Menarche, the onset of menstruation, marks an important physical, psychological, and social transition in the lives of young women. The physical transition is preceded by bodily changes in which the breasts develop, body weight increases, and overall body shape changes, resulting in fuller hips. The psychological transition is less well charted, but the fact that a girl's first period marks the beginning of her ability to bear children suggests that it is a meaningful event. The social transition, and the rituals that surround it, vary across cultures and through time. Sexual maturation is of great social moment, since all societies have an interest in reproduction.
Historians have explored the meaning of these transitions in the past, but conclusions are limited by paucity of sources. The historian Vern Bullough's overview suggests that classical writers found menarche to occur between the ages of twelve and fourteen, while medieval authorities put the onset on menstruation at fourteen. Nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century studies sometimes put the age slightly later, between fifteen and sixteen.
During the twentieth century the age of girls at menarche declined in the West. The median age at menarche in North America, estimated to be around 15.5 years in 1850, decreased by three to four months each decade after 1850, but has remained relatively stable since the 1970s when it reached 12.5 years. Similar trends have occurred in other Western countries and are attributed to rising standards of living, improved nutrition, higher levels of female literacy, and less hard labor for girls. A declining age at menarche was also evident in China during the closing decades of the century.
Contemporary studies indicate the continued variability of the age of menarche. Agta women foragers of Cagayan province, Luzon, in the Philippines, typically experience menarche at 17, Haitian women experience it at 15.37 years, while in the United States the mean age is now 12.3 years. Such studies also point to the differences between rural and urban groups, indicating that physical labor may lead to later onset of menarche.
Using medical texts, letters, and diaries, American and British historians have sought to understand the psychological import of sexual maturation. Nineteenth-century American physicians regarded menarche as a "crisis point" in the development of middle-class girls. The historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg has charted the growing emphasis on hygiene, rather than fertility, in twentieth-century understandings of menarche. By studying oral histories, twentieth-century historians have noted that in the past mothers often found it difficult to communicate with their daughters about the meaning of menarche. Girls were often unprepared for menstrual bleeding when it first occurred, and they were consequently fearful. Since the mid-twentieth century, sanitary product companies have sought to provide information, and they have become an increasingly important source of education about bodily maturation for girls.
The social transition brought about by menarche has been subject to scrutiny by anthropologists who seek to delineate the cultural practices–from community celebrations to seclusion and genital cutting–that accompany the advent of menarche across cultural groups. But however the advent of menarche is marked, it is commonly understood as the time when a girl becomes a woman, and is therefore subject to new codes of behavior. Menarche could thus be a time of ambivalence for the individual, a time when the freedom of childhood is relinquished for the benefits of maturity. Historically, the emphasis in many cultures on a woman's virginity prior to marriage meant the imposition of strict social controls over young women between the time of menarche and the advent of marriage.
See also: Adolescence and Youth; Girlhood; Puberty; Rites of Passage; Sex Education; Sexuality.
Brookes, Barbara, and Margaret Tennant. 1998. "Making Girls Modern: Pakeha Women and Menstruation in New Zealand, 1930–1970." Women's History Review 7, no. 4: 565–581.
Brumberg, Joan Jacobs. 1993. "'Something Happens to Girls': Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative." Journal of the History of Sexuality 4, no. 1: 99–127.
Bullough, Vern L. 1983. "Menarche and Teenage Pregnancy: A Misuse of Historical Data." In Menarche, the Transition from Girl to Woman, ed. Sharon Golub. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Thomas, Frederic et al. 2001. "International Variability of Ages at Menarche and Menopause: Patterns and Main Determinants." Human Biology 73, no. 2: 271–290.
The word menarche is derived from the Greek words me–n, month, and arche–, beginning. It is the term used to refer to the first menstrual period. This first sign that menstruation has begun is governed by a complex set of biological processes, genetic information, and psychosocial factors. In the human female, the usual age for menarche is between ages eleven and twelve (Martini 1992). Other studies, however, report figures between twelve and thirteen (Boaz and Almquist 1997).
Variables that influence the onset of menarche include body build or body mass, critical weight, height/weight ratio, skeletal maturation, and percentage of body fat. Other correlates are health history, protein intake, amount of daily exercise, and familial trends.
The Biological Process
At about age eight, the pituitary gland secretes hormones until the ovaries begin their own production of steroids (estrogens), the chemicals that are responsible for initiating puberty. These hormones (known as the follicle stimulating hormone [FSH] and luteinizing hormone [LH]) allow for an increase in adipose tissue (fat), and inhibit the growth hormone. They stimulate the ovary to produce estrogen and progesterone, which results in breast development and pubic hair.
At birth, the human female has approximately 750,000 primordial follicles (eggs). By puberty, 400,000 remain. At or soon after menarche, the first mature egg is released. Menstruation will recur each month until menopause when few or no follicles remain. (Guyton 1976).
Differing Ages of Onset Through History
By age thirteen, most girls in industrialized societies have attained menarche. Interestingly, this number has not been consistent throughout history. It appears that menstrual age has been decreasing from between fifteen and sixteen in the last half of the eighteenth century, to twelve to thirteen in the present day, at a rate of three months per decade (Tanner 1962). Various reasons have been hypothesized. Alarmists decry this trend and blame it on a multiplicity of factors from hormones in food to mass media. Since nutrition and the standard of living have improved in the last 200 years, one explanation is that the time for menarche has always been the same biologically, but was delayed because of the lack of essential nutrients for the chemical pathways to trigger hormone synthesis. Genetically, humans have always had the potential for certain biological phenomena to express themselves, but environmental conditions retarded both growth and development.
Meaning for Reproduction and Family
Menarche is an abrupt signal that marks a change in social status from child to adult. Cross-culturally, menarche has a variety of meanings that include adult responsibilities, freedoms, and expectations regarding reproduction. As with all cultural phenomena, there is a wide range of significance attached to menarche.
In the United States, ideally, there is an extended period of time from menarche to marriage and reproduction. Many families want their daughters to get an education beyond high school before they start families. After marriage, fecundity (reproductive potential) can be controlled by birth control technology in those social groups whose belief system accepts the ethics of these devices. However, the consequences of premarital sex are a concern for the modern family because as the age of menarche lowers, the time span between puberty and marriage increases. Many parents are conflicted about what kind of birth control information should be provided to their daughters. Education plays an important part in delaying the time of marriage. Education is highly correlated with family size: the greater the number of years of education, the smaller the family size (Ehrenreich and English 1978). Until early in the twentieth century, it was common belief that school weakened a woman's reproductive ability by physically stressing her body so that she could not have many children. Social scientists now acknowledge that time of marriage and family size are choices made by women, some of whom prefer to obtain an education before starting a family.
In tribal societies, where fertility is crucial, menarche is celebrated by a rite of passage. Where fertility is at a premium, it is cause for elaborate ritual and public knowledge. In other societies, menarche marks the time when the girl can be married (eHRAF 2001). Among the Western Apache, the ritual that accompanied menarche benefited the entire community through the girl's connection to a deity. She was also given an earthly sponsor who facilitated expanding social networks (Bonvillain 1995).
How Menarche is Treated in Different Societies
Anthropology is rich with descriptions of comingof-age ceremonies for girls. The attitudes of societies toward menarche vary from delight and pride to fear and shame. Positive labels signify that the girl is an adult, capable of contributing to the ongoing society. Menstrual pollution is the term anthropologists use to describe fears of menstrual blood and its dangerous powers. Since the time of Pliny (23–79 C.E) myths and taboos have surrounded menarche. Societies in Brazil, British Columbia, India, Ceylon, and North America built menstrual huts to segregate menstruating women.
When the Bemba (from Rhodesia) were studied, the chisungu was held for each girl at menarche. The girl informed older women that she had started to bleed and they "brought her to the fire" to warm her. Seeds were cooked, and the girl was required to extract and eat them burning hot. Dances were performed to protect her against the magic dangers of her first intercourse. Pottery was painted and decorated with special symbols. Later the girl was isolated indoors and fed millet cooked in a new fire (Richards 1956). Menarche was a cause for celebration but recognized as a dangerous state.
In contrast to this public event, on the island of Inis Beag, Ireland, most girls were unaware and unprepared for menarche. Their mothers did not discuss menstruation with them. They were traumatized by the experience and had nowhere to turn for information or support. As a consequence, their adult reproductive life was fraught with half-truths and superstitions regarding their bodies and their sexual behavior (Marshall and Suggs 1962).
The Tiwi of Australia subjected menstruating girls to severe restrictions. The girl's mother and relatives chased her into the bush, where they built a menstrual hut for her. She could not dig up or touch food, or eat without a stick. She could not touch or look at water. Someone had to give it to her. She could not scratch herself with her fingers. She could not make a fire or break any sticks. She had to whisper instead of talk.
Among certain Jewish people, the mother slaps her daughter's face with a congratulatory statement such as "today you are a woman," or "may the blood run back to your face." One source reports the slap as an admonition that the daughter should not disgrace the family by becoming pregnant before marriage. The tradition is less common than it was before the 1950s. Certain mothers who were slapped have decided not to carry on the ritual because of its pejorative connotation (Appel-Slingbaum 2000).
boaz, noel t., and almquist, alan j. (1997). biological anthropology. upper saddle river, nj: prentice hall.
bonvillain, n. (1995). women and men: cultural constructs of gender. englewood cliffs, nj: prentice hall.
ehrenreich, b., and english, d. (1978). for her owngood: 150 years of the expert's advice to women. new york: doubleday.
guyton, a. c. (1976). textbook of medical physiology. philadelphia: w.b. saunders company.
martini, f. (1992). fundamentals of anatomy and physiology. 2nd edition. englewood cliffs, nj: prentice hall.
messenger, j. c. (1970). "sex and repression in an irish folk community." in human sexual behavior, ed. d. c. marshall and r. c. suggs. new york: basic books.
richards, a .i. (1956). chisungu: a girl's initiation ceremony among the bemba of northern rhodesia. london: faber and faber.
tanner, j. m. (1962). growth at adolescence, 2d edition. oxford: blackwell.
turner, v. (1968). the drums of affliction. new york: oxford university press.
appel-slingbaum, c. (2000). "the tradition of slapping our daughters." available from http://www.mum.org/slap.htm.
ehraf (electronic human relations area files) (2001). available from http://ets.umdl.umich.edu/reference.html.
Menarche refers to the first menstrual flow experienced by a girl during puberty. Menstruation means that the physiological and hormonal changes underlying reproductive processes have matured sufficiently to produce the endometrial lining of the uterus, which is sloughed off at the end of the menstrual cycle if implantation of a fertilized ovum has not occurred.
Menarche typically occurs after other pubertal changes are well established, and marks the completion of puberty. The mean age of menarche for girls in the United States is twelve, but it may occur normally from ages ten to sixteen. Early menstrual cycles are often irregular and may include no ovulation or multiple ovulations.
Menarche often is acknowledged by family or community rituals, recognizing the adolescent's entrance into womanhood and sexual potential. Challenges of adolescence for a girl include incorporating the new status and potential into her self-concept and coping with reactions of family and peers.
Grumbach, Melvin M., and Dennis M. Styne. "Puberty: Ontogeny, Neuroendocrinology, Physiology, and Disorders." In Jean D. Wilson and Daniel W. Foster eds., Williams Textbook of Endocrinology, 9th edition. Philadelphia: Saunders, 1998.
Herman-Giddens, Marcia E., Eric J. Slora, Richard C. Wasserman, Carlos J. Bourdony, Manju V. Bhapkar, Gary G. Koch, and Cynthia M. Hasemeier. "Secondary Sexual Characteristics and Menses in Young Girls Seen in Office Practice: A Study from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings Network." Pediatrics 99 (1997):505-512.
S. A. W.
See menstrual cycle.