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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche


This book has been a journey of exploration built around the key argument that although menarche is a shared physiological experience in the lives of pubescent girls, the meanings associated with it have been constructed from antiquity through the continuing influences of medicine and religion. These influences, generated in patriarchal societies, have dominated and reinforced cultural ideas of control of women’s bodies, symbolised through the control of menstruation beginning at the signal moment of menarche. Further investigation indicates how traditional thought and practice relating to menarche and menstruation are being displaced by a widening science-based knowledge resulting in different perceptions of what cyclical bleeding means in women’s lives today.

Initially I had expected that interview data would indicate considerable cultural variation in meanings associated with menarche, and that there would be a diversity of women who had begun menstrual life with ceremony, further emphasising cultural variation. Neither expectation was fully met. My interview data confirmed that for the majority of interviewees the cultural meanings associated with menarche came from medicine, shaping certain cultural similarities, and giving evidence of the endurance of ancient medical thought in both Eastern and Western traditions about young women’s bodies. Endurance of ancient thought was revealed also through reference to ideas and comments from the writing of Pliny the Elder, the Classical Roman naturalist and philosopher, which were heard in beliefs about women’s blood spoken of by a number of my interviewees.

In a similar way, the historical influence of religious belief systems on matters of women’s bodies and blood follows the written tenets of the major world religions. One example commonly heard among interviewees was that of ‘becoming unclean’, an ancient explanation of the anomaly of a girl’s body bleeding unexpectedly, then cyclically, in the absence of disease or injury. The concept was explored further through a closer examination of the menstrual practices prescribed by religious law, including menstrual taboo and seclusion from the time of menarche, and through identifying changes in religious thought toward menstruation.

Before culturally conventional meanings are transmitted to the young girl at menarche, there is usually a lone moment of discovery. This was remembered by interviewees in two ways: acceptance and terror. Some spoke of being alienated from a body that had suddenly become unreliable, resulting in menarche being the site of a struggle for control. Others related how menarche forced upon them a decision to become independent and to keep the knowledge of bleeding to themselves. Emotional maturity was shown to be a significant factor in whether the menarcheal experience was positive or negative, and the adolescent concept of the social clock, registering personal progress within the peer group, was seen to work positively when menarche was on time, but have a negative effect where deviance caused by prematurity had occurred.

Underlying the influence of the formal medical and religious teachings about menarche and menstruation is a parallel body of informal knowledge, women’s lore, often referred to as ‘old wives’ tales’. This is an oral repository maintained by older women and transmitted at times of life events such as menarche. Several interviewees remembered receiving instructions that took three definable forms involving bodily power, vulnerability, and methods of controlling the menstrual body. Women’s lore has a mythical quality resonating with some past event and remains of interest to folklore exponents, although its disappearance reflects wider educational opportunities for women at a time when scientific research has indicated the presence of some validity among the tales.

Another disappearing experience associated with menarche is the ceremony, which remains of considerable importance in many cultures – in the introduction to the thesis I described my impressions of the Apache puberty ceremony. I had hoped this would be a prelude to learning more about this aspect of cultural diversity, but unfortunately very few interviewees had gone through a menarche ceremony. Three Sri Lankan women recalled their experiences, one explaining the importance of giving her Australian-born daughter a menarche ceremony as a cultural link with the girl’s Sri Lankan heritage. None of the Indian interviewees had experienced the transitional formality, although there was a general awareness of the custom. A Fijian woman had witnessed her older sister’s menarche ceremony and described her childhood memory of it; and a Javanese woman reminisced about a flower-adorned ritual bath. The events recalled by interviewees were placed in a framework suggested by Arnold van Gennep’s theory on rites of passage through the major transitions of life. This enabled me to argue the way in which menarche ceremonies evolved to other forms in modern societies.

The evolution of medical research and technology and increased financial enterprise played a role in constructing meaning in the unique biological process we know as menarche. Thus 20th-century economics may be argued to be the third and possibly most powerful influence on the way we now think of women’s bodies and blood. The seemingly universal need for freedom from the stigma of revealed menstrual blood, and the ways in which young women achieved it, were frequently spoken of throughout the interviews, confirming the link between women’s freedom, physically and socially, and effective menstrual absorbents. There was little doubt that the availability of modern disposable pads and tampons came to determine the meanings that women constructed about their periods from the time of menarche. Women and girls became willing consumers, with certain medical and social consequences.

In the US, women’s acceptance of disposable menstrual absorbents led to the manufacturing companies developing menstrual education programs for girls, under the direction of medical practitioners, which expanded into other countries including Australia. Thus commercial interests appropriated the traditionally maternal role which had frequently resulted in more ignorance rather than enlightenment. Distribution of this knowledge was made privately through booklets and publicly through selected schools by talks, films and product information and hand-outs in an ongoing promotion intended to create loyal consumerism throughout menstrual life. This was remembered by interviewees in Singapore and the Philippines.

Today, menarche is shadowed by complex technologies. Soon after the event many young women in the West are increasingly considering available methods to suppress menstruation, a pattern that may be adopted by young women in developing countries. In the West there is familiarity with the concept of oral contraception, the perception of availability, safety and reversibility of effects, with the principal sources of information being friends, the media and medical practitioners. However, an overall knowledge of the menstrual cycle remains somewhat limited. In developing countries, women’s choice in the use of continuous oral or injectable contraception and menstrual suppression may be dictated by wealth, or poverty, and will depend on how their nation’s government and non-government organisations perceive national advantages and disadvantages in the context of reproductive health, environmental concerns and workplace labour.

The influences bringing about change in cultural meanings associated with menarche had traditionally been associated with men until women gained access to educational opportunities. Since the advent of modern disposable sanitary absorbents, women have taken an increasingly influential role in issues relating to menarche and menstruation, initially as advisers, product promoters and educators on behalf of the manufacturing companies. Women drove the search for oral contraception. Women have conducted later evaluative studies into continuous oral contraception; women medical practitioners are consultants on menstrual and reproductive health; women publish articles on menstrual options in popular journals. In developing countries the older women, who uphold traditional beliefs on menstrual seclusion, are being educated with their daughters in matters of menstrual hygiene and health. Their teachers demonstrate a working relationship with men, breaking cultural silence on the subject at both government and village levels. In other words, women are changing the ways in which meanings about menarche and menstruation, constructed by men, have traditionally been maintained, but it is women, too, who manipulated them for their own purposes, and so it is today in the West with technology such as the Pill. In remote areas of developing nations, where women’s physical labour is hard, the rest afforded them by menstrual seclusion may be beneficial, but it is a situation requiring compliance until cultural change renders it obsolete. Meanwhile women are involved in changing how we think about menarche and menstruation. That is, they are changing cultural constructs. They are reclaiming their bodies and they are appropriating scientific knowledge to help them determine how and when they menstruate.

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery