Guest Post by Sheryl Mendlinger, PhD
The impetus of my research on menstruation started many years ago when my daughter Yael was in her teens in the 1990s, and came home from school and told me that her friends said, “If you use tampons you could lose your virginity.” Therefore, none of them were using tampons. We lived in a diverse community and many of her friends’ parents had immigrated from North Africa, Iraq and Europe to Israel. I started thinking that what we learn from our mothers, especially about menstruation, can impact our lives in so many ways. Years later when I chose my topic for my PhD, I examined mother-daughter dyads from North Africa, Ethiopia, Europe, North America, the Former Soviet Union, and Israeli born, in order to better understand how mothers transmit knowledge about health behaviors, specifically about menstruation, to their daughters.
A model of knowledge acquisition for learning about menstruation was developed that included:
- Traditional knowledge—informal knowledge passed through the generations
- Embodied knowledge—observing others or experiencing oneself
- Technical knowledge—the products used, and
- Authoritative knowledge—learning from books, professionals, etc.
One of the most interesting aspects of this research is the stories the women shared about their menarche experiences. Certain celebrations that have continued through the generations may give either a positive or negative valence to the way women view menstruation. Traditional knowledge and rituals often provide strong emotional support for daughters allowing a comfortable transition through this key developmental stage. Several women whose origins were from Europe spoke about “the slap.” One mother told the story that when she got her first period her mother slapped her across the face, which she did to both of her daughters. The mother said the reason was something about the blood coming back and the daughter said it was something about the blood not going to your mind. The actual historical reasons for the slap vary and include: the manner in which it was performed could determine the duration of menstruation; it was necessary for a girl when she becomes a woman as protection against disgrace; and the rush of blood will make the girl have a wonderful color of her life. Often the rituals continue, but the rationale for the tradition has been lost.
The older Ethiopian women talked about their experiences at menarche which included special foods that their mother’s prepared, and then the young girl would go to the menstruation hut where she would stay until the completion of her period and be pampered by other women of the community. Women often looked forward to that time as a fun week away from chores and a brief vacation from everyday life, and a time to be with their women friends. As one woman said “In Ethiopia there is no rest until you go to the hut; only during menstruation does the woman rest.” The mothers however did not continue these traditions, even preparing special foods, following immigration to Israel.
The older women born in North Africa spoke with joy and excitement when they reminisced about getting their periods for the first time and the celebrations that surrounded this event. Their mothers were an integral part of this transition in life from child to woman. Some of the traditions included: mothers giving their daughters pieces of jewelry and preparing special foods; performing the ritual of putting three of the daughters’ fingers in flour so that they should only get their period for three days; and the oil ceremony. Mothers told their daughters to look and smile at their reflection in a bowl of olive oil, and then their faces were rubbed with oil. These girls were told that the image they saw on that day should continue and they should enjoy a happy life. The women noted that the oil would smooth a woman’s passage into womanhood. This oil ceremony was accompanied by a festive meal with traditional foods including honey-dipped, oil-fried cakes. When these women, the elders, were asked if they continued this tradition with their daughters, they all answered an emphatic no, of course not.
These special traditions and ceremonies that were so important from the past were often not continued into the next generation. It appears that the change and adaptation to the new culture and environment took precedence and provides an explanation for why these mothers did not continue these traditions with their daughters.
Recently however, there has been a movement to find positive and meaningful ways for young adolescent girls to celebrate the onset of menstruation in the western modern society. In my study there was an example of the daughter of an American immigrant who grew up on a Kibbutz, an agricultural collective community in which children grow up together in children’s homes. She spoke with enthusiasm, excitement and had positive memories when remembering how each time a girl in her age group got their period, they would celebrate with gifts. These celebrations took place together with the girls in their age cohort rather than with their mothers.
Through this research we gained a better understanding of the influences and attitudes related to menarche that a mother passes on to her daughter, and the changes that take place following immigration and acculturation to the new society.