Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn – doula, sex educator
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska, PhD – pedagogue and sociologist
The women I asked about their first period most often told me that neither their mothers nor their fathers talked about it at all.
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: Most of the women I work with tell me that they didn't hear about having a first period at home, from their mother, grandmother, or father. It was most often "peer education", that is, an exchange in information between friends, unfortunately, often fraught with myths that are still being repeated to this day.
Can you give me a few examples?
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: For instance, the fact that menstruation protects against pregnancy, which is of course not true, as sex during menstruation cannot be treated as contraception. Currently, girls draw their knowledge mostly from the Internet. In conversations about the sources of knowledge about menarche, there is no mention of family life education, i.e., classes during which children might learn something about this. There are biology classes, but girls get technical and pictorial knowledge there, and don't receive any emotional support.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: In biology textbooks, the menstrual cycle appears alongside diagrams of the female reproductive system. The absolute minimum of knowledge is visualised much as in a leaflet from a butcher's shop – quarters and selected elements. Stomachs and wombs, separately. Menstruation is described as the physiological state of a certain part of the female body. There is no question of the psyche, well-being, perimenstrual health, and the social importance of menstruation. Pregnancy is visualised in a similar way – by showing a transverse section of the abdomen with a developing embryo and foetus, women without heads. A completely dehumanised world. On the one hand, at school, we don't talk about the body, and on the other, when the programme includes a topic important for young people, the body is reduced to a machine and spare parts.
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: And there is an unpleasant atmosphere surrounding menstruation – that it is dirty, smells bad. Parents could dispel these myths, but unfortunately not all of them can do it.
Why don't parents discuss menstruation with their daughters? Why don't they prepare them for menarche?
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: The period is a topic related to intimacy, the body and sexuality – all three of these are rarely discussed with parents. When we enter this area, we need to ensure an inviting atmosphere, intimacy, closeness and trust. Research shows that these types of conversations between parents and children are among the rarest. What do you think kids and teens would like to talk to their parents about? We do have some research on this.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: About feelings, relationships, love and values. That seems like good news, doesn't it? It's a bit worse that adults don't open up to such contact with their children very often. It's hard to talk about what's most important. Even with loved ones. Of course, intimacy and sex are also subjects of this type. Conversations between people of different sexes prove to be a particular challenge. Even adult men and women find it very difficult to talk to their partners about their bodies, their needs, let alone the father-daughter relationship. So, I would look at adults first – how they talk to each other about intimacy. And then I'd make them realise how ready they are to talk to their children.
If adults do not have the readiness and the language to discuss such topics, talking to a child about them seems to be virtually impossible.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: I am from the generation that had no chance for substantive sex education. In sociology, we have an interesting concept – the zero programme. It means anything we don't learn at school, even though it's important to our development. All knowledge about sexuality is a zero programme in the Polish reality resulting from the mental poverty of adults. Concealment, taboos and ignorance accumulate in home and school education, and all this shows how many lessons are missed.
Girls speak in whispers about menstruation, it's a kind of mystery. A secret that boys shouldn't know about.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: Sexuality in Polish culture is, on the one hand, a sphere of sin and moral impurity and, on the other hand, an area of many violations of borders and dignity. Girls are brought up in fear of getting involved with boys and they get the message very early on that boys and men need to be kept at bay, that they are a threat. They are educated to protect private and intimate information. Menstruation is a problematic treasure for girls. Teachers and parents – whether consciously or not – support them in the belief that this is a woman's secret.
Socially, we have high expectations of mothers that they should deal with the topic of menarche. But shouldn't everyone talk about the first menstruation naturally – just like we talk to a child about space?
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: I think so too. I am an example of a person who received a wonderful menstrual and sexual education from my mother. However, I don't remember one specific conversation – and I think that's good. Apparently, there wasn't one such moment. At my home there was a lot of naturalness and nudity, cuddling, lying in bed together, taking baths together, and at the same time I remember taking care of intimacy: knocking on the bathroom or bedroom door and asking if you could enter. It all shows an atmosphere of respect. It seems to me that it is easiest for both the parent and the child when conversations about the body and physiology take place casually, naturally and spontaneously. I suspect that I asked my mother about various things, I got a short answer, I said "aha", and that was it. This information built me up as a growing girl until my first period. I also assume that as a little girl I had access to the bathroom when my mother changed her pad, menstrual blood was something natural for me.
How do you remember your first period?
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: It didn't scare me, it surprised me. I remember crying – I had a feeling of loss, that I would no longer be a child, that I was losing control of my body. My sister was six at the time and my mother asked if she could tell her about my period because she felt it was important information for my younger sister. I gave my consent and I am convinced that it wasn't their first conversation on this topic. The conversation with my sister wasn't stressful – she listened, said "aha", and asked one question whether women were uncomfortable during their period due to pads.
To be clear: I am not suggesting that the conversation isn't completely unnecessary at all, that children will learn everything by themselves. However, I am not an advocate of setting an exact time for this kind of conversation.
It is up to adults to create a good atmosphere at home and a safe space so that a girl doesn't feel scared of her first menstruation. So that she can have someone to tell about it or to ask for pads.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: Adults are one hundred percent responsible for this. But this cannot be dealt with in one conversation either with a 5-, 10- or with a 15-year-old girl. An adequate and immediate response to the child's developmental needs means accompanying the child on a daily basis, being right next to and half a step ahead of them. Therefore, there is no single good moment to talk about menarche. There are thousands of opportunities that can and should be used. We learn everything, whether it be eating with a knife and fork, reading or washing, in the same way – through observation, action, experience, through the language with which information about the world is conveyed to us. We have a family, peers, teachers, Church messages, and important adults, including neighbours. The wider social environment is also a learning environment: what is said, what isn't talked about, what we laugh at. And mass media, the virtual world in which there are also peers, bloggers, idols, celebrities, role models, advertising spots, campaigns, information bases, discussion forums, and closed rooms.
The information about menstruation doesn't just come from the parent. We often have the illusion that if we don't talk to children about a certain topic, they don't have knowledge about it. Hence these false starts such as: sitting a 13-year-old down and starting the conversation red in the face, with the child mercifully interrupting after three sentences, saying, "Mum, don't sweat! I've heard all this from Kaśka from the next block.” It's also important what messages we send to the child. Is the body important in my family? What does my daughter or son see and hear? What does mum say about her body, about her period?
Children watch us closely.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: We should take a closer look at our messages and behaviour when we talk about people who are on their periods or comment on an advertisement for pads. How do we talk about how we feel, about blood, what terms do we use? The world of adults, with all its messages, is poured into the lives of children before they learn to walk and talk. The first message about menstruation at the age of 13 in the form of a pedagogical conversation will always be too late.
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: Imagine a girl playing close to her mother, seemingly not paying attention to her, but seeing her mother standing in front of the mirror and touching her belly, saying: "I've got fat and swollen because of my period". Even a small child will absorb such a message. The mother's words influence how the daughter will judge and treat her menstruating body in the future.
To ensure that daughters like their bodies, mothers should like their own.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: But also treat other bodies with respect and interest. Pay attention to how they comment on the appearance of women: "Look at her, she's put on weight during this COVID pandemic", "What is she wearing!" We constantly evaluate women's bodies, referring to their attractiveness measured by male needs. We provide girls with an abstract "male eye". The effect? When they stand in front of the mirror and look at themselves, they think: will boys like my body? The parameters of health, pleasure and fitness are no longer important. Recent WHO research shows that among 42 countries in the world, Polish girls are in the first place when it comes to not accepting their appearance.
As early as at the age of 14, girls say that they "regret being women" because of menstruation. What happened that cause them not to like menstruation?
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: In my opinion, they don't like femininity. Not menstruation. Menstruation is a signal we get from the body – that it is, in a way, the end and the beginning. Kamila also talked about this: this is the end of childhood and the beginning of femininity. In many ways, girls get the message very early on that being a woman is associated with limitations, expectations, being weaker, less important, and worse. And on top of that there are messages about the body. As early as at the age of 10, culture begins to demand femininity from girls. The age of 10 is the symbolic end of childhood. In many cultures, regardless of whether a girl has periods or not, she begins to be treated differently. In some – even as a candidate for a wife.
Research shows that 10-year-old girls start to change their way of thinking about their bodies.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: That's when maturation accelerates. There are girls who have menarche at this age. In our culture, until the age of nine, girls develop their potential quite freely, also in areas that are stereotypically considered boyish. They are being distracted less and less often from being interested in space, climbing trees and playing with boys. Suddenly, around the age of 10, this fighter starts to change, goes to "make-up and dance" camps, withdraws from physical activity, begins to invest time and energy in being pleasing to look at. I meet parents who are frustrated by this. They've read books about superheroines to their daughters, travelled with them to the mountains, sent them to scout camps, and they get a withdrawn, shy 13-year-old girl with insecurities. This shows how great the power of culture is.
And what can you do about this?
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: It's terribly sad. I often say I don't understand how it happened that although I was raised in an open, smart home, I had an eating disorder in high school. I remember that my mother felt powerless because of this, because at home I didn't receive any toxic messages about the body.
What can you do? I would advise an honest conversation with this adolescent daughter to show her what harm is being done to her by social media, for instance. It's important to remind her that she has the competence, power and strength that she had as a five-, or eight-year-old, and to empower her with the fact that femininity has many shades. The most important thing for a girl is to feel she has a right to just be herself.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: I've worked out a handful of hints and suggestions on how to empower girls. During my workshops, I ask adults what, in their opinion, the average 11- or 12-year-old girl is interested in – how she spends her time, what she worries about. Understanding girls' current problems and needs is essential. When I was growing up there was no Facebook, Tinder, Twitter, so we are unable to translate our own experience of growing up into that of modern girls. We should talk to them – while peeling potatoes, watching a film, kissing goodnight. Every occasion is good.
The second thing: we should focus on the intellect of girls. We should ask them what they think about politics, the Nobel Prize. Conversations with girls at home often revolve around their bodies. It's the same at school.
And another thing: we should give them feedback they can handle. We should appreciate their successes, even minor ones. We should give them our attention, we should listen to what they have to say. Girls in Poland learn better than boys, and then, as adult women, they end up in places where there is no power, no prestige, where nobody cares about their opinions. We have one woman in the government right now – one!
We should give them the right to experiment with their appearance safely. We should talk about health, we shouldn't focus on hair colour. It's very important to support girls in physical activity, but also to encourage having a critical look at models: celebrities, girl avatars on Insta Story. Reflect together on who decides what is considered attractive, whose preferences and what interests are behind it. We should tell them that the limits of the body are sacred. My research shows that girls experience the first violations of their boundaries and dignity around the age of 10.
And role models – we should show as many films, books, bloggers, scientists, politicians, and women who have gone beyond the traditional female role as possible. We should show them that it's possible to escape the gender box. Do you know how many women with a first name, surname or just an identity there are in history textbooks? Less than 4 percent. Half of them are mythical goddesses. This means that girls are constantly learning about male roles and role models, about how men exercise power.
So where in this world is there a place for the menstruation we're talking about?
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: It doesn't exist – that is, it's unimportant. In this cascade of topics important for the world, menstruation is confined to the metaphorical cellar, in a cardboard box labelled "do not touch". The "important people" in this world, that is men, don't experience it, so they skip it. And it's better not to talk about it at all, because it is a "woman's" thing, and everything that is feminine offends men.
What should the first day of menstruation look like? Should I celebrate it? Should I invite my daughter to a restaurant, give her flowers?
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: I look at it from the perspective of the girl's needs and what was happening at home before. We should abandon all the pageantry, if in this family we have never talked about menstruation, we shouldn't elevate it to the level of the First Communion. It all depends on the climate and culture of the family. We should ask: How would you like to spend this day? How are you feeling? What are you thinking? What do you need?”
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: If we have a family made up of introverts, and we suddenly jump out with a red cake with a pussy made of icing sugar, don't expect enthusiasm in the eyes of our daughter. The way we celebrate her first period must be in line with the family's temperament. It's important that girls don't hear on that day like a lot of women – that something has ended now, that it's not appropriate for them to climb trees from now on, that they must dress and behave appropriately. To let them know that they are still themselves. Many girls may need this reassurance.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: I remembered the research I did with Prof. Joanna Ostrouch: we asked students what type of sexual education they received at home. The first period was often the first and only occasion when, usually, the mother started talking about sex: "This is just the beginning! Beware of men, where you go and what time you come back". A whole baggage-load of taboo topics has been added on to menarche itself: fear of rape, unwanted pregnancies, etc.
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: And that's why girls burst into tears when they get their periods – because it was so fun, but now it's over.
Every adult that's close to them can talk to a girl about menstruation. You are currently running workshops on menstruation, organised by the Kulczyk Foundation, for tutors and educators of day-rooms.
Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska: We want to de-tabooise menstruation. We talk to people who work with boys and girls at risk of social exclusion. I hope to take care not only of children themselves, but also of the competences of their guardians. I believe that menstruation education – and all the knowledge about it we lack – will help cope with the questions, ignorance of boys and girls who come to day-rooms. But also, with the uncertainty of their parents. These workshops are intended to increase the level of sensitivity regarding menstruation, but also connected with being an adolescent girl in general.
In a hostile environment in which a child may be brought up, one kind and truly understanding person is often enough to change the trajectory of their fate. Let it be the educator.
Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn: I would like the participants of the workshops, because they are mostly women, to look at their own experiences as something wonderful. How they treat themselves will have an impact on what they will pass on to their daughters and how they will do so. Adults need to learn to talk to each other first so that they can talk to girls later.
Od lewej: dr Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska (pedagożka i socjolożka) i Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn (doula, edukatorka seksualna) Fot. archiwum prywatne, Monika Woreta Jupa
According to the survey conducted for the Kulczyk Foundation in 2020, 42 percent of the respondents admitted that in their family home there has been no mention of menstruation, and as many as one-third of girls are not prepared for their first menstruation. For more information on efforts to normalise the topic of menstruation and fight period poverty, visit: kulczykfoundation.org.pl/en/menstruation
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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