Everybody remembers her first period, don’t they? Was it a happy occasion? A sad one? How old were you when you first started to menstruate? British artist Pippa Robinson (pictured below) is exploring the menarche transition from as many different angels as possible for her participatory arts project My Menarche.
‘My arts practice is centered on the belief that everyone has a story to tell and that the telling of these stories has an intrinsic value both to the teller and their community. My work interlaces individual stories with social history, researching and recording everyday stories that might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten. Where voices have been silenced, my practice helps them find a creative way to speak out.’
For her latest One Story project, My Menarche, Robinson is gathering stories of women aged 14 to 90 to find out how their first period has been treated differently across the last 80 years. The aim of her project: ‘Challenge the taboos around talking about menstruation and explore ways of celebrating menarche to help develop a positive attitude to menstruation, for pre-menstrual girls and their families.’
‘Over the years I have come to better understand and tune into my menstrual cycle’
‘As a child of the 70’s in a fairly repressed family, I was given very little support or information about menarche and puberty,’ she explains. ‘It certainly wasn’t seen as something to celebrate. Over the years I have come to better understand and tune into my menstrual cycle, and find this deeper understanding incredibly empowering, as it supports my creative work, my emotional world and my relationships. My eldest daughter has just turned 11. As she cusps puberty, I want to find positive ways to celebrate this transition and welcome her into womanhood.’
At the present My Menarche is simply a collection of stories, either written or visual, but ultimately, Robinson would like to turn it into a more participatory project, potentially with mother/daughter workshops.
Want to participate? Upload your story (anonymously)
Want to participate? You can upload your menarche story via my-menarche-live/. This can be done anonymously; you just need to give an initial and your year of birth. It’s also possible to tweet your menarche experience by using the hashtag #MyMenarche.
In case you need some inspiration: what age were you when your period started? Did you know what to expect? Were you supported – practically, emotionally? How did you feel? Who did you tell? Was it a positive experience? How would you support a teenager through menarche today?
Also, on my-menarche-live/ you’ll find a wonderful collection of personal menarche stories already; ranging from absolutely humorous to rather miserable. We’ve selected three of them below, from the forties, fifties and seventies. Enjoy!
Story 1 – J, born 1944
‘Remember how it felt going to school on your birthday, that feeling of being special? That’s how I felt’
I was 14 before my periods started. At the time I was a pupil at a large comprehensive school full of thousands of girls. I was the last to start in my class of 32 girls. I remember the humiliation of my gym teacher making us girls put up our hands in the sports hall ‘who had not yet had a period’, I was the only one to raise a hand. This was the late 50’s and the only protection was the famous Dr White’s. These towels came in one size only: huge. I tried wearing one, and as I walked the towel would wag like a dog. Easy to spot.
I went to the outside loo one evening and saw spotting. God I can’t tell you how relieved I felt. Mum got me the towel and the ‘belt’, an elastic pink contraption. I went into the living room, so excited and told my Dad that I had started my periods. He just nodded without taking his eyes from the telly. Gran was in the room too. Dad later left the room and Gran, in an angry whisper told me off for mentioning this ‘private’ information to a ‘man’. Normally a gentle old soul I was quite taken aback. Then she said, still in this whisper: do not wash your hair or bathe all the time you’re bleeding.
I couldn’t wait to go to school and tell everyone. Remember how it felt going to school on your birthday, that feeling of being special? That’s how I felt. But I guess the ‘wagging tail’ of Dr White said it first.
Story 2 – J born 1954
‘I was so scared that blood would leak out so I wore two pairs of gym knickers’
My first period came when I was 14 years old. I remember feeling relieved as most of my friends already had their periods. I felt embarrassed to tell my mum as we hadn’t spoken about it much – I had learned about it from my friends.
My mum gave me some Dr Whites pads – thick cotton with loops which were held in place with a belt with hooks or safety pins in my knickers. I was so scared that blood would leak out so I wore two pairs of gym knickers.
After a couple of days the bleeding stopped so I thought that was it. It was exam time and at school the bleeding started again. I had a handkerchief -red spotted- so I put that in my pants. I can remember sitting there in the exam, frightened that when I got up, there would be blood on my red gingham dress!
Story 3 – P, born 1974
‘I had spent most of my childhood as a tomboy and becoming a ‘girl’ let alone a ‘woman’ was a painful transition’
When I was in my early teens, I found a book called ‘Have you started yet?’ in the house. Whether it had been put there for me to find, or more likely belonged to my elder sister, I didn’t know. It was the only information I was given about periods. I remember learning useful information such as the names of different parts of female genitalia, and how to clean blood off sheets using salt and cold water. Inherent in all of this, seemed to be a strong sense that it was a very private thing, to be hidden away and not talked about.
I remember being curled up inside with embarrassment and shame about all things ‘female’. All the messages around me, from family and society, seemed to confirm that there was something shameful and weak about being a woman. I had spent most of my childhood as a tomboy and becoming a ‘girl’ let alone a ‘woman’ was a painful transition. When I started secondary school, I began dieting & calorie counting furiously, I think it gave me a little bit of control in a life that seemed very out of control. I was underweight and started my periods fairly late.
I was grateful for ‘the book’; it was a bible of information for me and I think I would have been lost without it. But the sense of shame and of needing to hide my period from the world, was never far away. I remember seeing another girl at school who had bled onto her skirt, and nearly dying of embarrassment for her.
Thirty years later I now love being a woman and having a monthly cycle. The more I understand the different seasons and tempos of my cycle, the more I feel connected to nature, my intuition and my female strength. I have two daughters and we often talk about periods. I hope that their transition to menarche will be one not of shame, but of real deep celebration and welcoming.
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