What I Learned From My Menstruation Ceremony

In the meadow out back, in a stand of pine trees, I stood with my mother, in a compass of ribbons. Objects sat in each of the four corners, marking their respective directions. My heart clenched high in my chest, beating beating. Shame rose up, twisting invisibly inside me.

I was here for my mother — because she was my mother, because I was 11 and I didn’t know how to say no to her. I was here because of my period. It wasn’t even my first period. That was the lark of it. It was just the first period I could dare to tell her about. I was here because of my own big mouth.

I was in the fourth grade when I bled for the first time. I was already wrangling with the messy reality of breast buds, being noticed by grown men, and my uncomfortable, new relationship with the word “developing.” The blood in my underwear was like brownish icing on the cake of my corporeal disaster. I had been a fearless child — extroverted, drawn to the spotlight, strong in my body, one of the boys. Now there was no question I was different. It wasn’t the dresses, the sitting down to pee; it was this horrible secret that I was carrying around for months, alone.

Despite knowing exactly what my periods were and how to manage them — I had seen pads and menstrual blood thanks to my mother’s body positivity and open-door bathroom policy — I didn’t initially tell my mom about my menstruation for a few reasons. Firstly, I didn’t want the changes to be real (and every month, I hoped I would have willed it away), and secondly, I knew that my mom would do something ceremonial to mark the occasion of my womanhood.

And although I loved the spotlight, my “becoming a woman” was the last thing I wanted to draw attention to, or celebrate. I was already disgusted by the attention I was receiving.

New Age mysticism has been an interest of my mother’s for my entire life. I grew up in northern California in the late 1980s, when earthy, New Age Goddess mystics’ love affair with Native American culture was in full swing. I knew countless adults that had taken “spirit names,” like Wind Hawk or Rainbow. Ceremonies were popular in my mom’s circle. At various points, she conducted a “ceremony” for things as typical as a full moon, or as monumental as a coming of age. I didn’t learn the word “appropriation” until I was in college, but even without a word for it, what I saw made me uncomfortable. It felt inauthentic to me.

So when I found traces of rust in my underwear, I knew that my mother would want to throw a ceremony once she knew. I didn’t know what it would look like, but I knew it would happen. So I kept my bloody body a secret for as long as I could, until the exhaustion and stress of stealing period supplies, making excuses to take painkillers and avoid swimming (which was very unlike me), and hiding my stained underwear overcame my fretting about what the ceremony would be.

Finally I broke, and told my mom over breakfast. It was a school day, which I thought would buy me some time. But when she told me she’d keep me out of school for the morning, I was trapped. Resigned to my fate, I followed her into the meadow that afternoon. Despite how long and how hard I had been dreading this moment, my memory of the actual ceremony is surprisingly cloudy — I do know I wiped my menstrual blood on a heart-shaped piece of white cloth. (Later, my aunt sewed the bloodstained cloth into a “medicine shield.”)

My mom recently reminded me that we also cut ribbons she had picked out that day, to signify my leaving her. That’s about all the details I have, but my mortification lasted for years. It was something of a secret shame, and then, once I told someone about it, it became a sort of badge of embarrassed honor. I could tell the story and hold a crowd, blushing furiously in the beginning, then laughing raucously by the end.

But the older I have gotten, the more mixed the reactions have become. While most women understand my embarrassment, and chuckle along, sometimes someone will tell me, with longing, that they wish they’d been honored by their own mothers, instead of being tossed a box of menstrual supplies. And then, once I had my own daughter, my outlook fundamentally shifted; like with so many things, I can now see my mother’s perspective.

While it would be wholly unlike me to perform anything like my own ceremony for my daughter, I do wonder if there’s something precious in the idea of a menarche celebration. Certainly, my mom was doing what she could to launch me into a more feminist, more body-positive relationship with myself, my menses, and my womanhood. But despite her best intentions, it failed.

“You weren’t really into it,” my mom confirmed to me during a recent phone call. This celebration that was supposed to honor me in the most intimate and loving way ended up being a source of deep humiliation. It was another thing — like being catcalled by strange men, leered at, discussed in the third person when I was standing right there, body shamed, objectified, parsed out, criticized, or told to be a little smaller — that I didn’t want, but had to put up with thanks to my new woman’s body. My ceremony, for all of its appropriative, unwanted glory, was in some ways an oddly perfect indoctrination into American womanhood, complete with (unintended) embarrassment.

I spoke with Lara Owen, an author and menstrual activist, about menarchal celebrations that still exist in other cultures throughout the world. Among the many rituals she described, I felt most in awe of the ones that focused on a young woman’s strength and endurance. For example, the Navajo have a ceremony called Kinaalda, a four-day long ritual that includes running to show strength, and baking a large cornmeal cake to feed the celebrant’s tribe and family. The Nuuchahnulth, a First Nations tribe of Pacific Northwest Canada, celebrate menarche by taking their young women out to sea; her village cheers for her, and watches from the shore as she swims back. Both the Navajo and the Nuuchahnulth value physical strength and endurance, and their menarche rituals reflect this. I like the idea of reinforcing the strength of our bodies, rather than focusing on the fertility aspect.

Japanese families serve Sekihan, an adzuki-bean and rice dish that is eaten at other special occasions, such as weddings, as well. The reddish color symbolizes happiness and celebration. In Australia, a one-day workshop called Celebration Day for Girls brings mothers and daughters (ages 10–12) together to mark the threshold of menarche.

If the word “womanhood” makes you feel a little queasy, I am right there with you. By the time my daughter is on the threshold of puberty, I hope that our culture has done much more to normalize menstruation, or even celebrate it. But I’d also like for us to move away from reinforcing gender binaries, from the ceremonies that focus on the archaic, demeaning presumption that menstruation is the gateway to femaleness. In a world where not all women have menses, and not all people who menstruate are women, divorcing the biology of menarche from the cultural ideology of womanhood seems like an inevitable and important action to take. An inclusive menarche celebration that is non-gender binary dependent could divest menstruation of the creepy connotations of fertility, patriarchal body shame, and reproductive oppression that have been heaped upon it thus far.

What would an American menarche celebration look like? The 2014 viral video “My First Moon Party,” an ad by the tampon company Hello Flo, gives us one version. The whole party is orchestrated to inflict as much shame and embarrassment on the young girl as possible (ostensibly as payback for lying to her mom about getting her period in the first place). There’s a uterus-shaped cake, a band, and an appearance by the young girl’s grandpa — never the man anyone wants congratulating them on their “womanhood.”

In a culture that still carries shame around our functional, biological process, is there a place for a menarchal celebration? Lara Owen says no, not without adjusting the larger social narratives around menstruation. She told me that the more medicalized and divorced a culture is from its collective bodies, the less likely it is to celebrate menarche. More accepting cultures are far more likely to have a ritual. We can’t celebrate our way out of the menstrual shame culture, and we certainly can’t do it in isolation.

In the meadow in the back, in a stand of pine trees, I stood with my mother. I have so much compassion for her version of this story. In trying to celebrate my first period, she simply put the cart before the horse. I can understand why. Ushering your daughter into the toxic masculinity ridden, patriarchal, misogynist culture of American womanhood must have been terribly daunting. It is still daunting. Forget pink sparkles and uterus cakes; what I’d like my own daughter to celebrate is her strength. Her growth. And her uninhibited creativity, corporeal and otherwise.

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Lead image: flick/Zeal Harris