I grew up in a community I’d consider fairly open about sex ed. I remember in elementary school when the teachers divided my class by boys and girls so they could tell us girls about periods and at what age we might start getting them. I don’t think the menstruation discussion was too extensive, though, because I only recall it happening once. And by the time some of my friends got their periods for the first time, putting in a tampon definitely did not come naturally.
One of my friends confidently decided to try out tampons for her first period. Assuming the task was intuitive for an intelligent person, she pushed it up there, detached the little stick part of the plastic applicator (I don’t even know the technical term for that), and left the rest of the applicator inside of her for the entire day. She only removed the little stick because it was obviously not supposed to be sticking out like that, how would she pull up her pants?
An old coworker of mine remembers her first period pretty vividly as well because of a similar, um, misstep. While she knew to take the applicator off, she wasn’t exactly sure what you were supposed to do once you had the tampon out of the plastic. The directions said to put it at a 180 degree angle, so she just kind of tucked it horizontally against her body instead of inserting it anywhere and called it a day.
To no adult woman’s surprise, she proceeded to bleed all over her seat in Latin class. (“Who knew it was supposed to be vertical not horizontal?”)
We all laughed when these stories were being told because it’s so ridiculous once you know better, but there’s actually bleaker subtext to first period incidents like these. Even we, who grow up in educated, open-minded communities, lacked the proper knowledge about our own pubescent bodies. And even worse, a lot of girls are embarrassed to ask for clarification: How do I use a tampon? What are the plastic and cardboard pieces for? Can I use something else if I’m scared tampons will hurt? Do I have to change a tampon every time I go to the bathroom?
I can only imagine the knowledge gap gets wider with less education, fewer resources, and more closed-minded communities.
Diva International Inc., the company behind the Diva Cup, recently conducted a survey with OnePoll of 2,000 women 18 and older and found that 52% of women felt embarrassed during their first periods and 53% claimed they weren’t educated on the symptoms associated and what the experience would be like. Another 43% said the experience scared them, and 61% were “shocked” at how much cramps hurt.
Only one-quarter of respondents said they knew what to do when their first period arrived, while another quarter had absolutely no idea what to do.
I didn’t get my period until I was 16, the last of every girl in my grade probably. I remember not being embarrassed as my friend Molly guided me through the tampon insertion process through a stall door in the school bathroom. Not only was I unembarrassed, I was excited. I felt like I was finally part of this cool inner circle of girls who could whisper across desks to each other, “Do you have a tampon?” and commiserate about cramps, handing off Midol from their backpacks.
So here’s where first period parties, a get-together to celebrate a girl or teen getting her period for the very first time, come in.
Of course, as with any party, there’s no one size fits all mold. In general, I think every girl deserves to feel this sense of pride when she starts menstruating—but, more than anything, every girl deserves to understand what is happening to her body and how to deal with it. Some schools may do a portion of the education, but why not pick up the slack at home? There are only upsides.
If your daughter goes to a friends’ or older relatives’ first period parties, she’ll learn more about what to expect for herself in an open dialogue, where unfortunately taboo subjects can be addressed freely without judgment or shame.
First period parties are an opportunity for women and girls to laugh at their menstruation mistakes rather than feel gross for leaking and staining their clothes; they’re a chance to debunk misconceptions, like that it’s impossible to get pregnant while on your period; they’re a space to educate girls that birth control pills are for more than just contraceptive and there are a lot of options, so talk to your doctor about which one is right for you. At first period parties, you could talk about how common irregular periods are, but what to do if you think it might be caused by a medical condition like PCOS, other hormonal issues, or unhealthy weights. Girls should know that “missing a period” doesn’t always mean she’s pregnant because a lot of adult women still naturally experience irregular cycles for myriad reasons.
It took me until my late 20s to realize my lifestyle can play a part in the toll my period takes on my mental and physical well-being, like that making more deliberate food choices can help regulate my hormones. Unless we tell girls these things, how will they know? How will a girl know it’s normal for her body to ache, to have cramps that make her bend over in pain, if we don’t tell her? That’s undeniably scary for a young girl, especially if it happens without warning.
Another underbelly of menstruation is that periods cost money. At a first period party, attendees can gift things like heating pads, Midol, pads, tampons, menstruation cups, period panties, acne creams, and the many other tangential elements of beginning to menstruate and the associated symptoms.
According to the non-profit Days for Girls, which works to improve conditions for girls with education about menstruation around the world, 500 million girls and women globally don’t have adequate resources and knowledge to deal with their periods. Many of these girls and women reside in rural communities where periods are considered “impure.” If you live somewhere that has access to pads, tampons, period solutions, and education, you should be highlighting the resources, not passively hoping girls will notice on their own. Because not every woman and girl is so fortunate to have all of these comforts and services within reach.
Last, and most bluntly, we deserve a damn party. I know people who got their first periods in fourth grade at 9 and 10 years old—that’s a lot to deal with at such a young age. A first period party emboldens enthusiasm over becoming a women and diminishes insecurity and fear.
As adult women, we should care about the younger generations. A kind society builds the next generation of girls to be successful and confident, rooted in self-worth and uninhibited by the ways their bodies work and differ from a man’s. Why wouldn’t we want to be part of a society educating and empowering girls to be excited about who they are?