Carrie, the Stephen King movie that managed to aptly cover the trauma of being a teenage girl and slightly make us terrified of telepathy, has been a punchline for teenage angst in popular culture since its release in 1976. If for whatever reason you are some actual freak of nature who hasn’t seen the original or one of its many remakes allow me to slightly spoil it for you. Carrie features a scene in which the main character Carrie White completely spazzes when she unfortunately has her first period in a high school locker room and has no idea what’s happening. Her mother has completely avoided the “becoming a woman” talk with her. Instead of being met with sympathy and support her “mean girl” classmates throw tampons at her in the shower as they get their one good laugh in of the day at her expense.
Unfortunately a recent Salon.com article is highlighting a study that reveals when it comes to young women who are considered low-income, we are raising some Carrie’s of our own. No matter how much sexuality they might witness in the media, apparently we’re missing the mark when it comes to the messages we’re sending about reproduction and puberty.
The piece highlights a study done by Marni Sommer, an assistant professor at Columbia University who specializes in gender and sexual health and adolescent transitions into adulthood and her colleague, Ann Herbert. Sommer and Herbert along with students of the university’s Mailman School of Public Health reviewed research to learn more about if young girls in the U.S. felt prepared for puberty. What they discovered was alarming:
“What we learned was eye-opening. Across the research we reviewed, many girls reported negative experiences of and lack of preparation for puberty, and of menstruation in particular.”
Through qualitative research (research designed to explore a population’s experiences, behaviors and perspectives), the group learned more about pubertal experiences of low-income girls growing up in the U.S. from 2000 through 2014:
“Many girls reported feeling scared, traumatized and embarrassed at the arrival of their first period, along with feeling dirty and “gross.””
“In general, the more negative descriptions were associated with girls feeling underprepared, not knowing what would happen with their first menstruation, or feeling they did not know enough about how to practically manage the blood flow and related discomfort that can arise with menstruation. There were also some neutral or ambivalent responses, although this included one girl suggesting she felt “scared and relieved.”
Although many of the girls experienced menstruation that fell within the normal guidelines as far as age and other changes that come with puberty, their feelings weren’t much different than girls the group had worked with in foreign, less-developed countries.
Many of the girls expressed that what they were told about menstruation from family or parental figures was “too little, too late” or left them feeling unsupported with very little knowledge of what was happening to their bodies. The one positive message all the women seemed to have in common was that menstruation made them feel like, “they were growing up”.
Even in classes I taught in inner-city Philadelphia teen girls to young adult women held many myths about menstruation and reproductive health including beliefs like, “All girls bleed the first time they have sex.” In my own experiences as a sex educator it seems like many women are avoiding explaining the dirty details of menstruation to their daughters because they want to avoid having awkward discussions about sex and reproduction altogether. Either that or in some circumstances they just didn’t have the correct info to give and instead turned to old wives tales and myths that were handed down through generations of women no matter how faulty they may be.
I’ve spoken in other posts about how my mom limited the sex talk to, “Don’t have it in my house. Don’t get pregnant.” Fortunately, the “that time of the month” talk was a little more detailed. When you grow up in a house with an older sister and a mother it’s inevitable that someone will forget to flush and if they do, it doesn’t go all the way down. When I was about 7 or 8 this was the case and I broke into tears fleeing from the second floor of my house to find my mother whom at the time I was sure was at the bottom of the stairs hemorrhaging to death. She wasn’t exactly about to meet her maker but she was taking out a load of whites from the dryer as she casually explained to me (who was having a mini-breakdown) that no one was dying. She simply forgot to flush and was on her period. From what I can remember this period business happened once a month, was something I could look forward to and she would fill me in on the colorful details at a later time.
That time came when I was 13. I was on the phone with my best friend and went to pee when I noticed a fair amount of brown discharge that would be all too familiar in months to come. I called my mom who told me there were pads under the sink. My dad got home first and she had already filled him in. He was surprisingly calm and supportive and asked me if I needed anything before dropping the go to line, “Congratulations. You’re a woman now.” From then on I was literally Kanye West: You couldn’t tell me nothing. I walked into 9th grade a little more confident and most definitely feeling myself. I could have babies now, although I still wasn’t too clear on how cramps and Kotex were connected to motherhood.
What does this all mean? It means that although we are finally starting to get into the nitty, gritty details of sex education and preparing our young women to consent to sex and to protect themselves, we’re skipping the basics. Before we get into discussions of sexuality involving another person, we need to teach our young women to get to know their bodies and what they are capable of and why. We need to abandon the Disney version of the “birds and bees” talk (when it’s appropriate) and be honest about what happens within our bodies even when it isn’t the most “pleasant” thing in the world.
It’s great that our young women associate menstruation with becoming a woman, but we also need to provide the real deal on menstruation and motherhood so that when they are walking around with their newfound sense of “grown woman”, they are also informed on hygiene and being sexual responsible. Because we shouldn’t be waiting to talk about how periods work only when we’re worried our daughters have missed one. One of the reasons our girls are so confused is because we’re making “the period” the end of the conversation when it in fact should be the very beginning.
Images via Bigstock
Toya Sharee is a Health Resource Specialist who has a passion for helping young women build their self-esteem and make well-informed choices about their sexual health. She also advocates for women’s reproductive rights and blogs about everything from beauty to love and relationships. Follow her on Twitter @TheTrueTSharee or visit her blog, Bullets and Blessings.