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Menstrual Taboo

Menstruation, the approximately monthly shedding of the uterine lining in most women of reproductive age, is both a biological event and a cultural event. Biology cannot be separated from culture, and neither is a predetermined category with consistent impact on individual women's lives. Although menstruation is universal, the menstrual taboo is not, despite the claims of some writers. Anthropologists Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottleib (1998) explain that this popular analysis is both partially true and overly simplistic:

The "menstrual taboo" as such does not exist. Rather, what is found in close cross-cultural study is a wide range of distinct rules for conduct regarding menstruation that bespeak quite different, even opposite, purposes and meanings. . . . "The menstrual taboo," in short, is at once nearly universal and has meanings that are ambiguous and often multivalent. (p. 7)

Buckley and Gottleib emphasize that particular practices surrounding menstruation must be interpreted within the cultural context of their enactment. For example, North Americans often assume that menstrual seclusion, the isolation of menstruating women from nonmenstruating members of society, is repressive, while in some practicing cultures, the women value the time away from their regular duties and in the company of other women, as among the Simbu people of Papua New Guinea (Appel-Slingbaum 2000).

In Western industrial societies, the basis of conduct norms and communication about menstruation is the belief that menstruation must remain hidden (Laws 1990). Menstruation must be concealed verbally as well as physically, and communication rules and restrictions permeate and define the concealment and activity taboos. A substantial majority of U.S. adults and adolescents believe that it is socially unacceptable to discuss menstruation, especially in mixed company. Many believe that it is unacceptable to discuss menstruation even within the family (Research & Forecasts 1981). More than one-third of the girls responding to a 1983 questionnaire did not believe that it was appropriate to discuss menstruation with their fathers, and nearly all believed that girls should not talk about menstruation with boys (Williams 1983). Talking about menstruation apparently provokes so much anxiety in adults that parents often delay preparing their pubescent daughters for their impending menarche, the first menstrual period (Mc-Keever 1984; Whisnant and Zegans 1975).

In spite of this anxiety, research findings suggest that most girls get their early information about menstruation from their mothers, and fewer than 10 percent of North American girls begin menstruating without receiving any advance information (Kieren 1992; McKeever 1984). Other important sources of menstrual education and preparation are sex education classes and films at school, female friends, and mass media.

The importance of advance preparation for menarche should not be underestimated. Several studies suggest that girls and women who considered themselves adequately prepared for menarche experienced less distress at menarche and fewer painful menstrual symptoms. However, what counts as adequate preparation for menstruation is unclear, especially given that many girls and women who knew about menstruation and menstrual hygiene report that they did not feel well prepared for menarche (Golub 1992; Kieren 1992).

Interview research suggests that girls perceive a clear distinction between two kinds of menstrual knowledge: scientific knowledge about the anatomy and physiological functioning of menstruation, usually learned from institutional sources, and what they term realistic knowledge—pragmatic information about managing the lived experience of menstruation, always learned from other females. None of the girls interviewed felt that they were lacking in scientific, institutional knowledge about menstruation; but nearly all felt the need for more of the practical, personal menstrual knowledge they gained from mothers and friends. The two kinds of knowledge do not seem to be well integrated, even after girls experience their first periods (Kissling 1996).

For several girls, mothers were a valued source for the personal, pragmatic knowledge about menstruation that they craved. Some girls appreciated these talks, and some were embarrassed by them; all recognized the mother-daughter talk about menstruation as a cultural norm, whether they participated in it or not, referring to it casually as "the talk." This norm is also illustrated in the commercial menstrual education booklet distributed in some schools, which states, "Of course it would be best to have discussed all this with your mother before your first period actually happens" (Tambrands 1990). Such prescriptions fail to recognize that not all girls have these kinds of conversations or the kinds of relationship with their mothers that promote candid conversations about menstruation and other aspects of sexuality and reproduction.

When interviewed, mothers are unanimous in believing that it is important to tell their daughters about menstruation, although some are frankly relieved that the schools provide information about the biological aspects. Mothers want their daughters to have concrete knowledge about menstrual physiology, but may not be equipped to provide it. Most mothers emphasize the importance of conveying a particular disposition toward menstruation. They are especially concerned that their daughters know that menstruation is a normal, natural part of being female with some variation in whether it is a positive, negative, or neutral experience.

Mothers are communicating attitudes toward menstruation not only in what they tell their daughters, but also in how they discuss it with their daughters. For example, when mothers pull daughters aside for a special facts-of-life talk, they are not only conveying factual information about menstruation, but they are communicating particular ways of thinking about menstruation. These implicit messages may challenge or contradict the explicit verbal messages. For instance, the talk is often overtly marked as an unusual communication situation, sometimes prefaced with a statement like, "We need to talk about some things, now that you're getting older." This marks menstruation as a special topic, not one for ordinary conversation. This special quality may be underscored by having the talk in an unusual setting instead of carrying on a discussion about menstruation during normal shared activities.

Other aspects of the talk reinforce the concealment norms of menstruation. The talk is nearly always one-on-one; younger siblings are excluded, especially brothers. One reason these mother-daughter talks sometimes take place in unusual settings is to enforce this exclusion. Some girls are asked specifically not to discuss menstruation with younger sisters and brothers, or with their fathers. It is rare for fathers, even single fathers, to initiate the talk, and rarer still for a daughter to feel comfortable with a father who does. Sons may receive the talk about reproduction, but seldom learn much about menstruation from either parent.

Some parents provide their daughters with books or booklets about menstruation, instead of or as a supplement to the conventional mother-daughter talk. Parents also may provide printed material because of perceived complexity of the information. In most families, passing around reading material is not a primary method of communication, so asking a child to read a book about menstruation without prior discussion can suggest to her that the topic is too difficult to talk about, or that it is not appropriate to talk about.

One way mothers try to communicate to daughters the belief that menstruation is a normal, natural part of life is to treat it as one. For instance, one mother recalls that her daughter's menstrual education occurred in "bits and pieces, like if I was in the grocery store and I bought pads or something like that, I might say something like, 'You know, one day you will have to use these also'" (quoted in Kissling 1996). Mothers can answer their children's questions about her cycle, and even mark it on the family calendar.

Mothers who want to normalize menstruation and present it positively find themselves in an awkward position, caught between awareness of the culture's distaste for menstruation and negativity toward menstruating women and a mother's desire to instill positive self-esteem and attitudes toward her body in her daughter. In addition, mothers of adolescent daughters often find their situation an inherently difficult one, as Terri Apter's (1990) study of this relationship explicates:

Nothing shakes a woman's clear commitment to and confidence in motherhood as her children's, especially her daughter's, early adolescence. All studies I know show and repeatedly confirm that mothers and daughters during early adolescence endure increased stress—and there is more tension between mothers and early adolescent daughters than between mothers and early adolescent sons, or between fathers and either early adolescent sons or daughters. (p. 45)

Menarche, the physical marker of feminine maturity, can further complicate a complex relationship. A woman's quandary about preparing her daughter for menstruation may be confounded if she feels she was inadequately prepared for her own menarche. However, dissatisfaction with one's own menstrual education has also inspired women to do a better job with their daughters. Interviewed mothers frequently expressed the wish that their daughters have a better menarcheal experience than their own, and most women make concerted efforts to ensure that they did.


Apter, T. (1990). Altered Loves: Mothers and Daughters During Adolescence. Hertfordshire, UK: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Buckley, T., and Gottlieb, A., eds. (1988). Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gillooly, J. B. (1998). Before She Gets Her Period: Talking with Your Daughter about Menstruation. Glendale, CA: Perspective.

Golub, S. (1992). Periods: From Menarche to Menopause. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Laws, S. (1990). Issues of Blood: The Politics of Menstruation. London: Macmillan.

Kieren, D. K. (1992). Redesigning Menstrual Education Programs Using Attitudes toward Menstruation. Canadian Home Economics Journal 42(2):57–63.

Kissling, E. A. (1996). "Bleeding Out Loud: Communication about Menstruation." Feminism and Psychology 6:481–504.

McKeever, P. (1984). The Perpetuation of Menstrual Shame. Women and Health, 9(4):33–47.

Research & Forecasts, Inc. (1981). The Tampax Report: Summary of Survey Results on a Study of Attitudes towards Menstruation. New York: Research and Forecasts.

Tambrands. (1990). What a Young Girl and Boy Should Know. Lake Success, NY: Tambrands.

Whisnant, L., and Zegans, L. (1975). "A Study of Attitudes toward Menarche in White Middle-class American Adolescent Girls." American Journal of Psychiatry 132:809–814.

Williams, L. R. (1983). "Beliefs and Attitudes of Young Girls Regarding Menstruation." In Menarche, ed. Sharon Golub. Lexington, MA: Lexington.

Other Resource

Appel-Slingbaum, Caren. (2000). "The Tradition of Slapping our Daughters." Available from http://www. menstruation.com.au/contributors/slap.html.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily & Marriage Traditions