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Picture this: you’re a ten-year-old girl, and you get your period for the first time. But you don’t panic. Instead, you are excited about this sudden change and want to share the news with your friends and family.
This was Olivia’s experience.
At the end of November 2022, she sat on the carpet in her Grade 5 math class doing a multiplication worksheet. She raised her hand and asked to go to the washroom like she had hundreds of times, but this time was different. As she locked the bathroom stall and used the restroom, she saw blood on her underwear. She felt excited and nervous at the same time. She knew exactly what to do.
She finished in the washroom and returned to the classroom to get a pad. While grabbing her pad, she also asked her friend Cadence, who had already gotten her period, to come with her. Olivia said she remembers her and Cadence jumping up and down in the bathroom. During recess and after school, Olivia told two of her other close friends, including one who started menstruating when she was nine. Olivia said she knows of at least two other friends who have also got their periods. These girls are considered early bloomers, as they got their period before 12, the average age girls start menstruating for the first time.
Olivia learned about menstruation from her mom before getting her period and before it was taught in school. Rebecca, Olivia’s mom, started talking to Olivia about periods when she was nine and a half.
“As a parent, you get a feel for where they are because every kid is different. As a first-time parent, going through it, you aren’t 100 per cent sure when is the best time, so I just waited for her cues, as well as using my own experience to determine the best time,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca started the conversation with Olivia by showing her a picture of a uterus. Making sure Olivia understood her anatomy was important to Rebecca because she remembers being curious about her body parts but not being taught about them in enough detail to feel confident about her body. Rebecca said she remembers Olivia asking questions about her genitals, like where pee came from, at around three or four years old. Rebecca encouraged her daughter’s curiosity by giving her a hand mirror so she could see what everything looked like up close.
“Don’t be shy about these things. Show your kids, so they are confident, understand, and hopefully willing to ask questions if they don’t know,” said Rebecca.
For early bloomers like Olivia, menstruation comes sooner than it does for most of their peers, and it can be a scary and unsettling experience if the child is unprepared.
Ten per cent of women will menstruate by age 10, 53 per cent by 12, and 90 per cent by 14. This means that for some, by the time they are taught about menstruation at school, they may have already had their first “shark week.” If parents aren’t proactive, girls getting their periods at ten will lack the tools to feel confident when they get their period for the first time.
Olivia and her friends are a part of the 10 per cent. If their parents had waited for the Manitoba sexual education curriculum to teach their girls about menstruation, the girls might not have been so ready, accepting, and excited.
“I wanted to be open as a parent because I always felt like I didn’t know who to ask… I want her to know that it’s totally normal and not weird and to be comfortable being who you are,” said Rebecca.
A century ago, girls were taught about periods in their late teens, as, on average, girls were only getting their periods at 16 or 17 years old. Today, the age has decreased by about five years. Studies from the National Health Service (NHS) reveal that most girls start menstruating at around 12, but some get their periods as young as eight.
I was an early bloomer, getting my first “gift” from mother nature at 10. I was lucky, though, because my mom and aunt were so open, I knew exactly what to do when I got my period for the first time in the bathroom stall at a church event. Being an early bloomer, I didn’t have friends to confide in, which was something I struggled with.
Parents play a significant role in whether their daughters feel prepared when they start bleeding. Society associates blood with being hurt or injured, so it can be scary when girls see blood coming from inside them.
The education girls get before menstruating for the first time can vary significantly based on the household, socioeconomic, cultural, and geographical factors they face.
Leaving Shame Behind
Where young girls live and grow up affects their perception of periods and how education is delivered to them.
Nataly, mother to 11-year-old Danna, says she felt shame and embarrassment around menstruation since childhood. Nataly grew up and lived in Ecuador until her family moved to Winnipeg about five years ago. Nataly says periods were pictured as negative and taboo in the Ecuadorian culture she grew up in, and they weren’t discussed until girls were older. When Nataly had Danna, she was determined to change the narrative and create a comfortable environment where they had an open dialogue about periods.
“I don’t want her to feel ashamed about it because it’s just a natural process in her body,” said Nataly.
Compared to her experience in Ecuador, Nataly said the attitude around periods and the body are different in Canada. She believes they are more openly discussed in Canada, not something to hide.
“I think maybe there are still families that may not talk about that with their children here, but I would say culturally, I see a difference as we [Ecuadorians] carry a more traditional culture overall in how we do things,” said Nataly.
Nataly doesn’t remember talking about menstruation with her mom or at school. So, when she got her period at 13, it took her by surprise.
After having a child at 25, Nataly finally embraced getting her period, no longer feeling shame. It meant she could have Danna.
“Throughout my teenage years, having my period felt like a bad thing,” said Nataly.
In Canada, shame, taboos, and misinformation about menstrual health are still prevalent, negatively affecting young people’s self-esteem.
Let’s Talk Periods!, a report by Always and Plan International Canada, found conversations about menstruation are still considered taboo in Canada. The survey included 3,000 Canadians and 30,000 people globally. Of the young women studied, 58 per cent said they have felt embarrassed or ashamed by their period.
Of all the countries surveyed, Canada ranks in the bottom half when referring to openness around discussing periods. Ecuador was not one of the countries surveyed.
Periods and Punch Cards
Socioeconomic factors, such as occupation and education, play a significant role in how parents approach talking to their daughters about periods.
As a women’s health nurse and mother of two daughters, Amanda took a scientific approach when introducing menstruation to her 12-year-old daughter, Selah. When Selah was around 1O, Amanda used her anatomy textbook to educate her daughter in a way that made the most sense to her, even though Selah wasn’t fond of it. Amanda also asked if she wanted to see her bloody pad. Selah’s first reaction was, ‘ugh, that’s gross.’ But Selah slowly developed a natural curiosity. Ever since then, it’s been an ongoing conversation.
As Amanda’s daughters grew up, she continued sharing age-appropriate information with them. Now at 10 and 12, they have a good foundation and are comfortable coming to their mom with questions.
“It’s not something we hide or put shame around…I’ve always tried not to make it a big, scary deal and to have a plan in place,” said Amanda.
Even though she had tools, not all aspects of the conversation were easy. Amanda said talking to Selah about periods was easier than talking to her about sex.
“I didn’t feel so bad about the period talk because it was something we could more tangibly talk about, and it was easy to grasp,” said Amanda.
Stephanie, a Grade 6 schoolteacher in Winnipeg, had an advantage in teaching her daughter Cadence about menstruation. She knew the specifics and timeline of what her daughters Cadence and Sawyer would be taught in their classrooms. She used these insights to talk with her daughters before the topics came up in school.
“I’m privy to the conversations that middle school kids are having, so I can anticipate when some of these may come up at school,” said Stephanie.
Pads and Pencils
The Manitoba sexual education curriculum is a crucial touchpoint for learning about menstruation.
For some girls, the first time they are introduced to menstruation may be in a classroom.
The Manitoba sexual education curriculum is on public record on the Government of Manitoba’s website. The curriculum is separated into lessons for kindergarten, Grade 2, Grade 5, and Grade 7 students.
In Grade 5, students learn about the reproductive system’s structure and function. For example, kids learn about menstruation and how to use sanitary products. This will be the first time some girls learn about these things.
When Rebecca, Olivia’s mom, took sex-ed in school in 1992, it was introduced in Grade 4 with the boys and girls taught separately. The girls were explicitly told what to expect from their bodies, and she said the conversation didn’t feel weird or uncomfortable.
In 2023, sex-ed is no longer taught by separating sexes.
This year, Rebecca received a form from Olivia’s school that said sex-ed would be starting this year, and she had the option to opt out of the formal school teaching. Rebecca chose to opt Olivia out of formal education and teach her at her own pace.
Olivia would have been unprepared if Rebecca hadn’t taught her at nine years old, as the sex-ed curriculum doesn’t kick in soon enough for early bloomers.
“Even if they are teaching it at the end of Grade 4 versus the end of Grade 5, that’s a better idea because there are a significant number of girls that do get it before 12,” said Rebecca.
Another mom, Jen, whose daughters are 10 and 7, supports teaching the curriculum as early as eight years old.
Jen introduced her girls to periods at ages nine and six. At this point, her older daughter was curious about her mom’s tampons in the bathroom and was ready to learn more.
“If schools aren’t introducing it until 10, 11, or 12 years old, some of these kids might already be getting their period. Maybe they feel like they are the only ones, or they have to keep it a secret because nobody else is going through it yet,” said Jen.
Even though the sex-ed curriculum is well-rounded and does a decent job of preparing young girls for their periods, education should start sooner.
The Pro Period Push
2015 seemed like the year pop culture would finally start to tell narratives that normalized menstruation. National Public Radio (NPR), an American nonprofit media organization, and Cosmopolitan, an American fashion and entertainment magazine, even called it “the year of the period,” but there wasn’t much change in the media. In pop culture, menstruation is another climactic, dramatic trope, portrayed as a high-stakes and shameful experience. For example, in the 2007 film Superbad, Seth, played by Jonah Hill, is dancing with a girl at a party and notices she has bled onto his pants. Seth’s reaction was disgust, showcasing a common attitude toward periods. But depictions of menstruation aren’t always negative. We can see a slow evolution of how the media portrays this stage in life in movies like Disney’s Turning Red.
2022’s Turning Red covered the realities of a young girl going through puberty and getting her period. When the main character, a 13-year-old Chinese Canadian, experiences a strong emotion, she becomes a giant red panda — a period metaphor.
Movies like these open the space to talk about menstruation in a way that isn’t awkward or shameful.
“Anytime that periods are displayed in a public or a media setting, I think it’s a positive thing because it’s just a reminder that it’s a normal thing, a normal process and that it’s not something that you have to keep a secret. So having it represented in the media creates a comfort level to discuss it,” said Jen.
Women who grew up in a time when periods were seen as taboo have the opportunity to do things differently with the next generation.
“I was concerned about having the conversation just because of how much more taboo it was when I was younger,” said Jen.
Jen started preparing herself for the conversation when she saw unwrapped tampon wrappers under her daughter’s pillow and on the bathroom floor.
Personal conversations with co-workers and friends about periods helped Jen learn to create a space where her daughters could come to her with questions — something she didn’t feel comfortable with when she was young.
“Being more comfortable myself helps me to be more comfortable around them [her daughters]. Also, knowing that every woman is going through this, and we’re all struggling, it sucks for everybody, so being able to talk about it and express your discomfort and struggles helps me to be there more for our girls,” said Jen.
Another critical piece in dismantling the taboo around menstruation is engaging boys and men in the conversation.
Amanda has prioritized this in her home with her 7-year-old son, Liam.
Liam has two sisters, so Amanda wanted him to know about periods before sex-ed. As a result, Liam knows about periods and understands them as something that happens to women and girls every month.
Slowly, with time, the conversation is shifting from something shameful and hidden to something that is celebrated.
Start ’em Young
Every girl has a story to share about when they got their first period. How a girl is prepared for this moment influences the story’s outcome. Thanks to having access to the proper knowledge and tools, Olivia tells a positive story about her “lady business.” Even though she was nervous in the moment, Olivia said she felt prepared and excited to get her period and then share the moment with her friends and close family. She knew what to do because her mom had taught her.
But some girls aren’t as prepared. Without correct information from reliable sources, misinformation and worry can set in. With more girls getting their periods younger, it’s crucial to have trusted resources available that girls can count on.
“Of course, girls are going to talk to their friends, but when they are important questions, girls should be comfortable talking to their parents who are going to give them the actual, right answer, instead of a half right, half myth type of answer,” said Rebecca.
Growing up, I had a support system to show me that having your period is something to be proud of and embrace. Of course, not all girls feel this way, but they should be given the tools to be able to.
But just as “aunt flow” is coming earlier, so should the discussions at school.
For rhetoric around periods to continue to change for the better, we need to talk about it openly and be proud of and curious about this natural process. Rather than painting the conversation as a big, scary talk, making it an ongoing conversation can help ease nerves.
With timely education from trusted sources, early bloomers, late bloomers, and all those in between can be prepared for and celebrate their periods whenever it arrives.