Source: Porter, Marilyn. 2006. “First Blood: How Three Generations of Newfoundland Women Learned about Menstruation.” Atlantis. 31.1, 47-56. (accessed November 11, 2016)
People don’t talk about menstruation. We live in a society where this remains a taboo topic, even as other topics that have historically been controversial to talk about, such as rape, move more and more into the open. People feel uncomfortable when periods are brought up, especially when associated with words such as “tampon,” “PMS,” “uterus,” “bloody,” and “vagina.” There is a current movement to bring discussion of menstruation out in the open. Social media, news articles, advertisements, and television shows are just a few of the places where talk of menstruation can often be seen, but this talk always seems to be shrouded with an element of controversy and shock from people who view it. Our culture should strive to move away from this, recognizing that menstruation is a part of life for most women that should be openly and freely spoken about. This must begin with a cultural change in the home. Both “First Blood: How Three Generations of Newfoundland Women Learned about Menstruation” and “Something Happens to Girls: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative” (Joan Jacobs Brumberg) discuss the challenges women face in teaching their daughters about menstruation, presenting some excellent “what not to do” scenarios from real women.
“First Blood: How Three Generations of Newfoundland Women Learned about Menstruation” was written by Marilyn Porter, a sociology professor at the University of Newfoundland. Her primary research interests include women and development, women in Muslim cultures, and feminist theory and methods. This survey of the ways women learned about menstruation was published in the Atlantis, of which Ms. Porter has been an editor. Although the research was undertaken in Canada, the experience of these girls learning about menstruation is nearly identical to that of girls in the United States, as discussed in Brumberg’s work. Porter’s research shows the ways in which parent-to-child menstruation education has changed over time, as well as ways it has remained stagnant. It also evaluates what type of information girls should be receiving at a young age to foster healthy development, and why it is so often excluded from diary entries and other writings of young girls over time. At the beginning of this piece, Porter notes, “When I looked at what the women in our project said about their first experience of menstruation, how they learned about it and how that related to how they learned about sex, I was struck both by how little information they had before they had their first period (“menarche”) and by how little this seemed to matter to them.” This statement struck me because I had no idea what was happening when I experienced menarche. I was young (10 years old) and my mom later told me she was surprised that I’d started so young, thinking it would still be a couple of years before we needed to have that discussion. I’ve never felt like I missed out on anything (and I still don’t), but Porter’s emphasis on “how little this seemed to matter to them” fascinated me. This lack of concern is likely what led these various women to not address menstruation with their daughters when that time came. If it didn’t matter to them, why would it matter to their daughters? This is one of the attitudes that ought to change so that menstruation can become a more open topic.
Many things have changed over time when it comes to menstruation. This study was conducted among women born from 1914 to 1987, a difference in 73 years! The oldest women had used rags that were washed and reused when menstruating. Today, tampons are the most common form of protection. There have also been changes in perception and technology that have changed the ways we learn about menstruation. Brumberg discusses in “Something Happens to Girls” how about 25% of girls mid-nineteenth century were unprepared for their menarche. Many mothers had an attitude that menstruation led to a loss of innocence, so mothers just wouldn’t talk about it. This, in part, led to the medicalization of menstruation. It was no longer just a natural process, but something that needed to be “fixed.” Interviews in Porter’s work show that most discussion that did happen between mothers and daughters was the hygienic aspect of menstruation – how to hide it, how to keep yourself clean, how to make sure no one knows you’re menstruating. Another aspect of the period talk revolved around sex. All of the sudden, because a girl has experience menarche, she can become pregnant. Porter makes the comment that “mothers are more concerned to explain enough to protect their daughters from unwanted pregnancy than they are to reassure their daughters.” Menstruation has a strong association with sex, which often leads to the mother becoming preoccupied on this component and not on the changing processes of her daughter’s body. One of Porter’s recommendations in this regard is to regard menstruation in terms of developing a healthy attitude towards sex and reproduction. This allows more room for conversation between parent and child. It’s better for a girl to receive information from her mother than from other sources; however, Porter’s research shows that girls usually approach friends and other relatives before they approach their mothers with questions. The Internet has only furthered this outside seeking of information, and many mothers also simply hand books over to their children rather than sit down and have a conversation with them. Communication between parent and child is key to changing the way society thinks about menstruation. If it’s a taboo and secretive topic within the home that is not discussed and is seen as awkward, this attitude will likely transfer to other situations later in life.