There’s not a more confusing and sensitive transition than that of entering womanhood. For years, the discussion about menstruation or more favorably known “periods” has been taboo. To ease the discomfort and sometimes embarrassing conversation around menstruating, Black Girls Smile hosted the “ultimate girls chat” with Columbia University researcher and one of the authors of “A Girl’s Guide to Puberty & Periods”, Caitlin Gruer.
Facilitated by Dr. Tanya Bass, a licensed sexual health and sex-positive expert, Gruer discussed the catalyst behind the book and its research.
“So, our team has worked on this in a number of counties, primarily in Africa and Asia. … We realized we’ve been spending so much time thinking about this issue overseas when there is still a lot of issues around puberty and menstruation within the U.S. that we didn’t know a ton about. So, we decided to focus our attention on the U.S. for a few years,” explained Gruer.
The research consisted of participatory group activities with 73 adolescent girls 15-19 years old, interviews with 23 adults and anonymous first period stories from girls in 25 states. The research suggests a lack of puberty education and resources. In cases where this was available, the information was often biologically focused or outdated and lacked cultural representation. To develop the content for the book, the authors assessed frequently asked questions, where were the gaps in knowledge and how to shift the menstruation conversation from biological to practical.
“…we wanted to make sure the book appealed to girls who don’t like to read, as well as those who do. And the other thing that was really important to us, and that we worked really hard with the illustrator, was making sure that the book highlighted all kinds of girls so that every girl felt represented,” stressed Gruer.
How adults talk or don’t talk about puberty can contribute to stigmatizing menstruation for girls. Dr. Bass shared an experience she had as a young woman when a friend’s family member referred to someone starting their menstrual cycle as “the curse”.
“Just the language in people’s families and in our community can also continue to perpetuate menstrual shame, the stigma around menstruation and menstrual blood, can continue to keep us in this hiding idea around our menstrual cycles. It keeps us from having conversations not only with family members, but certainly with professionals or trusted adults,” says Dr. Bass.
Along with language, particularly in Black and Brown communities, cultural perceptions of menstruation such as the “adultification” of girls, associations with hypersexuality, and refraining from activities while menstruating can further stigmatize the discussion.
“I remember being told there’s certain things you can’t and shouldn’t do when you’re on your period. And it’s really more so about being mindful of those potential accidents and maybe your feelings. You might not feel as well. Your energy might be low,” revealed Dr. Bass.
A large portion of period shame is perpetuated through other factors like period poverty and period trauma.
“Part of creating a society where these things can be identified from a really young age is all of us breaking the silence around this and just talking more about what is normal and what are their experiences and trying to create those conversations,” said Gruer.
Missed the event…check out the replay.
View the video series that complements the book.
For questions about the book’s research, contact Caitlin Gruer at CaitlinGruer@columbia.edu.