In many cases, the beginning of menstruation becomes an embarrassing, hushed event. The UK can be particularly guilty of this, with people often getting awkward around the very topic of periods. At best, we calmly hand a sanitary towel or a box of organic cotton tampons to a girl who has started her period, give a brief anatomical ‘birds and the bees’ speech and call it a day — she probably doesn’t want a fuss to be made after all.
There are many milestones we celebrate in life and we love finding a way to mark these important occasions. Christenings, birthdays, marriages and even some divorces get their moment in the spotlight but when young people in the UK experience their first period, it seems to go under the radar.
In other countries however, the approach is quite different. From unusual rituals to huge family gatherings, some cultures like to make a big deal about someone’s very first menstruation. The reasons vary, with some rituals based on spiritual beliefs, others on the nutritional benefits and some are simply about celebrating a young woman’s coming-of-age. Let’s explore some period-related customs from around the world and see if there’s anything we could learn here in the UK.
The United Arab Emirates
When you get your first period in the UAE it is no private affair — the whole family are going to want to get involved! Some young people living in this country receive gifts and a prolonged celebration. On the first day of bleeding, the girl’s parents will call all their family and friends to announce the good news. This will be followed by gifts and congratulations, marking an important moment in a young woman’s life. On the final day of the period, girls will have a bath, followed by a special ceremony.
Sekihan is the traditional food associated with celebrating life events in Japan. The dish (which translates as ‘red bean rice’) consists of sticky rice with adzuki bean and is slightly red in colour — perfectly fitting for a first-period dish! This food is also consumed at birthdays and weddings. Evidently, in Japanese culture, starting your period is considered an important event to celebrate, on par with these other landmark moments.
Papua New Guinea
The tradition for those who live in the Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea is slightly more long-winded. For a whole month after first starting their period, it is the custom for the girl to remain indoors. During this time, female relatives will provide her with medical herbs and tama tama, a traditional dish. After the month is up, the party begins. Like elsewhere in the world, a woman’s first period in Papua New Guinea marks her transition from girl to woman and this is celebrated by the entire village. After her solitude, the woman is bathed and scrubbed with medicinal herbs. Next, she is paraded around the village and congratulated by everyone on becoming a woman. The excitement ends with an extravagant feast, as female family members whisper her new duties and responsibilities to her.
Parties are one thing, but this Filipino ritual is certainly less exciting. When a young girl begins her first period, tradition dictates that the mother will wash the bloodstained underwear and then the daughter will wash her face with the same water. Washing your face with the blood from your first period is traditionally thought to ward off pimply skin in your later teenage years — worth it? Or would you take your chances with the spots?
Attitudes towards menstruation vary the world over. Most cultures acknowledge this moment as a ‘coming-of-age’ and some take a far more vocal and celebratory approach than others. Although, even in western countries (which are traditionally more reserved about menstruation) period parties are becoming more common. Some parents even go so far as to create period themed cakes to mark the occasion. It’s great to see a reduced stigma around this subject, but many would still draw the line before embracing some of the more unusual worldly customs!
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