It’s hard to forget the day of your first period.
It is often recognised as the beginning of womanhood, but it can also be memorable for just being messy.
Your first period can be an exciting, embarrassing and overwhelming experience all rolled into one. Yet for many girls, the stigma attached to menstruation can impact daily routines, access to education, inclusion and self-esteem.
All around the globe girls face taboos surrounding menstruation, especially when it comes to their first period.
From a young age, some girls are given an anatomical explanation of what to expect, what menstruation is and how and why it happens. Then when the day arrives, it can turn out to be not what they expected at all. For others it can come completely out of the blue with no explanation or warning.
To help smash the stigma surrounding that time of the month, we asked women to tell us about their very first period.
“I was about eleven when I had my first period in Nepal. During that time, sanitary pads were not available and we had to use an old cloth folded and attached to a string and placed in our bloomers. I hated to change and wash them! The monthly period was taboo in Nepal, with the first time the worst. We were considered impure for 12 days and were not allowed to sleep in a bed, enter the kitchen or touch any household utensils, or to see or touch men including my brothers and dad. I had to wait for my food to be placed on the floor, to wash and use the same plate for 12 days and stay away from domestic activities and festivals.
On the 12th day, once I’d showered, changed my clothes and washed all the bed sheets only then was I allowed to enter my dad’s room, kitchen and take part other social activities. For the 2nd period onwards, the same rules applied, but only for 4 days. I don’t really understand the reasoning behind this, but these four days were a welcome break from domestic duties for women who never got much rest time during the rest of the month.”
“My first period was, dare I say, a great experience. I was younger than most of my classmates so had already seen them go through it. My mum was a nurse and talked to me very early on about periods and what to expect. I was interested and curious about it and saw it as a turning point in becoming a woman.
When I got my period my family took me out to dinner to celebrate that I had become a woman and gave me a present. It was discrete (we didn’t discuss the ins and outs of it over dinner) yet celebratory. I loved it. My friends couldn’t believe I wasn’t embarrassed about it as if it was something to be hidden, ashamed of and especially in front of my dad and brother but I absolutely wasn’t. I felt loved, supported and celebrated and just like anything else, like a graduation or new job, we all acknowledged it together.”
I thought I had been stabbed with a needle," says 15-year-old Eunice from Uganda.
Due to the stigma surround menstruation, Eunice felt too afraid and ashamed to talk to her mother about her period.
The lack of sanitary products also meant that Eunice couldn’t manage her period properly.
"My parents have to sell a lot of corn to buy a month's worth of sanitary towels, but if there is not enough money, I have to use rags."
“I remember that I was 14, all my friends and most people I knew in my school year had already had their first period by the age of 12 or 13. I did wonder till the day it actually started whether there was something wrong with me. I woke up in the morning with blood on my bed sheets, feeling a bit shy, anxious and maybe excited. I asked my mum to come to my room and tell me what to do. Funny thing is that I used to have religious studies every morning with my granddad and on period days girls are pardoned from touching the religious book – I was quite happy to skip the morning ritual!
When my mum told my grandad about my period and I still remember his expression (bless his soul), he looked concerned & almost a bit saddened. I interpreted that expression of his as, ‘my grandchild is all grown up now’. Later that day I went to school and I could not wait to tell my friends that I was finally an adult.”
“My mum made sure I knew where the pads were kept (in a bottom draw in the cupboard), but didn’t know how to talk to me about my period so she gave me a book to read. I sort of knew the mechanics from school health education and from what other girls at school talked about, but when it happened I was still taken by surprise by how messy it was.
The blood in my undies was rust coloured rather than bright red and I wasn’t sure at first that my period had started. I didn’t know what to do with my stained undies so I threw them in the bin. I remember feeling embarrassed that no one really explained how to dispose of used pads either. I remember it as a joyless and anxious time and rather than feeling excited to be a grown up I felt a kind of sadness in leaving behind childhood.
I talk to Orla my five-year-old about menstruation often and tampons and pads are in basket by the toilet- I want her to ask all the questions she has and I never want her to feel any shame associated with the healthy functioning of her body.”
“The first time I got my period, I told my father,” says 11-year-old Chandarayani.
“It felt very strange as I wasn’t expecting to see spots of blood on my underwear. I didn’t know how to handle it. In my family there is no tradition nor rituals applied when a girl has the first period. But there are things that my mother asks me not to do during menstruation. I am not allowed to take a bath, rinse my hair or cook.”
“I don’t have to take sanitary pads to school with me as Plan International Indonesia has equipped our school toilet with clean water, boxes for sanitary pads and tissues. During menstruation my school days can run normally now. Nothing bothers me.”
“I was 12. I’d taken the day off school because of a stomach ache (little did I know) Mum wanted to go to the shops, so I ran up to my room to get changed. I kicked of my yellow shorts and saw blood! I knew about periods and my best friend started hers at 9, but it was still a shock. I stood frozen to the spot and yelled for my mum. She ran upstairs, took one look, sat me on the toilet, and went to the pharmacy. She was back 10 minutes later with a selection of pads, ranging from quite large to absolutely enormous – I was horrified! But looking back, I’m grateful: I was at home, with my mum, and she reassured me that everything was okay.”
“At age eleven and in grade five at school, I had ‘THE TALK’ from my mother about what to expect as a child approaching womanhood. Armed with props, consisting of a sanitary belt and a massive pad that scared the hell out of me, my mother demonstrated the art of coping with your period in the modern day.
Armed with this information I was ready for the big day when it arrived! Filled with importance I sought out other girls in my class who belonged to this ‘echelon’ of womanhood. There were only three of us, a real clique, who certainly felt we were a cut above the rest….only 11 and a period already! Nothing prepared me though for the discomfort of trying to walk with a whopping big pad between my legs, strung up by a belt that dug into your delicate skin!”
“I had just turned 11 and found myself in the toilet staring down at an unexpected pale pink shmear on my undies. I hadn’t had “the talk” yet and thought I may have accidentally hurt myself. I had been tree climbing, somersaulting off our back fence and other things you do when you are young, fearless and invincible – and think you can get away with because your parents were not watching right at that minute. I panicked a little, thinking I was going to get into so much trouble and called out to my older sister for help. That traitor took one look at the situation, and called my mum! This terrified me more than the bleeding – what if I was never let outside again? Mum took one look and joined my sister, both now crying, laughing, whispering to each other but not really saying anything to me. Confusion was an understatement - why were they crying AND laughing? I was bleeding on the inside! I calmed a bit when Mum said “Wait here” and quickly ducked away (Like I was going anywhere at that point. I was pretty much trapped on the toilet). I asked my sister if I was going to be ok and she said “Yes Squirt, you are going to be ok. You got your monthlies. It’s no big deal. You bleed a bit every month and wear pads for a week.”
“For me my first period was something that I dreaded. We had learnt about menstruation in PDHPE, but all I could do was label a diagram of a uterus. Among friends the topic was one that was only discussed during sleepovers where we would spread stories we heard of worst case scenarios. Before I got my period I feared the day it would come, as in my mind blood would suddenly start flooding from my uterus and everyone would laugh, leaving me to be a social outcast. In reality it happened in year 7 during basketball training, I realised when I went to the bathroom and I was so freaked out I went home ‘sick’. Luckily I had my emergency pads pouch the school had given us, so I was covered. I hid it from my mum for as long as possible, sneaking pads from her bathroom. Periods was something that was only discussed as a joke or in whispers, I felt ashamed. When I finally did tell her, I realised how pointless that shame was and how natural menstruation is. Four years later and I love nothing more than complaining about cramps or debating pads vs tampons with anyone that will listen.”
This was one thing my mother managed very well! She had already shown my little sister and I how to use pads and had a stock in the bathroom all ready to go. She had told us how often to change them and reinforced the importance of this from a health perspective. Our school had talked about how we might feel cramping and may feel uncomfortable. Our class had taken advantage of the confidential question box and from the teacher’s answers to our questions, I knew it wouldn’t hurt when it came out ;) So I wasn’t scared and it didn’t seem like a big deal when I did get my period. I think my mother thought it was a little bit more of a big deal that I did and told my grandmother on the phone in front of my siblings!
Together with schools and communities around the world, Plan International is working to address the stigma surrounding menstruation so that all girls everywhere can feel included, confident and unashamed.
You can be a part of it. Support girls who are excluded from school, just because they have their period.
Thanks to the wonderful women who shared their stories with us, now — we want to hear from you! Let us know about your first period on social media #myfirstperiod
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