I got my first period, ironically, during my high school Sex-Ed exam.
By age 15, I had written-off any hope that I would ever start menstruating. I was built on angular lines, physically; flat-chested, always; and wore my sexual inexperience plainly, the same way I wore my uniform. I craved a sign that I wasn’t broken according to bodily convention.
But when I held up the contents of my underwear alongside Kaz Cooke’s Girl Stuff, I concluded that this was it: I was parting the red sea, birthing a blood diamond, surfing the crimson wave. I swallowed my swelling sense of sudden self-worth as a new, unanticipated challenge dawned: telling my mum.
I leant against the bathroom doorway while she clipped her toenails.
“I think I got my period today.” I tossed the words aside, as if they didn’t matter to me.
“Really?!” She looked up, eyes wide. I grimaced.
“I mean…” her voice deeper, “…oh really?” She snipped another nail.
Mum inspected the stain, as I had, and came to the same conclusion.
“Welcome to womanhood, darling!” she exclaimed, spinning around, arms wide open, to pull me into a hug. I squirmed against it.
“Right, sorry,” her voice deepened again. She put one hand on her hip and exaggeratedly waggled a finger at me with the other: “No more unprotected sex for you!” I rolled my eyes.
“Now, do you know how to put on a pad?”
And that was it. According to some gendered conception of biology, I had entered a new phase in my life, gifted with the purpose of procreation. For all of the school-camp chat and Hollywood hype, my blos- soming into so called ‘womanhood’ was commemo- rated with nothing more than an awkward embrace and a receipt for $9.50 worth of StayFresh.
Sex-Ed class had done little to normalise my monthly bleeding. When the pharmacist handed over the packet of pads, carefully wrapped up in a paper bag with the edges cellophane-taped, I couldn’t help but feel the need to tuck the package under my arm and avert my gaze. Every month, I put off the text to Mum asking for more ‘supplies’ until I had scraped my schoolbag for a misplaced liner. Once a month, I fumbled with the pink, flowered wrapper in the toilets between class, terrified that the tear of plastic would alert the surrounding stalls to the change within me. I quickly realised that even if they could tell, my school friends were either too embarrassed or uninterested themselves to say anything.
It’s both comforting and concerning to learn that other menstruators traded white underwear for anxiety on the cusp of adolescence: a study conducted by the International Women’s Health Coalition and menstrual health app Clue found that people who menstruate are embarrassed by their periods. Shocker.
But it seems attitudes towards a girl’s first menstrual cycle have evolved. The internet went wild with praise when Buzzfeed reported a Florida mum threw her daughter a surprise “period party” featuring pizza and a chocolate cake with ‘Congrats on your Period’ written in red and white frosting. The Period Story, a monthly sanitary product delivery service, actually launched their brand with a fully catered menstrual themed party.
HelloFlo’s marketing took the opposite approach, creating a viral Youtube video around the idea of a ‘First Moon’ party. A young girl tries to fake her period while her cunning mother punishes her by throwing an ‘embarrassing’ celebration. Her family and friends show up, her Dad jumps out of the cake dressed in a skin-tight red bodysuit, and guests are treated to a ‘vag-ician’ and games like ‘pin the pad on the period’.
In many cultures though, celebrations for a person’s first menstrual cycle are not simply tradition: they’re ritual.
Harsha Fonseka, a 21-year-old student of Sinhalese heritage, experienced a week-long Sri Lankan ritual and celebration when she first got her period at age 11.
“When you get your period, you are confined to an area where you don’t see any men – including your brothers or your father,” she tells me.
“Your parents go to your birth location at your birth time with someone who reads your horoscope. They [tell] you the time [to] have your shower, and the col- our you wear afterwards.”
When Fonseka first menstruated, she wasn’t allowed to leave her room until having her ‘shower’. At the sacred hour, her mother washed her in what she remembers now as “some leaves and water”, before she was dressed in a gown her family had chosen; in her case, light blue, her favourite colour. She bowed to her parents and touched their feet, and they gifted her a gold necklace and bangles because “in our culture, when you become a woman, gold is very important”. Fonseka then fed her parents a version of sticky rice — Dad and Mum first, then her siblings in order from oldest to youngest.
“And then you have your party,” she says matter-of-factly.
Fonseka’s parents invited around fifty family and friends to their house for a dinner party.
But, as another friend tells me, many families rent out great halls and invite hundreds of people: “it pays for itself, though,” my friend laughs, “given the amount of money and gifts the guests bring.”
Dr Shanti Raman, who undertook research into the intercultural identity of Tamils living in Australia as part of a PhD, says that the menstrual ceremony is equally celebrated in South India and amongst Sri Lankan Tamils.
“I grew up in South India as a fairly urban person with no particular knowledge or involvement with this sort of ceremony. One time, when I was about eight, we were visiting our ancestors’ village and were invited to a young girl’s ceremony… we never imagined someone would have a ceremony to celebrate menarche. This girl, who must have been twelve or something, was just crying her heart out the night before. And in the next days they were having a huge ceremony for her, all dressed up in a Sari.”
Raman said that, as a young woman in India at the time, she thought this was “absolutely barbaric”.
“It was an announcement of her readiness to be married, if you look at it in a very pragmatic way.”
For many Jewish girls, your first period doesn’t call for a party, but often a trip to the local Mikveh – a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. USyd student, Noa Zulman, visited a Mikvah with her school as a way of familiarising the girls with the place they would visit at the start of each monthly cycle.
“You are not allowed to have sex during your period,” Zulman explains.
“At the end of your period, you can’t have sex for five days either. You go to a Mikveh and fully submerge yourself three times and say a prayer.”
Menstruating women are not allowed to touch religious documents, like the Torah, or go to Temple. Raman and Fonseka speak of similar restrictions in South Asian practices.
“Period blood is seen as impure, sort of, and you need to cleanse yourself before you can engage in sexual intercourse again.”
“Not to mention,” Zulman adds, “it means you are only having sex for two weeks every month, during the point in your cycle that you are most fertile. Judaism doesn’t encourage the use of contraception, and wants people to go forth and procreate, so these practices align with the religious conception of sexual purpose.”
It can be easy to write-off these traditions as examples of patriarchal domination and ingrained sexism.
But Raman argues the significance of the menarche ritual depends on the paradigm through which one considers them. “If you look at it from an anthropological perspective, it is almost certain the backdrop is coming from Ancient fertility rituals of some sort. When I talked to my children about this, they thought it was terrible and gendered — that it was a way of getting a girl ready for marriage!”
“I think culture is all about change, and cultural practices change and morph according to context. You can look at it as a celebration of reproductive power and sexuality. These are celebratory rituals and they do actually mark particular biological transitions and that is important to acknowledge. Why shouldn’t we celebrate the first period? Why should we think of it as a terrible thing? [Getting your period] is a life of pain and misery, but why not celebrate it?” she laughs.
The practice of South Asian menstrual rituals takes on a new significance for migrant families living in Australia: they are a way for maintaining cultural continuity and generational strength. “You can see that [through these practices] we are here and we are still Tamils or whatever, and we are still proud of being who we are and we are distinct”, Raman says.
Notably, both Raman and Fonseka say the girls they know have enjoyed their celebrations.
“Personally I think it is kind of cool, not to mention you receive gifts and gold. In our culture, you feel as though people stop seeing you as a little kid, and give you a bit more responsibility. I feel that it is kind of an important time to celebrate — you are ‘becoming a woman’ as everyone says,” Fonseka muses.
“Who has it worse during puberty: boys or girls?”
I penned an answer to the final question of my Sex-Ed exam as I bled in my shorts for the first time.
It’s impossible to determine here whether menstrual celebrations are a source of female empowerment or female oppression. But I wonder whether I would have answered differently had I felt my period was worth celebrating.