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First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche


I remember hearing the noise, a soft jingly sound, and then, on seeing her, my surprise at how young she looked and how detached from her surroundings she seemed to be. At dawn she had been bathed and ritually dressed, each item blessed before touching her body. She wore the traditional two-piece buckskin, the buttery-coloured tunic fringed from below shoulder to wrist and decorated with symbols of the powers that would be called upon on her behalf. The skirt rippled as she walked, each of its ankle-length fringes finished with small pressed-tin cones, striking each other musically against her symbolically decorated buckskin boots. Two eagle feathers, symbols of strength, were fastened to the back of her long hair. Around her neck she wore strands of beads, including women’s colours of black and white. Attached to the right side of her skirt was a drinking straw made from cattail reed, and to the left, a wooden scratching stick. Most noticeably her face had been daubed with pollen, the Apache symbol of life and renewal.1

The year was 1996, and the place, the ceremonial ground at the Mescalero Apache reservation in southern New Mexico where I had been invited to witness a ceremony for the young girl now walking in front of me. The reason for this important cultural occasion was female biology. She had experienced her menarche (), a term that remains unfamiliar outside medical circles – from the Greek words mēn, meaning ‘month’ and arkhē, ‘beginning’ – her first menstrual period. She would shortly commence the deeply symbolic and ritualised activities by which she would be initiated into the knowledge of a properly lived Apache woman’s life. In other words, she was to be given a pattern for living. For four days and four nights, the young girl would be attended by an older woman, her mentor, who had a specialised knowledge of the puberty ceremony. Having prepared her, this woman would continue to guide and reassure her, explaining and interpreting the classical Apache language and actions of the ceremonial practitioner – part priest, part shaman – known as a singer. For the duration of the ceremony, the girl would remain in her traditional dress, embodying the Apache cultural heroine White Painted Woman, whose ancient instruction established the rituals that celebrate a girl’s menarche (the Apache language has a separate naming term for this event, indicating its cultural significance). Although the wider community is involved in this celebration, the major focus is on the ceremonial subject, the girl, believed at this time to have the dual powers of healing and destruction. While her ability to meet the needs of many others would be tested by demands for her touch, to bless and to heal, the same touch under other conditions was thought to be potentially destructive. Hence the cattail drinking straw, fastened to her skirt, to prevent her coming in contact with water, an act which was traditionally believed to cause destructive rains and floods. Similarly, the scratching stick to relieve itches prevented her destructive touch scarring her own body. These aspects of Apache belief about menarche are not magnified, and the general impression one gets from watching the ceremony is of good-humoured support by the onlookers and a sense of achievement by the girl in having officially reached the status of young woman.2

Much has been written about the Apache puberty ceremony and observing it added another dimension to my understanding of the cultural differences I increasingly encountered, both in my work as a hospital-based midwife and in my anthropological and historical studies. From time to time the media reports that menarche is occurring at a younger age in the Western world, paralleling increasing obesity in children.3 I read about it and vaguely considered the social implications, and then something happened that brought me into direct contact with the subject. My granddaughter, a ten year-old wisp of a girl, new to the state and to her school, and with no established circle of friends, had her first period. Knowing that determinants of age at menarche included genetic and environmental factors, and situations of psychological stress, it was understandable.4 Her mother had also experienced early menarche and had explained the biological event in preparation but that was then, and this was the reality. Adding to the difficulties was the lack of primary school infrastructure to cater to menstruating girls so there were no pads or bins in the toilets, and her teacher was a stranger she felt unable to confide in. Consequently, her menarche was an alarming, lonely, and negative experience.

Reflecting on these two events resulted in more questions. Where do ideas associated with first periods come from? Where might cultural differences have originated? Who is responsible for the construction and why? Does the onset of the menstrual cycle influence how women will live their lives? I had been allowed a glimpse of an alternative way to think of menarche in the Apache ceremony, but was it unique to Apaches? Australia is home to women of many different cultures. What were their experiences, particularly older immigrant women from countries without the culture-flattening effects of television? Had any undergone some form of ceremony? More importantly, might my findings be of help to pre-adolescent girls, particularly recent immigrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds, whose cultural beliefs about menarche and menstruation might enhance their feelings of alienation?

These questions formed the beginning of a research study based on a series of unstructured interviews with English-speaking immigrant women of 50 years and over. An initial outreach to colleagues who I’d known well over many years made me aware of two important issues: the reticence women feel being asked to speak of deeply private matters outside a doctor’s consulting room or a hospital, and the cultural silence on matters related to menstruation customary among many ethnic groups, including Chinese women. Ultimately, however, 54 interviews took place with women whose native countries included Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Ukraine, England, Uganda, Sri Lanka, India, Fiji, Chile, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Korea, Philippines and Indonesia. (Their real names have been replaced by culturally appropriate others).

As the interviews progressed, certain repeated themes became apparent and eventually formed the subject of each chapter. These themes, clearly identified, included the immediate response to menarche; the concept of being ‘dirty’; menstrual stories or myths heard at menarche; the menarche ceremony; the fear of revealing menstrual bleeding and how concealment was achieved; and the almost total ignorance of menstrual knowledge. Although my original intention was to construct a cultural history of menarche, the emergent themes opened up issues outside historical scholarship. Cultural history in the construction of meaning associated with menarche would not be ignored, but it was inadequate for this particular work.

Consequently, a study of medical, religious, philosophical and anthropological discourses surrounding menarche was necessary for me to provide both a framework and context for interpretation of the interview data. This broad literature helped me to identify the way in which meanings were constructed in many cultures, and also where similarities and differences were situated. Increasingly, too, it became important for readers that the book commence with an overview of historical attitudes and beliefs about blood. This is intended to enable an understanding of the foundational sources of knowledge about menarche and menstruation, the major influences on how women’s bodies and blood were understood, and the accumulation and changing focus of knowledge.

So although menarche and menstruation are shared biological phenomena with deeper investigation revealing certain past commonalities of cultural meanings, scientific knowledge and progress continue to supplant cultural traditions, and different ways of thought about the body and its cyclical bleeding continue to emerge.

1    Author’s journal (unpublished), ‘Apache Puberty Ceremony 4–7 July 1996’, Mescalero Apache Reservation, New Mexico USA.

2    For a detailed study of this complex ceremony see ‘The girl’s puberty rite’, in anthropologist Morris E. Opler, An Apache Life-Way: the Economic, Social, and Religious Institutions of the Chiricahua Indians, Cooper Square Publishers Inc., New York 1965, pp. 82–134. First published by the University of Chicago Press, 1941, this remains a key text. See also anthropologist Claire R. Farrer’s interesting interpretation of the ceremony, ‘Singing for life’, in Living Life’s Circle: Mescalero Apache Cosmovision, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque 1991, pp. 128–183 and Henrietta H. Stockel’s descriptive, ‘The Puberty Ceremony’ in Chiricahua Women and Children: Safekeepers of the Heritage, Texas A&M University Press, College Station 2000, pp. 33–40.

3    Nicole Brady ‘Puberty blues: the trials of young girls growing up faster than ever’, The Sunday Age, 22 May 2011, pp. 4–5. Popular opinion is that the age of menarche has fallen significantly in Australia although paediatric and adolescent gynaecologist Julie Quinlivan, cited in Brady’s article, gives the average age as 12 years and 7 months. See also the editorial in the same edition, ‘Tending to children with the bodies of women’, p. 14.

4    James S. Chisholm, Julie A. Quinlivan, Rodney W. Petersen, David A. Coall, ‘Early stress predicts age at menarche and first birth, adult attachment, and expected lifespan’, Human Nature, vol. 16, no. 3, 2005, pp. 236-238. See also Scott Dickson and Ruth Wood, ‘The perceptions, experiences and meanings rural girls ascribe to menarche: implications for teachers/teachers in training’, paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference, Hobart 1995,

First Blood: A Cultural Study of Menarche

   by Sally Dammery