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 This was a partial version of the museum newsletter (Catamenia means menstruation in medicalese), which is no longer produced.

Menarche in America

copyright 1996 Shirley A. Landis

"You cannot hammer a girl into anything. She grows as a flower does - she will wither without sun; she will decay in her sheath as a narcissus will if you do not give her air enough; she may fall and defile her head in dust if you leave her without help at some moments of her life; but you cannot fetter her; she must take her own fair form and way if she take any." John Ruskin, "Sesame and Lilies," 1865

I was the youngest of three girls. My mother was sent a letter from my school which said that they would be showing a movie on the "birds and the bees." Maybe you remember it. I think it was the usual movie shown to fifth graders in the 60's. I remember that the girl in the movie got a new yellow sweater. Although everyone else in the room was watching the film, I felt scared and alone, as if a spot light had just gone on over my head

My mother must have been relieved that the school had offered this movie, because she never mentioned menstruation to me again. On January 1st, the year I turned 14, I stood at the top of the stairs and yelled, "I got it!" Without turning off the dishwasher, she yelled back, "They are in the back of the closet!"

And there they were, as big as canoes. I had no idea how to fasten them to my clothing, and I had no napkin belt or safety pins, so I bunched the napkin between my butt cheeks. I spent the next three years walking with my legs pressed together, terrified that it would fall out of my underpants.

Mother was going through menopause at the time and when she stopped having her periods, she stopped buying supplies. There I was, experimenting with wadded-up tissues and such. I was 40 years old before I realized I was "allowed" to have tampons and pads in each of my bathrooms and always be prepared. To this day, when I get my period, I feel forlorn and neglected.

I never gave much thought to the whole thing until the experience came flooding back as I lay on a table in the emergency room being catheterized 30 years later.

Hours earlier I had allowed my doctor to convince me - over the phone, without examining me - that I had pulled a muscle in my back. I ignored the inner voice that told me I had some kind of "female" problem.

Sitting in just a robe in a lawn chair, tears streaking down my face, I felt a high fever and I had spasmodic pain where I thought my ovaries were. I could hardly stand up. Somehow I couldn't explain this to the doctor in a way he could understand.

But it's too easy to blame this on a bad doctor.

I was intelligent, well educated, with years of experience breeding animals - I wasn't prudish or shy. I was a mother and grandmother. How could I become so detached from my body that I could let this happen?

Actually, it wasn't just that I was detached from my body - I had no trouble getting dental treatment or a sprained ankle fixed. The problem seemed to be with my "female" body. I began to string together, like pearls, incidents during my pregnancies and birth control days when I had the same feelings of speaking into a vacuum, of not being heard, of not being seen.

So, as the nurse nodded sympathetically, and treatment began, I thought about my menarche. Actually, at that time I had not heard that word. I had never thought in terms of rites of passage. Just puberty. Adolescence. Terms that were used as excuses for weird behavior and pimples. When my own children were pubescent - does that sound like insect larvae? - I prided myself on being liberal and informative. I gave them books and said that after they read them, if they had any questions, they could certainly ask me anything. Then I closed the bedroom door, patted myself on the back for a job well done, and avoided the subject ever after.

When I was feeling better, I started asking my girlfriends how they learned about menstruation. One woman told me that her mother was just "not the kind who would explain anything," so her older brother told her how to put in a tampon by reading the little booklet that comes in the box - through the bathroom door!

Another told me she got her period the first time the day of a very important swim meet and that her mother spent two hours trying to get a tampon into her so she "would not let the family down." Others remembered that their mothers had left pamphlets lying around the house, or had their older sisters explain "things." Many said they had never really thought about it.

It was so sad.

A light dawned. How could I be attached to my female body when a major event like my first period could be totally ignored? No one had ever shown me it was as important as my arm or my heart. My experience was not unusual, which made it even worse.

I decided to backtrack a bit. I went to the bookstore and bought Reviving Ophelia, by Mary Piper, Ph.D. It said right on the cover that it was "an eye-opening look at the everyday dangers of being young and female, and how adults can help." It was subtitled, "Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls." It was a "Provocative Best Seller." Mary Piper was a clinical psychologist who had studied teenage girls for more than twenty years. The book had 293 pages. It mentioned menstruation once.

I became convinced that menstruation is the problem with no name.

I believe that our cultural attitudes toward menarche and menstruation are responsible in part for our high teenage pregnancy rates. I think that more reverence for the life-giving force that we inherit from our mothers would result in fewer abortions. Maybe fewer women would stay in abusive relationships. And would would we sicken ourselves as much with diets and drugs, or gut ourselves on taking so much responsibility for others?

If you have a daughter, tell her when she is very little about the great mysteries involved in being a woman. Tell her when she is older that she must cherish those things that make her female. Tell her to make every decision about what goes on in her body or mind based on the love she has for it. Encourage her to explore her body and make it her own first, before she shares it with someone else.

When she gets her first period, tell her about yours. Tell her you and she are part of the tides of the earth. Tell her that menstrual blood is perfect and not to be afraid or ashamed of it. Tell her pain is sometimes a part of it, but it doesn't mean she is sick or weak. And teach her to know herself.

Write Shirley Landis at Blue Sky Farm, 1020 N. Manor Road, Honeybrook, PA 19344 USA, or phone or fax: (USA) 610/942-4747

copyright 1996 Shirley Landis


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