Menarche, Rituals and Moon Cycles
Thirteen-year-old Ruby Haywood drug the iron tub into the kitchen and frantically began filling it with cold water. Undressing herself as quickly as she could, she slid into the makeshift washtub and prayed. She knew that cold water was often used to stop the bleeding of cut fingers and toes, and she hoped it would work this time, too. She had been “hemorrhaging from the inside out” for almost two days and she “just knew” that if the bleeding didn’t stop soon she would die. She shivered in that cold, rusty, iron tub for two hours before her father came in from the fields and found her. Ruby didn’t die from hemorrhaging, but she might have died of pneumonia if she hadn’t been discovered.
I love this story, not only because it shows how far we’ve come in educating young girls about their menstrual cycles, but because I loved Ruby. She was my great-grandmother, and she was full of tales like this about what life was like growing up female in the early 1900s. And although I certainly relish her stories, I am thankful that times have changed since Ruby was a girl. As we move into the 21st century, menstrual blood, though still not a topic discussed during dinner parties, is not the taboo subject of the past. Mothers not only want to take an active role in their daughter’s changing bodies, but they also recognize that puberty means more than just budding breasts and monthly bleeding. And mothers aren’t the only ones participating. Fathers, single and married, are also taking a more active role in their daughter’s transition. The traditional one time mother-daughter “birds and bees” speech has now evolved into an ongoing succession of parent-daughter conversations on topics such as safe-sex, birth control and relationships.
Even the general semantics used to describe menstruation have evolved. For centuries, euphemisms that depicted shame and secretiveness were the norm. But as society has become more enlightened about the natural changes of a woman’s body, these derogatory expressions have given way to more linear terms. Whereas the older phrases made reference to the color of the menstrual blood or the pain associated with it, contemporary terms are directly related to its cyclic nature. Words such as such as “menses,” “menstruation” and “menarche” (the clinical term used by the medical community to define a young girl’s first period) are all derived from the prefix “mene,” meaning “monthly,” and have, for the most part, replaced expressions like “the curse.”
The revision in terms as well as the shift in parental view can both be attributed to the freedom of communication that our world is experiencing as a whole. This freedom in communication has resulted in a more widely accepted view of the female body and how it functions. Advertising through television and other mediums has brought Tampax out of the bathroom and into the living room. Feminine care products are now a fifty billion dollar industry. It would seem impossible in this day and age for a girl to not know everything about her journey through adolescence.
And yet, even with the ongoing parental conversations and revolutionary progression in the western world, there are still many vital truths that young girls are not learning. Although parents are explaining to their daughters in clear, honest terms what happens to the female body as it moves through puberty, they, along with the advertising industry, are leaving out the emotional implications of what it means to be born a woman. More importantly, they are also leaving out what happens to the spirits of young girls when they make their transition into adulthood.
The voyage from maidenhood to motherhood is one of the most momentous spiritual passages that a female will make. It is the time when she leaves behind the sacred island of her own inner world and journeys into the core of the material outer world. It is also the time when her spirit dons the layered garments of society and, in the process, often loses itself. InReviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher compares adolescent girls to Hamlet’s Ophelia, who, after dressing in elegant clothes to weigh herself down, drowns herself. “Like Ophelia, all are in danger of drowning,” writes Pipher. “All are pressured to sacrifice their wholeness in order to be loved.” Unfortunately, young girls receive little education on how to keep their spirits afloat during this tumultuous time. They have no idea how resist the pressure to sacrifice their wholeness, and there are no lifeboats, no preventative measures, no educational diagrams in place to instruct them.
Although many cultures use coming-of-age ceremonies in an attempt to teach young girls what it means to physically and spiritually become a woman, some of these initiation rites involve methods of torture and humiliation and are far from educational or sacred. These rituals can include anything from isolation, in which a young girl is placed away from society, to purification, in which she is beaten or tortured. The most horrendous of these rites involves the mutilation of a preadolescent girl’s genitals. Current estimates by the World Health Organization state that over 135 million women and girls have been affected by some form of genital cutting, and the numbers continue to grow. Initiation rites such as female genital mutilation and purification seem inhumane by western standards, but they are very deeply rooted in the societies that practice them. To simply demand that they be stopped overnight is not realistic. I do believe, however, that these types of painful initiations can be phased out by promoting positive, life-affirming rituals in their place.
Spiritual ceremonies don’t have to be torturous in order to be meaningful or educational. They don’t even have to be uncomfortable. In fact, rituals in the form of celebration and storytelling can have an even more powerful effect. Through storytelling and celebration, young girls can be shown that the transition of menarche encompasses more than just monthly bleeding. And they can learn what it means to be female without having their minds and bodies mutilated. A wonderful example of this can be found in a group of Kenyan women who are calling themselves “Ntanira na Mugambo,” which means “circumcision through words.” With the help of the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization, they have introduced an alternative to the mutilation of young African woman and are now advocating this new ritual as a replacement for genital cutting. This new model of initiation utilizes singing, dancing, storytelling and voluntary seclusion in which the girls are taught about their sexual and reproductive health.
Some additional spiritual commemorations, such as the Bat Mitzvah, which marks the coming-of-age of 12-year-old girls of Jewish faith, Confirmation, in which a sacrament is administered to Catholics girls already baptized, and the Latino celebration, Quincianera, which honors 15-year-old girls, also utilize ceremony and education to mark the transition into adulthood in a more positive manner. Likewise, the Apache puberty rite, known as the sunrise ceremony, or “Naihes,” though somewhat more gruelling, is a very positive form of initiation that incorporates storytelling and festivities to introduce an adolescent girl into society. There are also secular coming of age traditions, such as the Debutante Ball, which honor and celebrate girls as well.
I believe that we desperately need to expand and build on these positive, illuminating rituals and celebrations in the lives of adolescent girls, not only to eliminate the painful torturous ones, but to keep our daughters from drowning. Rituals can truly become the spiritual water wings that keep a girl afloat as she makes her voyage across the mystical seas of puberty. If used in succession, these rites can also become a spiritual blueprint of sorts that parents can use to pinpoint where their daughters are in their journey through adolescence. Because they embark on their pilgrimage at different ages, girls too can use this map to chart their own way, seeing how far they’ve gone and how much farther they have to go.
Adolescent girls also need these rituals in order to truly understand that menarche is not just one event, but a series of events that occur as a young girl journeys from the safe cocoon of her parent’s world into a world of her own. And more importantly, girls need them in order to understand that it’s okay to weep and to feel lost and alone at certain points along the way. For menarche truly is a state of being neither here nor there. It is an enchanted, in-between time when a female is neither a child nor a woman. It is also a whimsical time when emotions run high and spiritual forces become more pronounced. In fairy-tale myths, the in-between, never-land was always mystical and obscure. It was a place where seasons stood still, and like Peter Pan and the lost boys, little girls weren’t forced to act grown up.
In fact, the entire journey of menarche is much like the adventures found in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice climbs through the mirror that hangs over her parent’s fireplace and ends up in a captivating new world. Like Carroll’s tale, menarche is a story about a whimsical, imaginative, transitioning girl, who upon believing in the existence of another world, decides to make the journey through a solid and yet illusionary substance to a place where she can be of service. It is a tale about the voyage over the emotional waters of puberty, and meeting up with the Humpty Dumptys and White Knights of the world. It is about traveling down the beaches and roads and through the forest. And most importantly, it is about a young woman finally receiving her crown, an emblem of completion and wholeness and perfection.
In this book, I have attempted to create a spiritual road map using the seven distinct rites that I believe mark a girl’s magical transformation from maidenhood to motherhood. It is a road map that I hope parents as well as young girls can use to navigate their way through each other’s worlds. In addition to the seven rites, I have also included some positive ceremonies and initiation rituals that I hope will eventually replace the outdated, painful ones such as female genital mutilation.
In describing the journey through these seven rites, I will use the terms “moon cycle” and “period” interchangeably to describe menstruation. Though often thought of as a New Age term, the phrase “moon cycle” is anything but new. Because of its paralleling 28 day cycle, our lunar sister has been linked to menstruation for centuries, and her likeness is still used in many different countries around the world to represent a woman’s period. The moon’s link to menstruation is more than just a physical reference to the 28 day cycle, though. Like the sun, whose association is with man, the moon has a direct correlation to the spiritual nature of a woman. The moon represents mother, goddess and all things feminine. Its roundness and fullness reflects the natural shape of a young woman’s body, and its illuminating light against the dark sky portrays the brilliance of her life-giving essence. The altering face of the moon also reflects the roller coaster of emotions that often define the journey from the maiden years to the childbearing years. And I believe it more accurately defines the alchemy of an adolescent girl’s body as well.
As I write this book, my own 12-year-old daughter is moving through menarche. And as she moves through this transition, I am finding that she has as much to teach me as I do her. I celebrate her days as a young maiden as I will celebrate the days of her childbearing years. I try to allow time for her to experience her rites of passage in her own way and in her own time. And though there are days when I wonder if we will make it through alive, I revel in the glorious magic of her budding womanhood.
It is my hope that when a man or woman shares these rites with a young girl, whether she be a daughter, granddaughter, niece or friend, that they will be able to pull in a little ancient magic of the maiden years for themselves.
© 2001 Kristi Meisenbach Boylan