When I got my first period I sat on the toilet for an hour until my mum came home from the grocery store. I was prepared for this day but in the back of my mind I was convinced that menstruation could not be as bad as the older women in my life made it out to be. But sitting there on the toilet bleeding heavily, I was sure I was losing too much blood to be able to recover. “I’m going to die on this toilet.” I thought to myself. ”I’m going to die and my mum is going to find me dead on the toilet!” Then I heard the key in the door. My savior had finally come back home.
After I had calmed down some my mum brought out a bar of blue cake soap from the laundry room. She told me that in Jamaica women use this soap to get out stains from their clothes, especially blood stains because the soap contains no bleach. “The blue dye helps mask the red stains,” She told me as she rubbed the fabric between her hands. “It’s going to be your responsibility to wash your panties from now on, okay.” She rinsed it out in the tub and set it on the shower rod to dry.
“You’re a big woman now!”
I felt nothing like a big woman. I had never felt so small, so fragile. I began to comprehend the longevity of my new condition and I started to sob.
“I didn’t know being a woman meant… THIS!” I whined.
My mum looked at me and said, “ Look, it's difficult, I know, but we can manage it! I had my period for years, so did your grandmother. We all got through it. Your cousins deal with it every month– your sister as well. Do they seem worse off just because they got their periods?”
“No,” I sniffled.
“You will get used to it.”
I did get used to it. I know that next month I will use that blue soap, and lean over the bathtub to wash my underwear. It has become a ritual to rinse out my underwear and hang them to dry every month like clock work. I began to wonder how other women deal with their periods. What other rituals around periods are there? Specifically, I began to wonder how other women handled their first periods. Perhaps their rituals left them feeling more empowered than before? I decided to reach out to a few friends to gain a broader knowledge of first period rituals from cultures other than mine.
So, here are their testimonials:
Minnie, 22 (Tamilian)
“I got my first period just after my twelfth birthday in Grade 6. I recognized it after English class when I used the washroom and was slightly worried, but I called my teacher outside the classroom and explained what happened. She offered me a pad and I went to the washroom to use it. Later that day my mom arrived home from work and I told her about what happened.
As immigrants without the same resources, we did not have an opportunity to celebrate in full traditional Tamilian fashion. The tradition is known as Manjal Neeratu Vizha in Tamilian communities and translates loosely to a turmeric bath. The rituals mark the significance of a girl venturing into the journey of womanhood and a celebration of femininity. The rituals usually involve the girl being given three days off from any work or chores, some Puja being performed usually to the goddess Kamakshi (but in many cases the family’s God), a bath of turmeric water, and gifts of gold and the traditional dress of a half sari.
Even though we couldn’t participate in such grandeur, my mom along with my great grandmother made my experience special. My great grandmother prayed for my health and did a Puja in India praying to Kamakshi for my health and overall wellbeing. My mom and I did the turmeric bath at home and we couldn’t find a half-saree so we went to Gap Kids and got a simple green dress.”
“When I first got my period at the beginning of grade six and at first I thought I had just soiled myself. It never even occurred to me that I might be bleeding! However, after learning about menstruation in class I began to connect the dots. I went home that afternoon to tell my sister about what I had learned.
I didn’t immediately tell my mom because I thought she would make too much of a deal of the event. But, my sister promptly told my mother about it. She told me that my bleeding meant that I was a woman now. She prayed for me and taught me how to use a pad. Then she asked me to do something else. She boiled an egg, took off its shell and told me to eat it. However, I was not allowed to chew the egg. I could only use my tongue and the top of my mouth to break it up. At the time she didn't tell me why I was supposed to do this, but I trusted my mother. Recently, my niece had to perform the same task and I’m still not sure what it means culturally.
After I successfully ate the egg, she told me how excited she was for me and left to tell the rest of my family the good news. I never really felt afraid or ashamed of my period. I knew it was a new state of being that was not bad, just different."
I’ve come to realise that the rituals we encounter when we start our periods were made to make us feel empowered, unafraid, and a part of a community. I think we should continue to empower young people when they get their first period as it can be a scary time in life.