A few years ago I was meandering through a bookstore when I came across a book called Honoring Menstruation by Lara Owen. Thinking it an interesting topic, I bought it and put it on my bookshelf at home. It sat there unopened and unread for several years, but did get passed over many times for trips to used bookstores, where other less meaningful books went.
A couple of weeks ago I decided to pull the book off the shelf and look through it. After all, if I waited much longer the topic could be irrelevant. I would need to switch to books with titles like Honoring Menopause. Or maybe it was that I needed a bit more insight to better help women arrive at a place where they more deeply respect themselves and their natural cycles, rather than viewing them as nuisances or medical conditions.
What I found in the book was an in-depth look at the deeper meaning of the “period,” why the subject is avoided and almost surrounded with a cloud of shame, and how it can be accepted as a great teacher and bringer of wisdom, to both men and women. I wish I had read the book a long time ago.
I was already aware that we live in a culture that denies the sanctity of menstruation. It is widely known that girls in our society lose self-esteem as they journey through adolescence. They find themselves embarrassed and awkward around natural occurrences such as having their period, developing breasts, and growing taller than the boys. There is no rite of passage, ceremony, or celebration to initiate girls into a time in their lives when they become fertile; when they become the next generation to create new life; when they begin their journey toward becoming the bearers of wisdom.
Instead, a large number of young women are briefly told how to handle the mess. From there, they are on their own. Culturally, the menstrual cycle is seen as an uncomfortable, often painful and emotional burden that has to be dealt with. It interferes with activities and sports, work, travel, sex, emotional stability and mental clarity for about 35 years. During this time, it needs to be hidden. Better yet, a woman can continue her normal activities and pretend it isn’t happening at all by taking medication to block symptoms and by using products that allow her to ignore it.
But at what price have we cast aside the sanctity of a woman’s “moon time?” Could the suffering itself be due in part to the way we routinely ignore our bodies and their natural cycles? Could illness and disease tie in as well? These cycles and their messages carry a great deal of information that, on the whole, we have ignored. Painful periods, hormone imbalances, PMS, all of these are seen as medical conditions but are messages from a body full of wisdom asking us to pay attention.
An example that women have lost touch with their bodies is when they can go two to three months not knowing they are pregnant. Or when a woman who has had excessive bleeding tries to go on about her normal life not acknowledging the grapefruit-sized tumor in her uterus. Or when cancer in the breasts or other reproductive organs continues to take lives but our society refuses to address the deeper meaning. There is something sacred to be heard from the body. Can we get back to listening to it?
What would marking the onset of menstruation do for the value a woman places on her body and its cycles? This is a significant life transition that we let pass by. It is an important initiation, a birth of sorts, without any fanfare or gifts or recognition. Could a celebration or ceremony, fathers included, be a way to help build the feelings of self worth and love in a girl? Many cultures believe so, and they have traditions to mark the passage.
Furthermore, what if the period was a time when a woman allowed herself to rest, reflect, sleep more, nourish herself, and relieve herself for a time from the constant caretaking of others. This is an ancient custom. Once upon a time a woman left the home for a place of quiet for a couple of days, where nothing was expected of her other than she look within to restore herself and gather new wisdom for her family and community.
In our country, women are beginning to give their own girls the celebration that they missed so their daughters can approach menstruation in a healthier way. A nice lunch with mother (and/or father) grandma, aunts, and trusted friends, gifts, a ritual to welcome a girl into the realm of women can go a long way toward repairing the female experience.
As for leaving the home for a quiet place, many of us might not be able to do this. But being conscious of taking a pause, sleeping a bit longer, limiting commitments and activities, making sure there is food already made and a clean house beforehand, these would help heal the rift between a woman and her body, bringing back a little bit of meaning and purpose to a sacred time.