It was a warm and humid fourth of July afternoon. I was twelve and carefree, sporting festive white shorts with a blue and red sequin tank to match. I knew I was cute hanging off of the monkey bars. Racing neighborhood boys and girls up the steps of a towering jungle gym. I played and played until finally I went inside only to find a huge bloodstain on the back of my white shorts. I was shocked that it was in fact coming from my vagina. I screamed from the bathroom only to have my sisters burst into the room laughing tauntingly “You started your period! You started your period!” My wha..? I remember receiving a bulky pad, changed my shorts and ran outside. I attempted to play as before but found it awkward with what felt like a diaper between my legs and the fear that the other kids somehow knew. Unfortunately, I had to wait to learn exactly what menstruation was until that fall during my 7th grade science class.
I can’t help thinking how many other black women weren’t taught about their bodies as little, black girls inside the walls of their homes. According to the an article published in Pediatrics by Chumlea et al, on average half of U.S. black girls start their period significantly earlier than both their white and Mexican-American peers. This often means that these black girls are going without the information they need to navigate such a milestone. Or worse, they’re getting much of their information from other clueless girls, social media, the Internet or television. I must admit that online magazines like Teen Vogue have come a long way from what I read when I was a teenager. They’ve published a lot of informative reads like this one mapping out what a period is. It even includes useful facts about diseases like endometriosis; a condition that can cause painful, heavy menstrual bleeding. Fibroids that have been shown to disproportionately affect women of color and pelvic inflammatory disease that could be due to treatable sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea or chlamydia. While there seems to be more accurate stuff available on the Internet, this still doesn’t relinquish the responsibility from the black family to educate our black daughters about their changing bodies.
There are several barriers, particularly in the black community, like generational taboos around discussions about sex that may hinder important talks about the menstrual cycle. Black female sexuality has been fraught with “baby and hoochie mama” stereotypes. I grew up with black adults telling me not to wear this or that because it will make me look “fast.” Historically, myths of hyper-sexuality, especially those perpetrated during slavery, continue to permeate social media and music culture often still depicting black women as sexually objectified, promiscuous or irresponsibly fertile. These can be deeply rooted into the psyche of black minds resulting in a fear that is reactionary. I was too often told to not “get pregnant” instead of what healthy relationships look like, consensual and responsible sex, contraception and family planning. Not every teenager is having sex but most female teens are menstruating. We have to be willing to separate the conversations fully aware that one may lead to the other. Further, what I’ve witnessed, especially in my role as a physician, is we as a society are hesitant to teach our children about their anatomy often substituting genital names with “down there” or “pee pee” at a very young age. What we don’t realize is that by doing this, we further reinforce the silly notion that our reproductive organs, although private, are “embarrassing”, “mysterious”, or “other.” Having conversations with our children about body safety where we use appropriate language for all body parts including words like vagina, penis, and breasts can provide a healthy and natural foundation for future, age appropriate discussions about puberty, sex and reproduction.
Religion in the black community, as well as others, may add an additional complexity to breaking down barriers in conversations about our period. Having grown up in a Protestant Christian family, I’ve experienced firsthand purity rhetoric and a welcome ignorance related to sexuality which again stunted dialogue about my period. In Christianity, there are Bible verses describing women as “unclean” during her menstrual cycle. She is viewed as “impure” at risk of infecting anything, including the bed she sleeps on, or anyone, including even her husband, with this disease of “impurity.” Doctrine like this fuels the stigma that menstrual bleeding is dirty, shameful and should be isolating. In some Hindi cultures, women are shunned to menstruation huts because they are also considered impure during their period. These huts are often made of mud or stone and lack proper heating as well as ventilation. Recently, this practice brought media attention in the New York Times when a mother and her two children in Nepal died in a menstruation hut due to suffocation from a fire the mother had built to keep them warm.
Barriers that are culturally based are not the only challenges black women may face when it comes to their periods. Some women struggle to meet their basic needs and cannot afford sanitary products. Research in developing countries has revealed limited access to clean water and inadequate menstrual hygiene are associated with infections and poor health-related quality of life. Negative experiences around menstruation have led to increased rates of adolescent absenteeism in the U.S. In an American study looking at unmet menstrual hygiene needs among low-income women in St. Louis, many report on a monthly basis an inability to purchase menstrual hygiene products instead making due with rags, baby diapers, and toilet paper. The authors propose that policy change advocating for increased support for community resources that supply menstrual hygiene products and improving access to clean, safe public bathrooms could be potential solutions. Other developed countries like Canada have eliminated the federal tax on feminine products to make them more affordable. Reusable products like the menstrual cup may also provide a sustainable option.
Generational change from what many of our parents did or didn’t teach us happens incrementally. Despite the complexity of our upbringings, religious frameworks and cultural influences, women, especially black women, persevere. The future remains bright. Campaigns like Period. The Menstrual Movement where millennials and women of color like Nadya Okamoto and the Instagram photo-series project by Rupi Kaur normalize that time of the month that occurs every month unless circumstances prevent it. As women continue to let their voices be heard, more and more are controlling the narrative about our periods and our bodies. A story that has far reaching impact. Black women, this is our story too. I encourage you to engage, empower and educate. Black and brown girls deserve to learn all about that bloodstain at home.
For tips on how to start the conversation with your daughter and/or son, visit https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/talk-about-menstruation.html