What might happen if we reimagined menarche? Or even queered it all the way up?
As a parent to a small human who I assume will get her period one day, I think about this a lot. There’s also a growing movement of companies setting up workshops and education that specifically support girls to celebrate menarche, offering to support flummoxed parents who don’t know where to start with this transition. (Heads up that menarche is just a fancy word for the moment someone gets their first period). I wonder how many of these places are thinking along these lines with me?
Contemporary menarche celebrations usually focus on some education around what happens in the menstrual cycle and what folks can expect to experience. Their aim is to bestow the future menstruator with a sense of preparedness and positivity about the forthcoming shift in their being.
In my early days starting out in the world of menstrual health, I completed a training that enabled me to do a version of that work. The training I received at the time, like many of the offers out there currently, focused entirely on girls and their female caregivers. By the time I was ready to deliver this stuff, my understanding of gender had expanded well beyond the binary and I felt that I couldn’t comfortably offer this work knowing that it was underpinned by cisnormative narratives.
Whilst we’ve shifted somewhat to include trans, non-binary and other non-cis menstruators in the conversation about menstruation and menopause (we still have a good way to go though, folks!) I notice that conversations about puberty and menarche are almost entirely gendered.
My main wish is that we stop telling young people that menarche is the start of the journey towards womanhood and start retelling this narrative from a gender-expansive view. I would argue that even if a young person identifies and expresses herself as a girl, she might not do so in the future. Gender isn’t a linear journey, people’s sense of their gender can shift over time.
Why not just give her the freedom to have this exploration without bestowing her with the limitation that menstruation equals becoming a woman? I personally feel that this message inhibited my own gender exploration for a long time. I can feel the need to set these young menstrual beings up in a way that buoys them with confidence and prepares them for cyclical life but I think we can do this without gendering the whole thing. We can still talk about this as a pathway to fertility for some beings – and celebrate the wonder and creativity in that – but we don’t have to gender this either.
As a funeral celebrant and lover of ceremony, I know in my bones that humans benefit from tangible, meaningful ways to mark transitions in their lives and so I understand why people want to encourage young people to celebrate their first periods. Another later reflection that I have about this work is that, where it is mostly developed entirely by well meaning ciswomen who want for their daughters what they didn’t receive themselves, it perhaps unwittingly centres their needs and not the needs of the young person. Although I can feel the good intentions here, my background in developing services for young people through co-production, leads me to suspect that when offers like this aren’t co-produced with young people, they often really miss the mark.
Whether as parents/caregivers or providers of a service, could we ask young people firstly if they want to celebrate at all and then how they want to celebrate? What if older teen menstruators led the way with this work? They are the experts on what this current transition feels like culturally – could we listen to their insights and craft offerings that centre this?
Another iteration of the contemporary menarche celebration, is when menstruating adults create ceremony to honour that past transition. This is usually because they feel that it wasn’t supported adequately when they were young. I have nothing but anecdotes to back this up, but I know that this can be deeply healing for folks. I think there is huge worth in returning to this moment in our lives and offering our young selves the things that were missing during this time.
How you celebrate this is yours to craft entirely. You get to make your own menstrual meaning, beyond cisnormativity, beyond the gender binary and beyond essentialism (and if you want to stay within those frameworks than that’s your choice too!)
If I were to go back and whisper words of encouragement to my younger self I would tell her that she would eventually discover menstruation as path of resistance to a harm-filled world; that menstruation can be both a blessing and can also feel like a curse at times. I would offer the possibility of it as a web of inter-connection with other cyclical beings – plants, galaxies, atoms as well as other humans and I would let her know it as a route to fertility without making heteronormative assumptions about how she might navigate this. I would be gently practical and positive about how to manage her blood. I would remind her that this journey is hers to make of what she will and, under no circumstances, does it cement any sense of gender upon her if she does not want it to.
There is also meaning and beauty to be woven from other transitions. We cannot reimagine one facet of the life cycle without queering them all. What if we expanded menarche to include trans women who are crossing this threshold into a deepening embodiment of cyclical life? The bloodless period is a very real phenomenon experienced by AMAB trans women who take oestrogen (HRT) and I would love to see us making more space for this more generally in our awareness, but also being open to the possibility of celebrating this with folks who want to.
Finally, in a world where we’re still splitting children up into ‘boys and girls’ for sex and relationship education in schools (I have just sent a letter to my kid’s school asking why they still choose to do this); instilling this harmful and outdated binary through this practice, I feel a call to resist creating another binary of menstruator and non-menstruator. Ultimately, all young people will eventually cross the threshold into adult life regardless of their sex or gender and all humans are cyclical beings. We need to provide access to information, education and acknowledgement that affirms these key moments for everyone, using an intersectional lens that ensures no one is excluded or left behind.