I came home to find my 13-year-old cousin in a state. This was out of character for her – she is a happy child, a joker of sorts and she almost never wears her feelings on her face. Obviously concerned, I asked what the matter was. She told me, “The boys were laughing at me because there was blood in my white running shorts.’’ For context, she is an athlete and this had occurred during running practice, her period came unexpectedly. She was shattered and refused to go to school the following day.
Women know how an unexpected period goes and how it makes us feel. I’ve had many of such experiences myself, but this event had me thinking a lot about periods and how they are overtly demonised. Growing up, I didn’t really have much knowledge about menstruation, only the stigma attached to it.
And the stigma affects all those who experience it. And in black communities, periods are a badge of shame – they are an indication of something negative that you had no business being part of. It’s as though you have a choice in participating in it, or you can just decide to avoid it altogether.
I think I was around 11-years-old when I started menstruating, and I had no idea what it was and what it meant, but I was sure as hell not going to tell my aunt or my mother lest I be accused of having slept with a boy.
No one had ever actively told me periods mean that a girl has slept with a boy but it always felt clearly implied – periods were dirty, and linked to sex in some way. The lack of dialogue around this topic in my home, or even in Life Orientation class, left me under informed or completely ill-informed.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem that things haven’t changed much since. Black teens do not get any kind of ‘the talk’ to prepare them for the next stage of their lives. There’s no opportunity for teens to explore and ask questions relating to periods or anything relating to reproduction without sounding like they’re searching for sex.
Recent studies have exposed the phenomenon of “adultification” of black girls. This simply means society treat black children as adults. We automatically assume that black girls have more knowledge about topics such periods, sex, pornography, and pregnancy than white girls of the same age. They are thought to be needing less protection, nurturing and educating on such topics. But periods are a part of life and girls (and women) shouldn’t be punished for things their bodies do without their consent.
I personally experienced this and still see it with my younger siblings and their peers. We have, as a community, normalised this adultification behaviour that negatively affects the health of young girls. I find that extremely problematic. We are also a community that doesn’t like taking any accountability for our actions. I’ve come to the conclusion that black parents are allergic to admitting their wrongs and even more to apologising for those wrongs.
This breeds a generation of misinformed, uninformed and hurt women who have a lot of insecurities. It works negatively on their psyche, how they see themselves and how they show up in a world that is already against them. I know this because I’ve had first-hand experience and a lot of my body insecurities are rooted in not knowing how to deal with the changes in my body.
As an adult in my late 20s, I know how positive and open guidance would have changed the course of my adolescent life. It would have birthed a narrative that explains that I am only human, that I am seen and that my experiences are completely normal. It would have made the transition to womanhood a lot smoother.
Another important point: if girls do not understand something that they go through at least five days each month, how much information do we imagine boys have? And what is the probability that the information they possess is incorrect? So, how then can we blame them for using that information to torment girls? We can’t even lay much blame on our own parents because they also grew up having endured the same treatment from their parents, and so the cycle continues.
Their trauma becomes our trauma and ours becomes the younger generations. ‘We made it out just fine’ is a lie because we are adults plagued with suppressed pain.
There’s no quick solution to overturning this behaviour, but it has to be stopped. As parents and guardians, we can do better in guiding younger girls and boys. We can’t allow them to sit comfortably in this tradition of having unhealthy relationships with their bodies.
We should condemn this and focus on well-rounded educative programmes. We need to arrive at a point where conversations around this topic are not in hushed tones and uttered through misconceptions. An example of this would be the recent statement by Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba who equated sanitary pads to sex.
I took the time to sit my siblings down, did what my mother couldn’t, and explained what periods are and answered all their burning questions. They have expressed how grateful they are for what I did because now, they know who to go when they have questions.
This is why it is imperative that we reteach black girls about periods. We ought to stop demonising periods and making them seem like it is criminal to experience them. We need to create safe spaces for black girls to learn about such topics, and so support the development of their wellbeing.
Tell us: how did you learn about what periods were? Do you agree with the writer that we need to have these conversations?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.