Updated: Feb 21
I was at boarding school when I got my first period around 35 years ago. I rang my Mum and whispered my news into the public phone in the hall of my boarding house. I think I had some sanitary supplies and being at an all-girls school I was familiar with ‘the curse’. At least I didn’t have to ask my housemistress for the complicated mattress size pads she had available which were held in place by some belt-like contraption! Back then girls were not well-prepared for the first bleed. I remember my Mum stashing some sanitary pads in the top of my wardrobe, but I don’t remember ‘the talk’. Maybe I have just blanked out the excruciatingly embarrassing conversation!
Menarche is the magical moment a girl gets her first period. It is the threshold into womanhood and once through it, she is on a path to experiencing around 500 periods until menopause drifts in and turns off the tap.
Menarche usually happens about two years after breasts develop (thelarche) and between 4 to 6 months after the growth of pubic and underarm hair. Most girls start their period around the age of 12 or 13, though the first period can come anytime between 9 and 16, depending upon height, weight, and cultural background.
We dubbed it ‘the curse’ because our culture never portrayed it as a good thing, or a special thing, only a cursed thing. We generally moaned about it and reluctantly put up with it. Summer was a minefield of possible leaks on light dresses, other than that I gave as little thought to it as possible.
I only learned in my 40s what power I could harness by working with my cycle. I joined a Red Tent women’s circle and read a book called Her Blood is Gold by Lara Owens that flipped my perspective on the menstrual cycle on its head.
This gift we are given as women is profound. Our cycling bodies guide us and speak to us. Our cycle is a compass that shows us where we need to destress, to self-care, to breathe in and out with the seasons of our life. And its purpose is to bring new life. It is miraculous. Many cultures celebrate this time but here in the west, we sanitize it and often treat it more like a disease. The internet revealed many examples of indigenous and cultural menarche celebrations.
The Mescalero Apaches place high importance on their menarche ceremony, and it is regarded as the most important ritual in their tribe. Each year there is an eight-day event celebrating all the girls who have menstruated in the past year. The days are split between feasting and private ceremonies reflecting on their new womanly status.
The Ulithi tribe of Micronesia call a girl's menarche kufar. She goes to a menstrual house, where the women bathe her and recite spells. She will have to return to the menstruation hut every time she menstruates. Her parents build her a private hut that she will live in until she is married.
In Sri Lanka an astrologer is contacted to study the alignment of stars when the girl experiences menarche because it is believed that her future can be predicted. The women of the family then gather in her home and scrub her in a ritual bathing ceremony. Her family then throws a familial party at which the girl wears white and may receive gifts.
The indigenous Nootka from the Pacific North coast in Canada believe that physical endurance is the most important quality in young women. At menarche, the girl is taken out to sea and left there to swim back.
Some indigenous tribes in Australia teach the girl the ways of womanhood by the other women in her tribe. Her mother builds her a hut to which she confines herself for the remainder of her menses. The hut is burned, and she is submerged in the river at the end of menstruation. Other groups decorate the girl with red and white ochre after a ritual bathing when returning to her community after her first bleed.
I would love to see our culture celebrate the menstrual cycle by honouring young women who start their journey.
Some ‘alternative’ Westerners do hold a celebration for this occasion. It can be known as a Period Party, a Red Party, a Menarche Party, a Maidening Ritual, a First Moon Party, or a Threshold Ceremony. However, as this is not a cultural ‘norm’ and other girls in her peer group may not have heard of such a celebration, it may mean a girl feels awkward celebrating. Girls often feel embarrassed or ashamed of this milestone thanks to the taboo surrounding menstruation and the last thing they want is to be honoured in front of a large group. Perhaps she would feel more comfortable with only women present, it depends on the individual.
There is a hilarious YouTube video about a girl who lied about her first period. Her mum threw her an extravagant period party by way of ‘punishment’ for fibbing. It’s worth a watch, even to get ideas of what not to do…or maybe do!
There has been a movement of ‘red parties’ in recent years though. Just Google ‘red party for girls’ and you’ll bring up a plethora of Pinterest pages and articles with lots of ideas.
I have heard of families that mark menarche in subtle yet beautiful ways. A bunch of flowers, a small gift, a dinner in a restaurant. For my daughter, I weaved her a special basket. I used white cloth on which I had written all her female ancestors’ names. I wove her baby teeth into the basket with red thread. I asked all the significant women in her life (all who are overseas or interstate) to send her a gift and some words of wisdom. I bought her a book on womanhood and made her a gift box containing crystals, pads, chocolate and tea. We went through old photos and her baby book I’d put together.
It could be really special to dream up a way to celebrate this incredible milestone with your girl. To welcome her into the mysteries and power of womanhood with love and wisdom, to show her a new way—that her thirty-odd years of menstrual cycling can be a blessing, not a curse.