn’t know what it was’; Ugandan Ruth’s apprehensive ‘I checked myself and it was blood’. None of the memories suggest any perception that menarche was part of the self, nor were the stories contextually framed within recollections of emergent awareness of sexuality as Lee theorises with her own interviews.

The second theme of dependence is generalised rather than age-dependent. Women who decided to be independent and cope alone at menarche contradicted the need for maternal help and support. Indian Sasha, at 13, without maternal or sororal support, had no option, but Italian Alcina was adamant, ‘I will tell to nobody’, and Greek Elena’s ‘no say to Mum. No say to anyone’ are reflections on their individual belief that their bodies are their own. Both Elena and Alcina had older sisters so it may be hypothesised that both had witnessed family conflict and had made the conscious decision to avoid repetition beginning at their menarche. In his study on the psychological implications of menarche, Paul Trad discussed intra-family turbulence, triggered by divergent pubescent values and behaviours that contest established family rules. The effects produce change in the family structure, which Trad suggests may be an adaptive response, forcing the menarcheal girl to claim total independence from familial organisation by breaking away, physically and psychologically.102 Trad’s findings are borne out, albeit in a previous generation, 15-year-old Elena, the year after menarche, would ‘take my boyfriend, go to Athens’ and Alcina related how, within 12 months, ‘I’d grown up and I go to live in Roma’.


Interviews indicated that individual responses to the first sighting of menarcheal blood are similar across cultures. Physical memories included the sensations of wetness and pain. Emotional responses commonly included shock, surprise, puzzlement, distress and fear of sickness. More positive responses included a mixture of fear and happiness, confidence and pride. Women without knowledge of menarche and menstruation, or those to whom such information appeared irrelevant at the time they received it, recalled being surprised but not shocked at onset; others had adopted the ‘wait and see’ approach due to ignorance of menstrual duration; yet others experienced fear that the blood indicated sickness, and remembered menarche as a traumatic event. Increased age at menarche and/or some knowledge of menstruation reduced concern over the discovery of bleeding. There was no cultural pattern apparent in any of these responses.

Women’s recollections of communicating the onset of menarche to another person indicated mothers were the usual confidantes across cultures. In the immediate absence of mothers other women were informed: sisters, cousins, friends and maids, whose responses were sympathetic and in the main helpful, and a small number of women stressed their independence by concealing menarche from family. Attention was drawn to the mother–daughter relationship and the way in which menarche intensifies emotional responses. Deprivation of maternal support, help, interest and reassurance was recalled with some bitterness; conversely, maternal support given reduced the strangeness of the situation and promoted confidence. It strengthened the mother–daughter relationship and was remembered with gratitude.

The maternal figure determined cultural practices, commencing them when made aware of the situation. The most complex were found in Sri Lanka, where forms of ritual and seclusion followed the onset of menarche, and the simplest in the Filipina tradition of step-jumping. The small ritual act of face slapping was referred to by an interviewee as a practice of some Jewish mothers arising in Eastern European countries. Interviewees from countries where pre-marital chastity was emphasised recalled how their mothers’ responses to their menarche linked the first period to growing sexual desire. Behavioural instructions included allusions to sexual practices, which were poorly understood by the majority of girls as they lacked knowledge of human reproduction. The girls’ responses varied from ignorance and confusion, to rebellion, viewed briefly as two themes: body alienation and independence.

External to the interview data, studies indicate menarche is well remembered by women because of its significance in their lives, and that the memories are positively influenced by timely preparation for menstruation. This is evident in the interview data, which indicated little difference across cultures in the individual experiences and perceptions of menarche. Cultural practices introduced by the mother figure reflected cross-cultural differences, but with the shared intent of controlling the menarcheal body, which was framed as polluted, or sexualised. Consequently it is cultural-based traditions and activities such as these that influence the way in which women from diverse cultures construct their memories of menarche.

1    Meletta, 13 years old at menarche, Egypt, year unknown.

2    Virginia L. Ernster, ‘Expectations about menstruation among pre-menarcheal girls’, Medical Anthropology Newsletter, vol. 8, no. 4, 1977, p. 17.

3    William Sewell, Jr., ‘The concept(s) of culture’, in Beyond the Cultural Turn: New Directions on the Study of Society and Culture, Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt (eds), University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999. p. 39.

4    K.P. Skandhan, Amita K. Pandya, Sumangala Skandhan, Yagnesh B.Mehta, ‘Menarche: prior knowledge and experience’, Adolescence, vol. 23, no. 89, 1988, p.151.

5    Janet Lee and Jennifer Sasser-Coen, Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary U.S. Society, Routledge, New York 1996, p. 38.

6    Athene, 13 years old, Greece c.1956.

7    Violetta, 14, Philippines 1938.

8    Daksha, 13, Sri Lanka 1947.

9    Netri, 14, India 1951.

10  Saha, 13, India c.1957.

11  Jung, 13, South Korea 1959.

12  Ria, 13, Philippines 1967.

13  Corazon, 11, Philippines 1956.

14  Rara, 12, Indonesia 1951.

15  Wani, 13, Indonesia 1954.

16  Marjorie, 12, England 1956.

17  Karuna, Kenya, age and year of menarche unknown.

18  Meletta, 13, Egypt, year unknown.

19  Maria, 14, Italy 1957.

20  Zosime, 11, Egypt 1934.

21  Alla, 14, Ukraine, year unknown.

22  Ruth, 17, Uganda c.1974.

23  Rosalia, 13, Italy 1950.

24  Gloria, 13, Philippines 1959.

25  Bao, 12, Vietnam 1968.

26  Diane Ruble and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, ‘The experience of menarche’, Child Development, vol. 53, no. 6, 1982, p. 1565.

27  Loretta, 10, Italy 1947.

28  Melena, 14, Chile, year unknown.

29  Kateryna, 15, Ukraine 1952.

30  Alcina, 15, Italy 1947.

31  Keshini, 12, Sri Lanka 1969.

32  Yanuva, 10, Egypt 1957.

33  Sharon Golub and Joan Catalano, ‘Recollections of menarche and women’s subsequent experiences with menstruation’, Women and Health, vol. 8, no. 1, 1983, pp. 58–59.

34  Verisila, 11, Fiji 1964.

35  Ramona, 15, Chile 1964.

36  Aleli, 10, Philippines 1959.

37  Sun, 13, South Korea 1962.

38  Lola, 17, Chile 1967.

39  Nila, 13, Sri Lanka 1964.

40  Tu, 14, Vietnam 1963.

41  Jill Rierdan and Elissa Koff, ‘Timing of menarche and initial menstrual experience’, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 14, no. 3, 1985, pp. 238–242.

42  Cecile, 14, Uganda 1965.

43  Seda, 14, Armenia, year unknown.

44  Levani, 16, Fiji 1967.

45  Lee, 13, Singapore 1962.

46  Nadia, 11, Egypt 1950.

47  Qing, 12, Hong Kong 1962.

48  Beatriz, 12, Chile c.1960.

49  Erlinda, 12, Philippines 1964.

50  Hetal, 14, India c.1952.

51  Nirmala, 13, Indonesia 1964.

52  Elena, 14, Greece, year unknown.

53  Raymond Crawfurd, ‘Notes on the superstitions of menstruation, The Lancet, 18 December 1915, p. 1335.

54  Janet Lee and Jennifer Sasser-Coen, ‘Memories of menarche: older women remember their first period’, Journal of Aging Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1996, p. 64.

55  Elissa Koff, Jill Rierdan, Karen Sheingold, ‘Memories of menarche: age, preparation, and prior knowledge as determinants of initial menstrual experience, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 11, no. 1, 1982, pp. 7–8.

56  David B. Pillemer, Elissa Koff, Elizabeth D. Rhinehart, Jill Rierdan, ‘Flashbulb memories of menarche and adult menstrual distress, Journal of Adolescence, vol. 10, no. 2, 1987, p. 189.

57  Pilmer et al (1987), p. 196.

58  Rhonda Andresen, ‘Hawai’i’, in Debbie Hippolite Wright, Rosalind Meno Ram, Kathleen Fromm Ward (eds), Narratives and Images of Pacific Island Women, Women’s Studies, Volume 44, The Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY, 2005, p. 123.

59  Ernster (1977), p. 23.

60  Lee and Sasser-Coen (1996), p. 84.

61  Mary Suan, ‘More islands’, in Wright et al (eds) (2005), p. 226.

62  Joan Jacobs Brumberg, ‘“Something happens to girls”: menarche and the emergence of the modern American hygienic imperative’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 4, no. 1, 1993, p.120.

63  Maria, 14, Italy 1957.

64  Brumberg, ‘Something happens to girls’ (1993), p. 120.

65  Yanuva, 10, Egypt 1957.

66  Emma Goldman, cited in Delaney, Lupton and Toth (1988), p. 173.

67  Ilene Lainer, ‘The Slap, 1972’, in My Little Red Book, Rachel Kauder Nalebuff (ed.), Twelve, New York, 2009, p. 84.

68  Caren Appel-Slingbaum at the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health, ‘The tradition of slapping our daughters’,,, 2000.

69  Ayse K. Uskul, Women’s menarche stories from a multicultural sample’, Social Science and Medicine, vol. 59, no. 4, 2004, p. 676. Vera J. Milow, vice-president of educational affairs at Tampax Inc. was told the slap was to bring colour to the face, that it was symbolic of the threat the menarcheal girl’s new sexuality brought to her mother and, similarly, it was a response to recognition of the girl as a sexual being. See Vera J. Milow, ‘Menstrual education: past, present, and future’, in Menarche: The Transition from Girl to Woman, Sharon Golub (ed.), Lexington Books, Lexington, 1983, p. 129.

70  Jessica B. Gillooly, ‘Making menarche positive and powerful for both mother and daughter’, Women and Therapy, vol. 27, no. 3, 2004.

71  Wani, 13, Indonesia 1954.

72  Melena, 14, Chile, year unknown.

73  Elissa Koff and Jill Rierdan, ‘Preparing girls for menstruation: recommendations from adolescent girls’, Adolescence, vol. 30, no. 120, 1995, p. 809.

74  Daryl Costos, Ruthie Ackerman, and Lisa Paradis, ‘Recollections of menarche: communication between mother and daughter regarding menstruation’ Sex Roles, vol. 46, nos 1/2, 2002, p.58.

75  Meletta, 13, Egypt, year unknown.

76  Violetta, 14, Philippines 1938.

77  Olena, 11, Ukraine 1949.

78  Virisila, 11, Fiji 1964.

79  Ria, 13, Philippines 1955.

80  Erlinda, 12, Philippines 1964.

81  Neve, 11, Italy 1941.

82  Daksha, 13, Sri Lanka 1947.

83  Cecile, 14, Uganda 1965.

84  Koff and Rierdan, (1995), p. 808. See also Ruble and Brooks-Gunn (1982), p. 1565.

85  Hetal, 14, India c.1952.

86  Lola, 17, Chile 1967.

87  Erlinda, 12, Philippines 1964.

88  Qing, 12, Hong Kong 1962.

89  Athene, 13, Greece c.1956.

90  Maryam, 15, Lebanon 1942.

91  Anne M. Teitelman, ‘Adolescent girls’ perspectives of family interactions related to menarche and sexual health’, Qualitative Health Research, vol. 14, no. 9, 2004.

92  Marjorie, 12, England 1956.

93  Virisila, 11, Fiji 1964.

94  Rosalia, 13, Italy 1950.

95  Ramona, 15, Chile 1964.

96  Beatriz, 12, Chile c.1960; Janet Lee, ‘Menarche and the (hetero) sexualization of the female body’, Gender and Society, vol. 8, no. 3, 1994, p. 354.

97  Lee (1994), p. 344.

98  Levani, 16, Fiji 1967.

99  Melena, 14, Chile, year unknown; See also Lee (1994), p. 353.

100 Lola, 17, Chile 1967.

101 Lee (1994), pp. 349–350.

102 Trad, Paul V., ‘Menarche: a crossroad that previews developmental change’, Contemporary Family Therapy, vol. 15, no. 3, 1993, pp. 231–232.

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery