Earlier this year, just days shy of my daughter’s 12th birthday, I was changing her bed’s sheets when she said, in an offhand but discreet way, “Just so you know, I started my period. But it’s fine. I’m taking care of it. I’m just letting you know, because you asked me to tell you.”
Putting on my best poker face, I offered a quick hug and kiss and told her to let me know if she had any questions or needed anything — but I secretly marveled at how she’d seemingly taken this transition in stride, when my own first period experience, in the 1980s, had been shrouded in fear, confusion and shame. (You know. The kind that makes a frantic fifth grader wad up half a dozen tissues into her underpants.)
Then, a few months after my daughter’s low-key pronouncement, two 11-year-old Girl Scouts arrived at our door and asked my husband for a donation to their Bronze Award project. They were assembling first period kits — packed with a variety of pads and tampons, starter Diva Cups (donated by the company, after the girls pled their case via Zoom) and junior-sized period underwear — for every fifth grade girl in the school district.
The hubs happily chipped in twenty bucks while I gaped. When I was a preteen, I would have hid in the bushes, hyperventilating, if I’d been asked to approach neighbors (especially men) and talk openly about menstruation. How had we finally arrived at this moment of period positivity for young girls?
For one thing, girls have far more information options available to them now. They’re no longer solely dependent on Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and a one-time showing of a grainy school filmstrip showed by the gym teacher.
For instance, a preteen graphic novel titled Go With the Flow focuses on four teen girlfriends who not only openly discuss their very different menstrual experiences with each other, but also decide that their high school bathrooms’ constant lack of menstrual supplies (and their cost when they’re actually stocked) is a human rights issue worthy of attention.
“We were trying to create what we thought was missing from all of the books we read growing up — a book that was entertaining and fun to read, but that also treats periods as part of everyday life and demystifies them a bit,” says co-author Karen Schneemann. “After it was published in January of 2020, one of the first posts we saw was from a dad who said his daughter wouldn’t talk to him about periods, so he gave her the book. She read through it in one sitting, and then told him he should read it, too. It’s been so wonderful to hear that this is a book that can be a starting point for kids and their parents to have those conversations.”
Lea Lis, M.D., child psychiatrist and author of the new book No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids about Sex, Self-Confidence and Healthy Relationships, encourages families to start having these dialogues when children are young — and that the boys and men in the house should take part, too.
“‘Period boy’ was a middle schooler who caused a media sensation when he posted a video on YouTube suggesting that women would not need tampons if they learned to ‘control their bladders,’” Dr. Lis says. “He was widely mocked, but the episode make it clear that boys in many age groups do not understand what menstruation is or how it happens.”
This is partly why lots of women still feel shy about asking a man to buy tampons, Dr. Lis notes, and why “many girls don’t even feel comfortable telling their own father about the first period. We have quite a way to go.”
Even so, trends like “period parties” demonstrate a current push toward celebrating a girl’s menstrual milestone rather than hiding it.
“I love the idea of surrounding our girls in a fellowship of women to openly talk about sex and biology,” Dr. Lis says. “It takes a village to raise a child, and a child can’t get all they need to develop a healthy, sex-positive self-esteem from just their mother. They need female and male role models in their lives who are open to talk about everything from menstruation, healthy body image, conception and healthy sexual relationships.”
They also, of course, need doctors who take their concerns and problems seriously, and thanks to a small-but-growing number who specialize in adolescent gynecology, they’re finally getting them.
“When I started my residency … I was just drawn toward the adolescent population,” says Monica Woll Rosen, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan Medical School. “They have unique challenges, because they’re at a time in their lives when they’re figuring out who they are, and they’re very heavily influenced by many of the people around them, physicians included. So when you’re working with this group, it really feels like you’re making a difference.”
Specializing in adolescent gynecology is a relatively new option for physicians — a formalized training program (and a board exam) was established just this past decade — and according to Dr. Woll Rosen, it’s an “up and coming field,” with about a dozen fellowships around the country.
Dr. Woll Rosen’s youngest patients often seek out help for irregular, heavy and intensely painful periods — or, in some cases, no period at all. (According to Dr. Woll Rosen, 1 in 5,000 girls are born without a uterus, a condition called MRKH Syndrome.) How and why did the medical establishment start paying attention to young girls’ reproductive health?
“Women’s voices have gotten stronger over the years,” Dr. Woll Rosen says, “In addition to that, those in the practice of medicine finally decided that this is something we should be paying attention to. Things like debilitating periods are a real issue and should be treated effectively, not just pushed to the side. Quality of life can be severely impacted by this.”And a young person is far more likely to speak up and seek the help they need when they’re comfortable and confident with their body.
This is partly what inspired Girl Scout troop leader Amanda Hartmann, who hatched the first period kit idea when the COVID pandemic shut down schools before the Scouts had their fifth-grade health program.
“When we do the kit-making, we’re going to go through each product and do the faux health class that they didn’t get,” Hartmann says. “We had to talk to parents and make sure they’re comfortable with that, and everybody’s on board.”
Not only did the Scouts succeed in gathering the donated supplies and money necessary to make a comprehensive first period kit for all 256 fifth grade girls in their school district, the troop will also be donating $1,400 worth of feminine supplies to a local charity.
So to say the Scouts’ project was positively received by their small-town community – something that would seem unlikely just a few decades ago — would be a vast understatement. “The hope is that it could be a legacy gift,” Hartmann. “The idea is to do something that has long-term effects, so ideally, we would like to pass this building-of-the-kits down to the incoming fifth grade troop. We’re just excited that so many people have been excited about it.”
Hearing such things offers much-needed hope for a more girl-positive future. In the end, though, I decided that I needed to hear from Hartmann’s 11-year-old daughter (and troop member) Lilly about how she felt when asking neighbors for period kit donations.
“At the beginning, I didn’t really want to do it," she says. "But then once I started doing it, it got easier. The more I did it, the more comfortable I got.”