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Pattern of white panty-liners on a pastel background. Concept of menstruation, ovulation, reproduction, pain and personal hygiene.

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Most women remember the day they experienced their first menstrual cycle. Some of us, more prepared than others, embraced the cramping sensations and spotting of blood as a welcome of our womanhood. While others struggled to deal with the “coming-of-age” milestone that would be a monthly recurrence for many years. However you dealt with the arrival of aunt flow, one thing we all shared was the experience of watching our bodies officially transition into womanhood.

We spoke to four women’s wellness advocates about the experience of their first menstrual cycle, what resources were available to them at the time, and what they believe can help make the life-changing transition an easier one for all young women.

Channy Thomas, Public Health Practitioner and CEO of Pretty Periods

Pretty Periods

Source: Pretty Periods / Pretty Periods

Tell me about your experience the first time you got your first period…

I was the most prepared young lady expecting her initial cycle. My mother had opted in for me to take a sexual and reproductive health course in fifth grade and this woman taught us about bodies, what would happen with our menstrual cycles, everything. So I definitely knew what to expect. And my mother even went over it with me.

So one day it finally happened and I recall being at my aunt’s house. The first reaction that I had was embarrassment, upon realizing that I had soiled my aunt’s bedsheets. I was so embarrassed that I didn’t even tell her that I had gotten my menstrual cycle and I cleaned everything up myself. Afterward, I went home and spoke to my mother about what happened and that was the beginning of my menstrual experience.

How did you feel afterward? Was there anything that you struggled with internally?

I was the young girl in the friend group who was always prepared with menstrual care products, even before starting my cycle – I was the one who could educate my friends on things they didn’t know. And when it happened to me I was just embarrassed.

I always felt like my periods were heavier than everyone else’s – my friends never soiled their clothes and it would frequently happen to me. It would be a big ordeal and that was like the first onset that something was different with mine. Years later, I would actually be diagnosed with stage four endometriosis.

During that time, I was also very self-conscious about my body. And experiencing a heavy flow with my periods just heightened that self-consciousness, so much so that I remember going from a size twelve or fourteen to a size two. Just in the hopes that if I lost weight, things would change with my body and it would lighten my flow.

What resources did you have available to you at the time to help navigate this change?

Because my mother had enrolled me in that youth course, I was educated on things like body awareness, HIV, and STI’s. And it made me feel empowered, and that was sort of how I handled what was going on with my body internally. I focused on the external, and helping others so that they wouldn’t feel how I felt. It was like a masquerade if you will.

On the outside, I felt confident, I appeared to be confident, and I was always helping somebody else out. But internally, still, I was struggling.

What do you think would help today’s young women better adjust to this life and receive the information that they need to know?

Storytelling is embedded within our culture, it’s embedded within our DNA. Transparency, authenticity, and creating a safe and brave space for young people to share their experiences and receive information in a client-centered manner are really important.

We need to create environments that are young-person-led and navigated. We should be able to place the information in front of them, and allow them to decide when and how they want to use it. Health equity looks different for young people than it does for us. So we really need to ask ourselves, what do they need and how can we fulfill that need in a manner that’s most appealing to them?

We have to also encourage them to have a relationship with their body on their own terms. Because for a long time I didn’t feel like my body was my own – when you first experience your period, you’re told ‘Don’t get pregnant.’ or ‘Don’t wear your clothes in a certain way.’ And we have to talk to them in a manner that empowers them and liberates them and makes them feel like they’re in control of their body from the start.

Samantha Denae, C.H.H.P, Certified Holistic Practitioner and Educator for Atlanta Public Schools

Samantha Denae

Source: Courtesy of Samantha Denae / Samantha Denae

Tell me about your experience the first time you got your first period…

I was twelve years old when I started my first period, and I was at home working on a book project. It was definitely a surprise, but I didn’t feel any cramps when it first started. I was already taught how to put a pad on by my mother, so I did that first. And she wasn’t at home when it happened but I called her to let her know, and she came right away.

For the rest of the day, I was cramping really bad and I didn’t expect that. All of my friends who had already experienced it had enjoyable experiences, so no one really told me that when you get your period it can sometimes be painful. I just assumed that it would always be a good experience, like my friends. And for that entire week – my period lasted seven days – I had to miss school, I was super sick, throwing up everywhere and the cramps were extremely painful. Eventually, I went back to school, and while I was there I had to go to the nurse’s office because the pain was so intense.

How did you feel afterward? Was there anything that you struggled with internally?

After I had my first period, I thought maybe that was just my first experience and the next month would be better. But every month after that was the same. I would throw up the first few days, the cramping would be super intense, I would bleed heavily, and pass quarter-size blood clots.

I just assumed that everyone’s period was like that – maybe it started off okay, and then somewhere along the line, they experienced the same things that I did. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I learned that everyone else’s experience wasn’t like mine.

What resources did you have available to you at the time to help navigate this change?

Outside of my mother – that was the only thing really. And she didn’t tell me a whole lot about having a period outside of how to wear a pad, and ‘Now you can get pregnant because you have a period.’ She pretty much told me that her periods were the same as mine, so I just assumed that it was normal to have a period like mine.

I didn’t have any resources outside of that. The nurse’s office didn’t have any kind of information to give, they didn’t teach us about our periods in school and what it biologically means, so I didn’t have anything.

What do you think would help today’s young women better adjust to this life and receive the information that they need to know?

I think teaching it more widely, and more in-depth, in schools is definitely a factor in making it easier for young women. They teach sexual education but they don’t teach enough about women’s sexual and reproductive health, and how we can be better mentally and emotionally equipped to navigate the experience.

It’s important to remember that even though we’re growing and developing on the outside, we’re still children when we get our period – and the girls these days are getting them at the ages of nine and ten years old. And I can’t imagine being in elementary school and doing all kinds of child-like things while experiencing a period which is such a womanly responsibility.

I think talking about it more in schools so that young girls can start to grasp what’s happening with their bodies will be very helpful. Talking about it is the biggest thing – it’s very taboo to even mention the word “period” and we need to start having more open conversations about it. Parents even need to start having more in-depth conversations about periods with their children as well – how it affects them, what it means as they enter adulthood, not only for their body but also for their mental and emotional state.

Ultimately, more education, workshops, and making information more readily available – such as the correct tampons and pads to use. Many people aren’t even aware that feminine care brands like Kotex and Always utilize chemicals that can negatively affect cramping and periods. So we should start having these conversations to make young women more aware of the best ways to navigate the change, and also become more comfortable with their bodies and the way that they are changing.

Chelsea VonChaz, Executive Director of Happy Period

Chelsea VonChaz

Source: Photo Courtesy of Chelsea VonChaz / Gianna Dorsey

Tell me about your experience the first time you got your first period…

When I first experienced my menstrual cycle, I was ten years old approaching the age of eleven, and my mother and I were at home. I remember feeling the sensation of the spotting in my underwear, so I went to the bathroom and sure enough, there was blood.

I went to tell my mother, who was half asleep at the time, and she instructed me to put a pad on and she went back to sleep. And I remember thinking, ‘Go put a pad on? I’m going to go take a bath!’. So I ran my own bathwater and soaked in the tub, and I remember having that moment of examining my body, and just wondering things like ‘Is it going to come out in the tub?’ and ‘How often am I going to bleed?’

I was very experimental and into my body, but I also felt very encouraged to be that way because all the women in my family had spoken to me about periods. To me it was a very open conversation, I don’t really remember having that air of “hush-hush” or silence around it. Because of that, I didn’t see any harm in examining my body or wanting to learn more about the different parts of my body.

Afterward, I found myself reading books about female anatomy – and I wasn’t even trying to dive into the reproductive side of it, I was just curious about my body and what it was doing.

How did you feel afterward? Was there anything that you struggled with internally?

I feel like I had a lot of support and was educated by the people around me at the best level that they could share knowledge about it. I do remember that there wasn’t really much talk about other options of period products, pantyliners were really the only other thing that was brought up to me and I believe that was because I was fairly small in size.

I remember telling my family when I finished my first menstrual cycle that it was over, and they replied, ‘You just wait – it’s going to get worse. And I was so surprised like, ‘I’m going to get another one?’ So nobody really told me that I was going to bleed every month until I reached my 50’s. And when I learned that I was pissed. I remember talking to my grandmother and asking her if she still experienced it, and when she told me she didn’t, I was like ‘Well, I want a hysterectomy too!.’

I don’t think my family really filled me in on the part beyond experiencing a period for the first time because they probably weren’t ready to talk about things like the stages of ovulation. And they may not have been educated enough on those topics to really speak on it.

What resources did you have available to you at the time to help navigate this change?

My fifth-grade teacher, her name was Ms. Jackson, was really pivotal to me in helping me navigate that time. She let every girl in our class know that if we were experiencing our cycles, we could come to her and let her know if we soiled our clothes, didn’t feel good, needed to excuse ourselves or go home. And one thing about her is that she never questioned us, she always believed us, and never told us to just brush off our pain or discomfort.

We had our own hand signal that she enforced for us, to let her know if we urgently had to leave during a lesson to go to the bathroom, and she also showed us where in her desk there were pads that we could use – I think she actually got in trouble for that because one of the boys in our class found out about the spot and was so grossed out or appalled by it.

I believe we did have a sexual education class, but the whole “period” talk was completely overlooked. From what I remember, we were told that that was solely going to be a conversation between us and our mothers. The only support system that I found outside of my home was my teacher, Ms. Jackson. She was just amazing.

What do you think would help today’s young women better adjust to this life and receive the information that they need to know?

I think that it’s really about education. All it takes is for educational institutions to look at period products as supplies in the same way that they look at books, pencils and paper. You can’t get an education and be able to learn without the tools, right? So it’s just time for schools to challenge the way that they view menstruation. They need to view period supplies and menstruation education as equally important to everything else.

Outside of schools, I feel that even institutions like churches, libraries, youth centers, and community centers should also do the same. It really takes a village to support the cause, and let’s face it – it doesn’t matter where you’re at, your period doesn’t stop just because you’re at church or at school. So no matter where you go, you should always feel supported and equipped with the right resources.

Imagine going to the bathroom in an institution and there’s no toilet paper, it should be the same standard and importance placed on feminine care products. That support can really make it so much easier for young women to deal with that life change, no matter where they are. Having a period for a lot of us is really hard, so the world can really make it a lot easier by normalizing discussions around it, and making sure that we have the right products to just live our lives, period. 


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