Society and Menstruation: African American Girls’ Experience

To this point, our discussion of menstruation and American society has spoken in broad terms of “American women.” Though some posts have briefly touched on comparisons between male and female perspective, no distinctions have been made in regards to the racial diversity of women in the United States and comparisons of their experiences. As a thorough study of women’s history elucidates, the experience of women cannot be hastily generalized in a singular description; there is vast variety across lines of race, class, religion, region, etc., as well as within these categories. Cross-cultural studies are especially valuable in achieving a complete understanding of particular historical events or themes. To truly comprehend the relationship between American society and menstruation, it is essential to study the experiences of racial minorities like African Americans and Native Americans. This post will concentrate on the African American women’s perspective on menstruation, and the next post will delve into the Native American cultural construction of the female cycle.

Several studies have been conducted with the intent of understanding the African American girls’ menstrual experience. The study-based articles that this post will draw on are:

Scott, Clarissa S., Danette Arthur, Roger Owen, and Maria Isabel Panizo. “Menarche: The Black American Experience.” Journal of Adolescent Healthcare 10 (1989): 363-368.

and

Hawthorne, Dorothy J. “Symbols of Menarche Identified by African American Females.” Western Journal of Nursing Research 24, no. 5 (2002): 484-501.

The first study, conducted by Clarissa S. Scott (a Ph.D. in anthropology) and several of her associates in the 1980’s, was inspired by the lack of menstrual studies among diverse populations. Their motivation was buttressed by the growing recognition that socialization largely shapes how women perceive their own lives. They cited a contemporary study which showed that in comparison to white girls interviewed, twice the number of black girls reported they did not know what was happening at the time of menarche. Less preparation generally produces more negative feelings associated to an event, in this case, menarche. In their own study, Scott and her associates gathered sixty-seven post-menarcheal black girls, with ages averaging to 13.5. The majority of these girls came from middle-class families in Florida. The responses to a question asking how prepared these girls felt at the onset of menstruation were widely distributed – 24% said they were “very well” prepared, 33% said they were “pretty well” prepared, 16% said they were only “a little” prepared, and 27% said they were “not at all” prepared. This quantitative survey is striking, with the second most populous group recalling they were oblivious about what was happening to their bodies (and why) at menarche. Though not analyzed by the article, it seems that the less prepared girls likely espoused a more negative attitude toward menstruation than their more-prepared counterparts. Other questions found that surprise was the most commonly reported emotion associated with menarche, along with fear and embarrassment. Few girls said they felt proud or excited. When asked, “What did your first period mean to you?” most replied with a variation of “I was becoming a young lady.” A statistically significant quarter of the participants said it meant nothing to them. Scott stated that these meanings reported from young black girls matched those reported by white girls. This correlation suggests that more than race, the level of preparation is a stronger variable in determining the emotions that American girls feel toward menarche.

The second study was directed and analyzed by Dorothy J. Hawthorne. Hawthorne has written a number of other articles under the umbrella topic of African American girls’ maturation in the modern era. In this study, her aim was to identify the symbols that African American women use to understand menarche and menstruation. Her study relied on the calculation of 9-10 as a common age for African American girls to experience menarche (white American girls generally reach menarche at a later age). Like Clarissa S. Scott, she argued that younger girls will typically assume more negative feelings about menstruation than girls who experience menarche at an older age. This seems to imply that black girls will have more negative attitudes than their white cohort. Beyond the factor of education that creates this age-based difference, the cognitive level of girls 7-11 years old is typically limited to concrete thinking. Thus, they tend to associate blood with menstruation much more than with the abstract notions of maturity, sexuality, and fertility. The participants of her study were 15 African American girls ages 9-10 who were on the cusp of menarche (this was gauged by pubic hair tests that sounded awfully invasive), and well as their mothers (for some girls, grandmothers). Fathers were invited, but all declined. Their refusal suggests that the power of the menstruation taboo/stigma is strong among both black and white American men.

Hawthorne interviewed the girls and their mothers within a few days of their first menstruation. From all of these responses, she identified four major symbolic themes: blood, sexual maturation, premenstrual sexuality, and sexual payback. The young girls’ responses chiefly fit into the first category. One girl’s response represented this theme well: “My period is when I bleed…I think it’s going to come back again, but I don’t want it to…. I didn’t know what it was when it started…” This girl, like others her age, understood menstruation simply as a bleeding event, was unprepared for it, and consequently felt quite negatively about it all.

Sexual maturation was a theme that mostly mothers, but also some girls referred to in their interviews. This theme was largely expressed in mothers’ concerns about their daughters’ sexual motivation and male perceptions of their sexual availability. Because it was strongly believed that menstruation inevitably meant sexuality, parents expressed a fervent need to keep it secret. Earlier posts have attributed the silence about menstruation to its potent stigmatization in American culture, but the responses of pubescent black girls’ parents reveal that their silence may also be derived from the desire to protect their daughters’ innocence and sexual purity. One of the young girls added: “I was told that when a girl sees her period that it means she is ready for sex… The boys at my school say that… I’ve heard other people say that too.” This quote shows that her understanding of menstruation as a sign of sexual maturation came from peers, who taught her the dangerous concept that menarche commenced sexual readiness. Like the mothers who discussed this theme, this young girl said that menarche should not be published for everyone to know.

Another theme, premenstrual sexual activity, was only discussed by mothers. However, the mothers were mainly quoting their husbands or the fathers of their daughters when they brought up the belief that sexual activity triggers the early onset of menstruation. The fathers blamed the mothers for failing in their motherly role as the defender of their children’s morality. This is reminiscent of the role that Mamie Till, mother of Emmet Till, was required to play to perfection. In the aftermath of his murder and through the legal proceedings, his innocence against the charges of sexual advances was fundamentally the responsibility of his mother. Therefore, the expectation placed on mothers (especially black mothers) to be the moral guardians of their children did not end in the 1950s.

The final theme in menstrual mentality identified by Hawthorne was sexual payback. Again, this was a concept referred to only by mothers, who were generally quoting males. Hawthorne explained sexual payback thus: “Menarcheal onset in young girls served as a symbol of imminent revenge awaiting fathers who once sexually abused women.”  Fathers feared that their daughters’ menstruation invited the opportunity for men to sexually use their daughters in a cruel way, as they once did to others. While the first three themes appear recurrently in similar studies with white participants, the theme of sexual payback was only found among these black participants. The presence of this distinctive theme supports the idea that socialization within different cultures begets a variation in perceptions of menstruation, and subsequently the experience of girls.

Menstruation as a physiological experience does not discriminate between different races. Nevertheless, different cultures shape the perception and thus social experience of menstruation. In this brief exploration of African American girls’ experiences, few divergences from white American girls’ experiences were found. The most striking difference – the theme of sexual payback – is a fictive idea created by men in the black community, and is likely limited in its effect on the girls’ experience.

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2 thoughts on “Society and Menstruation: African American Girls’ Experience

  1. When I think of menstruation I have always thought women have viewed it the same, in your research though it shows this isn’t the case. How do we teach it on the same level for all American girls with culture differences?

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  2. I think it’s really interesting that the concept of sexual payback was only found within black participants, and how large a part of their experience having menstruation was created by socialization. I think to a degree, our experiences having menstruation are not solely our own, but rather shared by society and our families.

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