Ladies, do you remember your first period? Was it a blessed event or a secretive one?
I was 12 and pretty naïve.
I am the youngest of six girls but besides reading, Are You There God? It's Me Margaret and some schoolyard gossip, I knew very little about periods.
So when the big day arrived I did not place the severe pain in my 'tummy' as the start of my period.
By the time I got home from school, there was a tiny bit of blood in my underwear but it was so small I wasn't even sure if it was blood or not.
When my mother finally asked me if there was any blood accompanying my pain, she did it in hushed whispers. I nodded and shrugged; my cheeks were on fire. Besides supplying me with pads, there was nothing else discussed. I was on my own to figure it out.
I had no idea that a woman's body can be likened to nature. That it ebbs and flows like the tides and has phases similar to the moon. That with each phase comes opportunities to shine bright or recede inward. All I ever heard was what the television ads said about concealing the blood or suppressing the pain.
Never was I encouraged to celebrate or take advantage of the phases where I would feel vibrate, organised, creative or clear about the world around me. The dialogue was always about the pain, shame and how to hide from your period.
But the truth is, menarche (first period) is a major milestone in a girl's life as it signifies her transition to womanhood and ability to bear children.
Like many teenage girls in Western Australia, Anne Garrison* was at boarding school when she got her first period so she shared the experience amongst friends. She says this may have been different if she was at home.
“My mother came from an upper-class family so I was led to think that discussing your period was unladylike,” she says.
Now, 40-year-old Anne has two young daughters of her own and has always skirted around the subject of menstruation.
“Anytime they ask about my tampons, I always mumble a quick, nondescript answer to avoid dealing with it. Thinking about how and when to discuss it with them makes me very uncomfortable,” says Anne.
American self-esteem expert and author of 9 Ways We're Screwing Up Our Girls and How We Can Stop: A guide to helping girls reach their highest potential, Anea Bogue says menstruation is still shrouded in shame because of centuries of social conditioning and the stigma is directly linked to the self-esteem crisis amongst girls.
“We generally don't talk about it and our silence sends a strong message that menstruation is something shameful. We simply cannot expect girls to feel good about being female or expect them to feel they are valued and respected when so much of our societal messaging tells them this fundamental part of being female is bad/shameful/embarrassing; something not to be spoken of,” she says.
Melbourne mother, Jac Torres-Gomez is already sharing bits of age appropriate information with her 20-month old daughter. As the founder of the Crimson Movement, Jac is passionate about changing the attitude that surrounds menstruation by creating a space where women and men can talk about it.
To help break the barriers around this traditionally taboo subject, Jac has written a children's book, Cycling to Grandma's House about a young girl's journey to understand and celebrate menarche.
“The reason I wrote the book is because I had so many parents come up to me and say, 'I have no idea how to start this conversation with my daughter'. Using story is a really powerful way of reaching out to children,” she says.
Dr Sharon Moloney, a Women's Health practitioner in Townsville says some mothers find it hard to talk to their daughters about menstruation because they were brought up without the knowledge themselves.
“For mothers who have experienced the onset of menstruation as a difficult time in their own lives, it can be hard to speak freely with their daughters about the topic. I can remember my mother's subdued, determined tone when she gave me a little book about it,” she says.
While Dr Moloney agrees that books will help to educate and possibly break the ice, they cannot replace an open conversation between parent and child.
Dr Moloney, who viewed her own monthly flow as a sacred thing, says conversations about menstruation cannot be started too early.
“Kids are curious. They'll see things and ask about it and sometimes they're just after a simple answer. If they're given the facts when they ask the questions at an early age, once they reach puberty and it's time for the talk, it won't be such a big leap because you've already sowed the seeds,” she says.
According to research, girls want their mothers to talk to them about their periods says Anea. “When a girl learns about menstruation before she starts menstruating, and in a positive way, her attitude about it is more positive and healthy.”
Although I cannot imagine ever discussing my period with my father, Anea says that it's important to include dads in the conversation too.
“It is equally important for dad to have a strong level of comfort around this subject because he matters to her. If we want girls to value themselves we can't perpetuate messages of shame surrounding a really fundamental part of being female,” says Anea.
Thirty years after my menarche, I finally feel a sense of empowerment as I gain more knowledge about my cycle and how it affects my body, emotions and my way of thinking.
I'm not suggesting we shout it from the rooftops when we are on our period but if we change our attitude about menstruation, maybe our girls will embrace womanhood a bit more tightly.
* name changed