Everyone remembers their first period
My six weeks interning at Organic Mondays during the summer of 2021 was an interesting foray into menstruation culture and as expected, lead to many conversations about periods, first periods, puberty and being a woman in the modern world. As I learnt more about the different experiences the women around me have had, I wanted to understand the impact of the different experiences and relationships women have with their period based on what their memory of their first period was like. This evolved in to a mini-research project as I wanted to understand how the women in my life and around the world, commemorated their first periods. Whether it was simply through a crystal clear memory of the first time they got their period, an elaborate, ritualistic, coming of age ceremony or an enormous party, celebrating their first steps in to womanhood with indulgent food and generous gifts.
My first period story
As a starting point, I began to think about my first period. I got my period at the age of ten, when I was in the fourth grade. I remember everything about that morning. It was the Saturday after my family had gone to our first Oktoberfest (we lived in Basel at the time) and I had just woken up. I went to the bathroom and remember spacing out for a good few minutes. Like many other girls who get their first period and knew nothing about it, I simply assumed something terrible must have happened to me. I was terrified.
My resolve for being calm in a crisis was being put against its largest challenge yet. I had to tell my poor mother that her 10-year-old daughter was dying.
Fortunately, my poor resolve was not tested for much longer. My mother, though seemingly as shocked by the news as I was, quickly disabused me of the notion of my impending death. Yet, the feeling of being scared still did not go away. With it, my frustration at this new and unforeseen circumstance began to rise too.
Then, my mom started crying.
Now, at this point, I have just started to process the situation. So this was yet another curveball being thrown in my direction. Alarmed, I questioned my mom; “What’s wrong, why are you crying?” And, she just said; “I can’t believe you’re growing up so fast!”
Upon recounting this story, to Nancy ( co-founder and CEO of Mondays), during one of the many conversations about our periods we had around the office Nancy commented; “See? You’ll remember that for the rest of your life, the fact that your mom cried, that reaction allows you to remember the entirety of your first period.”
Every woman I knew remembered at least some part of their first period. I wondered if any woman remembered nothing about their first period - something I myself could not imagine. I began to wonder if a woman’s experiences altered her memory or her feelings about her period, even many years on from her first period.
Of course, different women with different experiences will have contrasting memories or feelings about their first period or their period in general. But much of a woman’s experience is determined by her background. That is, where is she is from, where she grew up, the cultures she and her guardians were exposed to.
First Periods, the start of womanhood
This made me wonder about the cultures where first periods, or other culturally appropriate parameters of reaching womanhood, are actively celebrated through ceremonial or other festive means. What the experiences of women who have those ceremonies is like, how their views on femininity and womanhood are perchance different from women who don’t have any kind of celebratory or ceremonial coming of age.
Growing up, femininity and womanhood were not ceremonially celebrated. However my mom and my dad, due to the occasional unfortunate attitudes towards women in Indian culture, both made a very active effort to make me feel proud about being a woman. To see the joy in femininity and its many different nuances and symbols, especially within Indian culture. It helped that even from a young age I was deeply interested in learning about this part of me that contributed much to my identity.
My mom's first period story
My mom was born and raised in India, and she got her period at the age of eleven—or twelve, she does not exactly remember when. Like me, she knew nothing about periods, so her discovery process was lengthened to two days, on laundry day at her house. Her process was also a little different from other women of her background, where both of her parents were involved in her learning about her period. For the majority of Indian women, their mothers take the helm on their period education.
She does not specifically recall the conversation that she had with her mother when she told her that her first period had started.
Elisabeth's first period story
Elisabeth (co-founder of Mondays) who grew up in Europe, remembers exactly when her first period came. She was spending the summer with her grandmother the year she turned 13. Early in the morning she quickly realised she had her period, the only embarrasment was telling her cousin that she couldn't go swimming with him - her grandmother assumed Elisabeth wouldn't want to tell him she had her period so made something up. (Elisabeth told him the truth the next day!) Like my mother she does not recall exactly the conversation that she had with her mother when she informed her of her first periods arrival.
First period experiences can be so much better when you feel supported
Indeed, despite the differences between Elisabeth and my mom’s cultural backgrounds many of their first experiences with their periods were similar, both remember their first periods vividly. Both felt supported and after some guidance, whether that was before or after the arrival of their first periods, both felt prepared to face this new phase of their life as women.
Differences between generations when it comes to periods
It was wonderful to learn that the feeling of being supported and prepared was common with the other women whom I interviewed, my friends. In fact, the major difference in the first period experience from the one generation to another was the immediate feeling after the arrival of their first period. For many of my friends, who experienced their first period at a slightly older age, the feeling was of relief or joy, rather than fear.
Celebrate or commiserate your first period?
One of my interviewees described the feeling of getting her period as being more complicated than the initial feeling of “Finally!” . She experienced a combination of frustration and relief, citing these feelings arising due to the majority of her peers getting their period much earlier than her. She was quick to add that once her periods became more regular, the initial joy was gone and has yet to return...
Thus I could conclude that the emotional journey of the arrival of one’s first period has not changed much from one generation of women to another, in terms of the bigger, overarching feelings. For the current generation of women entering the workforce, and for the succeeding ones, we can only hope that their first periods arrival will always be joyful.
Yet, despite the diverse nature of the women I spoke to about their first period experiences, none of the women I spoke to had experienced a coming of age ceremony of any kind. Within their specific cultures, there were also no ceremonial celebrations of womanhood or femininity either.
Where do they celebrate the first period?
My curiosity remained dissatisfied. I began to wonder,if other cultures do commemorate periods, how do they do it? Why do they do it? What are their views on womanhood and femininity? With that in mind, I decided to focus on three different coming of age ceremonies around the world, and try understand which aspect of womanhood and femininity they wanted to celebrate.
Tamil Puberty Ceremony: South India and Sri Lanka
In Tamilian culture, girls are considered women upon the arrival of their first period. The arrival of the first period signifies an increase in feminine energy. Feminine energy is considered sacred and dangerous, thus the ceremony is designed to appropriately control and commemorate the increase. It also marks the transition of a young girl turning into a woman.
On the first day of her period the girl is bathed by her closest female relatives, kept in isolation and fed a large meal. After the isolation period, the girl is once again bathed by her closest female relatives, dressed in a sari and heavy jewelry (both symbols of womanhood and maturity). Then friends and family are invited, bearing gifts for the young woman.
In the first month after the arrival of the girl’s first period, a heavy emphasis is placed on dietary consumption. Girls taking part in the ceremony will eat more traditionally nutritious food items, such as a combination of raw eggs and sesame oil and will not be allowed to eat sweet, overly sugary food and bread. The adoption of this diet is believed to strengthen the body for the new phase of life the woman is entering.
Dipo of The Krobo Tribe: Ghana
Dipo is a ceremony of the Krobo Tribe located in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Held annually during the months of April and May, the ceremony lasts for four days.
Girls taking part in Dipo are dressed differently so as to mark their status as Dipo-yi or “initiates”. Dipo-yi receive a ritual bath, eat sugar cane and undergo other food restrictions. They are taught the Klama dance, and drink a cocktail made of millet beer, palm wine and schnapps. The girl’s feet are ritualistically washed with the blood of a slaughtered goat.
After these rites, the girls are isolated for a short period of time, during which they are given vocational training about housekeeping and child-rearing, marking the girls initiation into womanhood and eligibility for marriage.
The end of Dipo is marked with the performance of the Klama dance by the former initiates, while adorned with Kente cloth and special beads.
The Sunrise Ceremony or Na’ii’ees of The Apache Tribe: United States of America
The Sunrise Ceremony or Na’ii’ees is a physically arduous coming of age ceremony for girls that have had their first menstrual cycle that lasts four days. However, there is a very long and meticulous preparation and teaching period beforehand.
This preparation period involves the making of the girl’s symbolic attire, the building of the lodge in which she will stay in during the ceremony, and strengthening of the girl’s physical endurance so that she may be able to perform the rituals appropriately. The ceremony takes place in summer, always beginning on a Friday.
For the four days and nights of the ceremony, the partaking girls will run and dance in the four directions (symbolizing the four stages of life, and beginning in the East). During the ceremony the girl receives and gives gifts. During the ceremony she is guided by a medicine man and her sponsor (a godmother who is spiritually strong and wise) through her hours of running and dancing, sometimes with a partner of her choosing.
The intense periods of physical exercise are interspersed with massages from the girl’s godmother in order to mold her into the Apache’s most valued deity, the White Painted Woman. During the ceremony the girl is heavily painted with a mixture of cornmeal and clay, that she must keep on for the entirety of ceremony. At the end of the ceremony, she is closer to the White Painted Woman, thus has the ability to heal and bless members of her family and her tribe. The ceremony ends with the girl blessing members of her tribe and family.
Celebrating the bitter-sweet beauty of entering womanhood
Researching and learning about each one of these ceremonies left me in awe of the different ways with which womanhood is viewed around the world. It is interesting for me to see how these ceremonies from ancient times continue to impact much of the language, and culture surrounding periods and womanhood today. Also, to see how they have evolved in order to meet the needs of the modern world. All of these ceremonies show diverse and intricate views on womanhood and femininity. These ceremonies connect the participating women to their heritage, to ancient wisdom and energies, from their respective ancestral planes that send their female descendants into the new world with pieces of the old.
All around the world these ceremonies celebrate the bittersweet beauty of entering womanhood. A ceremony is not a requirement, but it can enhance on one hand or worsen this time as girls grapple with their impending womanhood and their identity.