I taught my first Coming of Age class for mothers and their daughters in April of 1994. I remember walking into the workshop room, sitting down and looking into the eyes of 10 little girls who clung to the sides of the women with them.
I immediately saw myself as a young girl in their eyes – innocent, unsure, yet full of promise and hope. I was startled and suddenly feeling quite insecure.
I didn't have children of my own. I was accustomed to a world of adult communication, and although I was an experienced teacher and had officiated over several coming of age ceremonies by then, this was unchartered territory.
I realized that most of the girls were there because their mothers or aunts had insisted they come. One girl had recently lost her mother, and her two maternal aunts accompanied her. The room was charged with a lot of, as yet, unexpressed emotion.
I knew many of the women. They trusted me to be the "tribal auntie," as mothers have rarely been the ones to pass on the menstrual teachings in indigenous cultures. You know how the saying goes:
"It takes a village to raise a child."
Since that day, I have grown even more passionate about working with girls and their parents. I feel it is time for a paradigm shift in reproductive education, to one which is more holistic and celebratory and addresses not just the obvious physical and emotional aspects of puberty, but the cultural, ecological, spiritual and ritual aspects as well.
We are living in a time when more and more girls are entering puberty at an earlier age than ever before. Various causes are attributed to this phenomenon, such as environmental contaminants, genetically engineered foods and artificial lighting.
A 1997 study conducted by Dr. Marcia Herman-Giddens of 17,000 girls in the United States showed that 15% of Caucasian girls exhibited outward signs of secondary physical development by age eight and about 5% as early as seven. Among African American girls, 15% were developing by seven and almost half by eight. The average age of first menstruation, however, is 12.1 years of age. In 1900, the average age was 15. So we see that girls are, indeed, growing up faster than ever before.
As parents, it can be difficult to accept that our daughters are growing up. We want to hold onto them as little girls as long as we can. For this reason, the transition into puberty is often more challenging for parents than girls. This awkwardness naturally gets projected onto our daughters and can have a deleterious influence on their self-esteem.
Girls need self-esteem building and better support as they begin to transition into womanhood. As parents, we need to be accepting and encouraging of the changes that their bodies are going through. In this way, our daughters will not be condemned by shame and embarrassment.
It is time to reintroduce rites of passage ceremonial honorings of our girls as they enter womanhood, so that they will mature into confident, empowered women.
Why should it be that only at marriage and death do we make a big fuss? Girls should be made to feel like princesses when they become women!
For a few thousand years, we have been living under a belief system, reinforced by various religions, that has marginalized women and taught us that our bodies are inherently lewd or dangerous and our menstrual cycle is something that must be hidden and not discussed.
Our intuition has been scorned and, consequently, we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies and access our inner wisdom. We have been taught to care for others and ignore our own needs – to suppress our self-expression and aliveness.
The pervasive low self-esteem that girls often exhibit at puberty can stay with them throughout their adult lives – usually all the way up until menopause when, prompted by a dramatic shift in hormones, they are confronted with a second chance to move through their childhood wounds.
The adolescent females’ intense archetypal struggle to rebel against their mothers and/or fathers is due largely to not being validated at this fundamental level. They feel betrayed.
I believe strongly that this struggle has contributed to menstrual difficulties, reproductive disease, mental breakdowns, eating disorders, teen pregnancy, sexual abuse and self-mutilation.
In a media climate that links sex and violence and exposes our young people to a barrage of imagery that denigrates the female, even the language that is used to label our genitals gives us pause to question. Vagina literally means “sheath for a sword.”
It is for this reason that I propose adapting new language whose inherent meaning taps into a more holistic understanding of the magnitude of the female generative system.
It is time for the hidden wisdom teachings about the beauty and power of being born female to be shared openly. It is time for girls to look forward to their first menstruation – to feel comfortable in their female bodies – to take pride in respecting and caring for themselves as whole persons.
In the west, we have few traditions to honor our girls at menarche. Instead, we have repeatedly initiated our daughters into silence – into what Tamara Slayton has called, "the cult of feminine shame."
The Jewish Bat Mitzvah and the Latina Quinceañera honor girls at 13 and 15 respectively, but do not correspond to first menstruation as do the Native American and Hindu ceremonies.
For generations in Africa and parts of the Middle East, girls have been subjected to genital mutilation as their rite of passage.
Throughout the world, new generations of mothers, longing to offer their daughters a more positive experience than they had, are creating gatherings to celebrate their daughters at menarche. It is not uncommon for women attending these events to experience a profound healing of their own, as if living vicariously through the young honoree.
I encourage mothers to do their own work, to reclaim their own cyclic empowerment. I have created an adult program, Women's Rites of Passage: Reconnecting to the Source of Feminine Power, for just that purpose. I believe that a woman's ability to mentor a young girl or guide a group will be more effective if she has first honored her own cycle.
We cannot guide anyone where we have not been. Whether you are 35 or 65 – it is never too late to put your arms around that young girl within you and show her the respect, love and honoring she longs for.
Creating ritual, especially a menarche ritual, is vitally important. It signals a shift in a girl's development, when she takes her first step into adulthood by sharing a personal oath that puts her on her path and acknowledges her womanhood for herself.
These ceremonies help validate her existence at a fundamental level and help define who she is. They celebrate the sacredness and power of her female body and identity as she evolves from girl to woman. They offer counsel and advice from older, wiser women. They make her feel loved, cherished, important and deeply connected. They provide a turning point, a rite of passage – so ancient – so right.
My heart is full of gratitude to share this work with you. It is the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
I invite you to join with me and the countless women all over the world who are choosing to honor their young girls at menarche by welcoming them into womanhood in joyous celebration.
Hemitra Crecraft is a women's empowerment facilitator, holistic menstrual health educator, author, designer, filmmaker and red tent celebrationist.
She is partner in Woman Wisdom Corp, a publishing company specializing in multimedia educational products to empower women and girls globally.
Hemitra created the critically acclaimed multimedia programs, "Women's Rites of Passage: Reconnecting to the Source of Feminine Power" and "Coming of Age: From Bud to Flower." The crowning jewel of the Coming of Age Project is the DVD triology, "From Girl to Woman” which she wrote, directed and produced.
Since the mid 1980s, Hemitra has been a leader in the women's spirituality movement in Philadelphia. Hemitra was co-owner of Heart of the Goddess, a holistic learning/wellness center and boutique from 1990-2000, where she led legendary seasonal celebrations to honor the equinoxes and solstices.
Having co-designed and taught over 20 different educational programs for women and girls, Hemitra currently leads red tent celebrations to honor women's rites of passage. She is most passionate about coming of age celebrations for girls at menarche.
Hemitra is a member of the Red Web Foundation and the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.