Every woman remembers her first menstrual period, the beginning of that awesome passage from girl to young woman. Some girls can’t wait for their period to start, while others feel afraid or anxious. But for me, it was a shattering experience.
I grew up in a culture where we didn’t talk about sexual things, and I had no idea what was happening to me. I ran to tell my mother about it. She acted embarrassed and told me I was now a woman and that’s how it would be. She gave me some pads to wear and that was all the information I was given.
A friend of mine, Carol, had an even worse experience. She was worried she’d be bleeding every day for the rest of her life! A few days later when the bleeding stopped, she was elated, but then devastated when it came back a month later. Of course, our friends filled us in on what was going on. I didn’t buy the “being a woman” thing, because it didn’t feel very feminine to have to deal with the cramps and the embarrassing mess, especially when I would bleed through my clothes and have an “accident” in school. It is no wonder a woman’s menstrual period is often called “the curse.”
I remember having very painful menstrual cramps each month and my doctor trivialized my complaints saying that was normal. That was before the days of ibuprofen, so I just suffered through it and went to school. Years later, in my twenties after I was married, I had an early miscarriage at seven weeks that caused severe uterine cramping. Suddenly I realized it was the very same sensation as menstrual cramps, only a lot worse. I was furious at the medical establishment for telling me, “it was all in my head.” The body doesn’t lie. Every sign and symptom means something. It’s the language of your body, and it’s your body’s way of communicating to you that there is a problem.
Early cultures celebrated the first menstruation of young women. The ancient Greeks built temples to house such rituals. African, Asian, and Native American groups honored their young women with elaborate ceremonies. In India, it was a time for rejoicing with gifts, ceremonial baths and feasting. These celebrations and many others were public acknowledgments that the woman was now ready for the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood.
Even though the passage of girl to young woman has been celebrated, until recent years, it has not been understood. For thousands of years, the process of menstruation was cloaked with a tapestry of myth and misinformation. In the 1400s, it was believed sex with a menstruating woman could be fatal. History’s first encyclopedia claimed menstrual blood was a deadly poison. It was also believed that if menstruation were to coincide with an eclipse of the moon, incomparable evil would be unleashed. As late as the 19th century physicians were prescribing rather peculiar cures for menstrual cramps. One prescribed a cocktail of sulfuric acid, turpentine, alcohol and brown sugar. Forty drops of the mixture were to be placed in a teacup. After adding water until the teacup was full, the potion was to be consumed immediately. In Victorian times, menstruating women were advised to “wear warm, but loose, clothing, eat plain food, wear good thick-soled shoes and avoid novels which might excite the passions.”
I now see the menstrual cycle as a fascinating and essential phenomenon that makes each of us a part of the cycle of life. Normal cycles should not be terribly painful and are usually easily managed. Young women in our culture should see it as a celebration, a rite of passage into the family of humanity.
Excerpt from “Outliving Your Ovaries” © 2012 by Marina Johnson MD. Dr. Johnson was a medical writer and pharmacist before medical school and utilized these skills to research 450 medical journal articles to develop her book. She has no financial conflicts of interest or ties to any pharmaceutical company. Her only objective is determining the most effective, safest therapy for patients.