Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cultural Variations of Menstruation

by Dr. Margaret Aranda

Cultural Variations of Menstruation

Interviewing women about their onset of menstruation led to many different stories.  I let the stories simply ‘fall out’ of the woman, because it was interesting and bonding both for the storyteller and the listener.  I think we both walked away with a pleasant bliss that we were able to share an intimate and complex moment in time.  This has been one of the most rewarding research endeavors of my life, because it was good to see the transition from a woman being a little uncomfortable, to a woman reminiscing, to a woman sharing and then laughing and smiling.  We both walked away somehow feeling better that we shared, and isn’t that nice?

What she Did
No one
Slapped herself

No one
Went to bed

No recall
No recall
Bad Childhood; little recall of Childhood
Thought it was dark black stool
Mother said, “You’re kidding”
Nothing relevant

Starting Your Period.  Five women were asked to recount the day they started their period. Different responses show how much variety there is on this occasion of womanhood.

Of course some women hate having their periods, some women love it, and many women are simply neutral on the matter.  Some women feel more feminine, while others feel just plain old sick with Premenstrual Syndrome, or PMS.   PMS has allowed women to joke about the condition, and has also opened up the aspects of keeping a menstrual cycle journal, tracking caffeine and diet to minimize symptoms, and assisting with alleviation of cramps.  Some may feel increased creativity or libido during menstruation, while others abhor the thought of having sex while menstruating.  And, of course, each of these feelings can be held by the same woman during different times of her menstrual life.

The Eastern Orthodox Christian church influence on menstruation (Jos 2011) was described from the male perspective by Jos , as being one wherein in his particular church, “…menstruation is considered unclean.”  Women on their periods were not allowed to take Holy Communion, or touch the Bible. 
Of course there is a New Testament Bible reference of a woman “with the issue of blood” who sought healing from Jesus.  No one knows her particular problem, but we can imagine that she probably had increased menstrual bleeding and had been to multiple doctors without alleviation of her problem.  Jesus healed her.

Some women report a folk ritual that occurs wherein while on a first period, their mother slapped their face (Appel-Slingbaum, 2000).  The ritual may be an old Jewish custom of Ashkenazic origin indigenous to central and Eastern Europe.

It must be noted that the context of the slap can be construed to be loving and rather complex.   Suffice to say that the demeanor of the slapper, the strength of the slap, the ‘surprise factor’, whether or not other people are in the room, and other factors affect how the slap is received by the newly-menstruating girl. 

Other cited reasons for giving ‘the menstrual slap’ include:

(Note to Layout: Table) 
To increase blood flow to the face or cheeks, and not the lower abdomen.
Appel-Slingbaum, 2000
“Because a woman’s life is filled with pain.
Dan, 1992
“To let you know you can get pregnant now.”
Dan, 1992
“Because it marks the day you are a woman.”
Dan, 1992
“To bring blood back to your cheeks.”
Dan, 1992
“It’s something we do – my mother did it to me.”
Dan, 1992
“The girl would be duly warned not to bring disgrace upon the family by becoming pregnant.”
Appel-Slingbaum, 2000
“To ’awaken’ her out of her childhood slumber and into her role as a Jewish woman.”
Appel-Slingbaum, 2000
“…to let you know you can get pregnant now, and because it marks the day you are a woman.”
Dan, 1992
“So the blood should never leave your face.”
Stillerman, 2005
“It’s just what Jewish mothers do.”
Birckner, 2012
“To keep the blood flowing to my cheeks.”
Aranda, 2012
Personal Interviews

Table.  Reasons for the ‘Slap’.  Some factors that clearly come into play include family dynamics, whether the father knows about the period and/or the slap, religious views, and generational customs.

Cultural variations in the onset of menstruation are simply thought-provoking. 
There's no way around it. 
To order Archives of the Vagina: A Journey through Time, go to:

Apple-Slingbaum, Caren.  The tradition of slapping our daughters.  MUM, 2000).

Birkner, Gabrielle.  Parsing the ‘Menstrual Slap’. Blog, The Sisterhood: Where Jewish Woen Converse, 2012.

Jos, What my Christian fundamentalist upbringing taught me about periods.  September 6, 2011.

Kieren, D. K. (1992). Redesigning Menstrual Education Programs Using Attitudes toward Menstruation. Canadian Home Economics Journal 42(2):57–63.

McKeever, P. (1984). The Perpetuation of Menstrual Shame. Women and Health, 9(4):33–47.
O’Flynn, Norma.  Menstrual symptoms: the importance of social factors in women’s experiences.  Br J Gen Pract, 2006 December 1: 56(533): 950-957.

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Dr. Margaret Aranda's Books:

No More Tears en Espanol
Face Book Page: Stepping from the Edge
Little Missy Two-Shoes Likes to go to School
From Menarche to Menopause: A Journey through Time

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Additional Free Articles by Dr. Margaret Aranda
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Full Disclosure: Margaret A. Ferrante, M.D. was an Institute Physician with Cenegenics Medical Institute. 

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