I discovered my first period at a public swimming pool, a place my mom took my brother and I often as kids. When we finished swimming, I went to shower up in the girl’s room. There I found some brownish spots on my underwear. Though surprised, I didn’t put too much thought into it. “Perhaps I just dropped the underwear on the ground and they got dirty,” I reasoned.
But when I got home, I saw fresh red blood flowing from inside of me. I started crying. I ran to my mother, shouting in panic, “Mom, I’m going to die! I’m going to die! I’m bleeding.” My mother smiled and comforted me, lovingly, “You’re not dying, my dear child, you are becoming a woman.”
You may be amazed at my ignorance. I was 11 years old, growing up in China right after the Cultural Revolution. Sexual education was non-existent then. In high school, we were sent home to self-study when it came time for biology class. I felt that there was a big secret that no one wanted to talk about – or dared to talk about. We were left groping in the dark for one of the mysteries of life.
It is no wonder that primitive cultures incorporated taboos around the menstrual process. Without proper understanding of the underlying biological basis, menstruation can look quite threatening. It seems to be a recurrent bleeding, every twenty-eight days, without any apparent wound or injury. And because the cycle mirrors that of the moon, the process appears supernatural. Further confusing is the fact that menstruation occurs exclusively in females, disappears during pregnancy, and stops at middle age. Weird. And what bleeds for 5 days and doesn’t die?
History also suggests that menstrual bleeding has long been perceived as impure by the major religions. At one time Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism all placed restrictions on physical intimacy, cooking, attending places of worship, and sometimes required women to live separately from men during their menstruation.
Today science informs us that menstruation is the shedding of the uterine lining (womb). It occurs on a regular basis in reproductive-age females of certain mammal species. That’s it. And this doesn’t sound mysterious at all. But the conversation doesn’t end there. Modern science has also invented the term “Premenstrual Syndromes” to explain the various physical, mental, and emotional ordeals that many women experience before and during their periods. Each woman has her unique experience, and no two are alike. So there are still some unresolved mysteries.
The biggest mystery of all is the creation of life. Menstruation is an integral part of the creation of life. But while it’s truly no longer a source of mystery, around the world varied perceptions persist. Whether it is dirty or purifying, whether it is weakness or strength, menstruation is open to interpretation according to our beliefs and understanding. What is yours?