Not so long ago, the dreaded arrival of menstruation in a girl’s life would have been embarrassing, awkward, even shameful. To this day, I don’t don polka-dotted clothes, thanks to 1970s-era pad commercials sprinkled with joyful women wearing polka dot dresses. I’d ask the adults in my realm about those pads and be told we’d “discuss it later.”
Thirty-plus years later, I’m the one giving public service announcements on the female body to my daughters during their school commute. A slew of classes for parents and kids, new apps and products, and an ever-evolving culture of girl empowerment have made me wonder: Are periods finally cool?
I asked sex- and body-education experts for the scoop on just how hip Aunt Flo has become, and how parents can ease their daughters’ transitions into body-empowered young women.
Gleaned from my research, here’s a primer on tools that are helping tweens and teens better understand their bodies, along with tips on how to help prepare girls for menstruation.
New tech tools
Educators agree that the biggest change for girls and young women today is public knowledge around periods. Still, don’t expect girls to be happy about menstruation.
“Women and girls have periods! It’s normal and natural. Even though most girls are still uncomfortably shy and embarrassed, the world is much more open,” says Amy Lang, M.A., a Seattle-area sexual health educator. Lang offers classes for parents to learn how to talk about health topics, including menstruation. But, she says, “Having your period is still a pain. It’s a huge life change, and there’s often some sadness around changing from a kid body into a grown-up body. Having to manage a period for the rest of their lives is a taste of adulthood.”
My 14-year-old daughter, Caroline, wishes her period would go away forever, but time has eased her discomfort. “My period is always there, so I had no choice but to get used to it,” she says. Her oldest friend, Cyanna, says the latest technology has helped her not to mind her monthly visitor anymore. She started using a period tracker called Clue after her mom suggested it.
My goal is to transform viewpoints so everyone sees periods as natural, logistical monthly events that are doable and interesting and just part of being a human being.
“I was very against it at first, because I didn’t like the idea of tracking my period, and it was embarrassing. But it’s actually pretty great,” Cyanna tells me. “You put in when you get your period and how heavy the flow is, and it maps out when they think you’ll get your period. It’s usually pretty accurate and informative, and you can be prepared. It tells you when you’re going to have PMS; it’s cool.”
We’re past the days of a conspicuously marked wall calendar. Consumers can choose from more than 200 different period-tracking apps, which help girls and adult women understand their bodies and cycles better. Period Tracker (by GP International) and Period Calendar/Tracker (by Abishkking) have been downloaded more than 10 million times from the Android store. Ida Tin, the founder of Clue, says the app’s design — sleek and not pink or flowery — sets it apart. “I wondered how it could be that we managed to walk on the moon, but that most women still don’t know which days they can or can’t get pregnant,” Tin says. “I was convinced many other women would find an app like Clue not only very useful but also very empowering.”
Some educators believe tracking your child’s period with an app on your own phone is a brilliant idea. Mind you, you don’t need to tell your daughter you’re tracking her period, Lang adds. “The teen brain is already in crazy-pants mode, and girls have these hormones going on, too. As a parent, you can know that this is the day you don’t criticize their hair, clothes or messy room. And moms who track their [own] period can say, ‘This is my magical week,’ and everyone knows to stay away.” See that? You can practically make it a family affair.
Changing the story
Of course, period trackers are just one innovative tool for a cycle that’s been with humans forever. In the greater Seattle area, often the first step in educating your tween daughters is taking For Girls Only, recommended for 10- to 12-year-old girls who are accompanied by a parent or trusted adult. This two-evening, two-part class presents the issues most on the minds of preteens as they begin adolescence.
The average age for a girl in the U.S. to have her first period is 12 and a half. In the For Girls Only class, now in its 28th year, girls learn this fact and many, many others while sitting next to a person who wants this experience to go well for them, says Julie Metzger, R.N., M.N., founder of Great Conversations, which offers many classes and presentations to families, teens and professionals on topics surrounding adolescence.
“In any single classroom I teach, there are adult women who feel an enormous amount of shame, and they are there to change the story for themselves and their girls. And there are women who can’t understand why their daughter might hate their periods,” Metzger says. “My goal is to transform viewpoints so everyone sees periods as natural, logistical monthly events that are doable and interesting and just part of being a human being.”
Every parent has a different comfort level around talking about menstruation. Yet if your tween is already plugged into social media, you may have missed the window to teach her. And as with any critical information about health and growing up, you want to try to get there first. “It’s easier to tolerate an eye roll than having them not be prepared and coming home after using toilet paper as a makeshift first pad,” says Cora Breuner, M.D., MPH, a doctor specializing in adolescent health at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Part of the discussion is talking about the emotions that result from premenstrual syndrome (PMS). “There’s both truth and myth in PMS. Our hormones can be like a volume dial to our emotions. When you feel that volume get louder, just becoming aware of that makes you more in tune with yourself,” Metzger says. “As educators and parents, we have a responsibility to help girls gain emotional intelligence. Emotional regulation is a task, and we get to facilitate and steward that in our daughters.”
And while talking about that time of the month may never feel easy for some caregivers, the tweens and teens in our life guarantee remarkable conversations. That social-media-savvy girl will give you a critical read of the commercial First Moon Party, which shows a girl who fakes getting her first period because she can’t wait. The teen I’ve babysat since birth showed me poet Dominique Christina reading “The Period Poem.” After one viewing (alert: this might be too racy for your child), I wanted to buy a dress covered in polka dots that reminds me of pads. I’ll wear it while reciting my own Red Roof Inn poem for YouTube.