From the moment I learned about puberty, I was continuously told this was going to be my “entrance into womanhood,” an enticing yet vague statement that no one ever really clarified. I ended up getting my first period when I was 13 in the PVC pipe aisle in Home Depot, and I don’t exactly remember thinking, “This is it, the moment I become a woman!”
We confuse young females by telling them that getting their periods means they are no longer little girls and forcing them to grow up in the span of one menstrual cycle. We expect them to start acting like “grown women,” and yet, we never tell them what it really means to be a woman, probably because we ourselves haven’t quite figured it out either.
What exactly is womanhood? Is it all about periods and giving birth? Is it about growing leg hair and pubic hair, then being told to shave it off to be considered conventionally attractive? Exactly how much do my breasts have to develop before I am officially considered a “woman”?
This romanticizing of female puberty, menstruation in particular, by everyone from high school sex ed teachers to mainstream television shows, is detrimental not just to those experiencing their periods for the first time, but also to those who will never get a first period, or haven’t had one for a very long time.
Although menstruation is an important part of life that should be recognized and celebrated, equating a period with womanhood draws a box around the feminine experience, when in reality that experience is one that is different for every single female-identifying person. There are many different kinds of women who do not have periods, such as transgender women, women who have gone through menopause, women who have had hysterectomies, and women who are on any type of “no-period” birth control, just to name a few. None of the people in these examples deserve to be considered any less of a woman than someone who experiences the “rite of passage” that is menstruation. Additionally, there are people who do experience menstruation who do not identify as women, and that is something that should be recognized and respected. A body’s ability to carry children or to menstruate, or to not carry children or not to menstruate, does not define the individual the body belongs to.
I don’t believe that there is just one answer to the question “What does it mean to be a woman?” because each of us are different and complex. I’m still struggling to learn exactly what womanhood means to me personally, but as I’ve gotten older I have learned that it’s less important to create a concrete definition of womanhood and more important to just experience it. Instead of looking at womanhood as a shared anatomy, we should instead focus on our shared experiences and take pride in our individuality in order to make connections. Although I’ve made plenty of friends by sharing tampons and talking about embarrassing first period stories, I have also learned to take the time to acknowledge and celebrate the different experiences and perspectives every woman I meet has to share with me.
While we are becoming more open to the idea of celebrating the difference in women’s bodies in regards to weight and shape, we are forgetting that the inner anatomy of women can be different also. And that deserves a celebration as much as a period does.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.