Transiting: Body Changes, First Blood, Full Potential

Transiting: Body Changes, First Blood, Full Potential

This article is part of a weekly series adapted from our latest book, “The 9 Lives of Women,” by our founder, Christine Marie Mason. 

From Chapter 2:

Awakening (Menarche to Sexuality)

Introduction: Body changes, first blood, full potential.

When my daughter got her first period, I was on a business trip overseas. I called our local pharmacy, a cute, old-fashioned place that had candles and gifts, and asked the proprietor to make a big easter basket of period supplies, lip balm, barrettes and chocolates, and to deliver them to the house. My daughter, who was at home with her dad and three brothers, told me that she was mortified by the gift on the one hand, and pleased on the other. She understood this was a big physical and emotional passage, and said it felt good that her mother acknowledged that. The gesture was one of celebration and no-shame, but looking back, I wish I had better prepared her for this change with more facts on how her body worked, and that I had understood and offered more context to her around the meaning of this time in her life and what she might face or encounter.

What was it like for you and your friends,  daughters, nieces?

For me, the onset of my menarche was one big disjointed social and biological puzzle. I remember a classmate in the fifth grade getting breasts, large ones that kept on getting larger, and it was the only thing people wanted to talk about for several months. She was hassled well into junior high about her body. As my classmates began changing, nothing happened for me. This was just fine, as I had no desire to be singled out like my classmate. Then one summer, I started to lose my baby fat, grew taller, my shape changed, and then I bled; without a mom around, my own coming of  age was a medical hygiene experience, and nothing more. But after my body changed, the kind of attention I received also changed: men of all ages, from my peers to 80-year-olds, started eyeing me in a different way, even other girls’ fathers, and grown men who lived in the neighborhood. I felt like I was an appetizer. I also found myself in a few challenging positions at 13 and 14 with men. I had no guidance on how I should have navigated them, and I’m lucky to have escaped with only small transgressions. At the time, I will say, I also felt a sense of emergent power. All these adults, these big strong men, wanted something I suddenly had.

When I would visit my  extended family, the women, too, especially the elders, eyed me and my girl cousins up and down. They seem to be asking: are they an asset to the family? Do they have decorum? Are they desirable? Will they be easy or hard to marry off? They taught us deference and charm and malleability, and entrained us in a kind of veil of softness that deliberately masked our internal power, discipline and capacity. We should have those things, that was clear, but it was not advised to make them obvious to men or to each other.

This time is also the time when my obvious abilities in math and science were downplayed, and I got tracked into language and arts by my school advisors. The writer Mary Pipher, who studied anthropology and psychology, wrote about this phenomenon in her classic book Reviving Ophelia. Pipher was the first to introduce the idea of the “Ophelia Syndrome,” referencing Shakespeare’s character Ophelia in Hamlet, where adolescent girls start to downplay their inner direction and become externally defined by men, and as result they begin shutting off their academic and intellectual pursuits.

The body changes for me, as they do for many women, felt out of my control. This is why adolescence is such a vulnerable age for eating and exercise disorders, for experimenting with hair and makeup and for tweaking out over getting just the right clothes.

For parents and elders raising young adolescents, it’s about helping them find embodiment that is within their locus of control.  

This can be challenging, because while the girl-child is going through this, she is very likely triggering all kinds of old programming in her mother and grandmother. When an adolescent is individuating, it brings up all kinds of things in her mom- so it’s also a time when the closest and most reliable relationships of a girl’s life are often under strain. This is why it’s so important that we continue to do our own work questioning and unwinding the cultural conditioning and personal experiences that are alive in us.

And school? Come on. Is there any place time more cruel than middle school? Is there even schoolwork? The hormones coming for boys and girls make interaction ever more intense. There is the unconscious and deliberate tiering and grouping of kids, the introduction of mind-altering substances, and the earliest signs of sexuality. It is also the peak years for bullying. It’s a true obstacle course for the young heart, a crucible of becoming. 

Today, with the addition of social media and technology, which is one of the topics of the chapter, extends this peer pressure around the clock, with little relief. Because technology and media are accelerating cultural changes and the impact of  modern adolescents, a young girl’s experience today is very different from that of her mother. This calls for a new level of sensitivity and need for connection and understanding.

I spend a lot of time lecturing and talking with women about these early years of menses, the in-between spaces of changing bodies, period taboos, flexible morality, the cultural frame around emerging bodies, both for the public good and to help improve girls’ lives.

When I speak with women, I see how their older fears, and values, are still alive in their bodies and minds. These early beliefs and experiences still live in them.

If you are caring for, or parenting girls in this age group, this is a vital stage in crafting a healthy attitude toward one’s body, and in helping her hold her own center emotionally and intellectually, while slowly developing an excellent adult sexuality and sensuality. 

Some questions to consider:

What was it like for you? Which of your own adolescent experiences or entrained beliefs are still alive in you? Are they helpful? Will they be helpful to pass on to your daughters, or are they things you want to release?

As a girl child turns into a menstruating adolescent, not yet a woman, which has all kinds of other implications on emotional capacity and responsibility, how can we nurture her? How can we keep her joyful, safe and alive?

(Continued next Wednesday, with an interview with Shafia Zaloom on the Adolescent Body)

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