Menarche Parties and Purity Balls

24 02 2009

More and more frequently, parents are celebrating their daughters’ coming of age with purity balls.  At these balls, girls as young as four are urged to live a pure life, and vow chastity until marriage.  The ceremony is somewhat like a wedding, with vows formally recited and jewelry exchanged.  Their fathers are the head of the ceremony, often presenting the girls purity rings or bracelets.  The July 2008 Time article on the subject describes one such ceremony in which a young woman, Kyle Miraldi, attends a purity ball for her 18th birthday.  At age 13, Kyle was given a bracelet charm by her parents in the shape of a lock.  Her father held the key.  She explains:

On my wedding day, he’ll give it to my husband…It’s a symbol of my father giving up the covering of my heart, protecting me, since it means my husband is now the protector. He becomes like the shield to my heart, to love me as I’m supposed to be loved.

Young girls who participate in these ceremonies often describe their choices as a positive decision, a personal choice to live a pure lifestyle in the face of hookup culture and loose sexuality.  But the implications of putting the father in charge of a young woman’s sexuality seem more than slightly creepy.  What does pledging virginity to your father in an elaborate Cinderella-like ball have to do with the very personal choice of abstinence until marriage?  By making a young woman’s sexual “purity” a public vow, are we pressuring young women into making personal choices in an inappropriate public sphere?

On the opposite end of the spectrum, more and more young women are celebrating their coming-of-age not with purity vows, but with menarche parties.  Menarche parties celebrate a woman’s first period in a positive light, embracing menstruation as beautiful instead of disgusting.  Menarche parties are even becoming commercialized, as sites like Menarche Parties R’Us spring up offering menstruation-themed party items.  Young women who have these parties are celebrated in their womanhood, and the party is often themed around the color red and options for the use of alternative menstrual products such as The Keeper.

When I first heard about menarche parties, I was admittedly skeptical.  Even if I could get over viewing my own reproductive functions as dirty, could the rest of society?  How would my family have been viewed by our community if my parents had invited all of my friends to a party celebrating my first menstruation?  Would my friends and neighbors even have attended?  Additionally, is it really okay to embrace menstruation when women’s bodies are for many women both a joy and a burden?  Our bodies have been used against us for so long, in sexual violence and dominance.  Can we really reclaim our bodies in a positive light without acknowledging the history of abuse?  Pregnancy and childbirth can be a joy or a shackle, depending on a woman’s situation.  Menarche parties initially struck me as geared towards the upper-middle class women who have the privilege of viewing their bodies as beautiful and risk-free.

But, imagine the liberation in celebrating your first period.  I was ashamed of my first period, as I’m sure so many girls are.  Many young women don’t even understand their menstrual cycle until long after they have begun getting their period.  If we could learn to celebrate our cycle as beautiful and natural, perhaps we could learn to grow up in a more female-positive or sex-positive world.  “Feminine hygiene” and “sanitary napkins” might be replaced with terms that do not imply that our natural bodily functions are dirty.  After all, we don’t see male genital hygiene products such scented deodorant condoms.  Why should women spend exorbitant amounts of money on so-called “feminine hygiene” products that treat our menstrual cycle as smelly and downright icky?  Menarche parties can help young women to view their bodies as powerful and wholly their own.

Neither purity balls or menarche parties exist in a vacuum, and it is essential to examine the social implications of both practices.  Although purity balls may celebrate a young woman and these women may think of their purity vows as empowering, vowing chastity to your father in a public space seems to take the agency in the decision out of the daughter’s hands.  Menarche parties, although they may embrace female bodies as natural and wonderful, are  likely a very difficult thing for friends and neighbors to accept and condone.  Talking about our bodies is still taboo;  celebrating our bodies is mainly unheard-of.



2 responses

25 02 2009

The purity balls are pretty archaic. For a long time, even in the US, women weren’t legally considered citizens in the way that men were, and part of how this inequality was represented was that women were always represented by men. A woman was the responsibility of her father and part of his house until she married, where she then became the responsibility of her husband. In addition, any of her property and income either belonged to her father if she was unmarried or her husband if she was. There’s a reason why the father of the bride gives the bride away to the groom at traditional weddings. The purity balls are pretty much the same thing; they are part of a culture where a young girl’s sexuality “belongs” to her father, just as she herself does, before it’s “given” to her husband.

In short, purity balls turn women back into property.

As for menarche parties, the only problem I have with them is that I wish we had a better word for a first period. Now, though, I want to definitely have daughters so I can have a menarche party for them. I DO plan on talking to all my kids about puberty and sexuality, but I think that the party is more than just a way to educate young girls. It deals with both of the major issues with women’s sexuality and body image in today’s culture: we don’t educate women and we don’t CELEBRATE women. So, even if I do educate my kids, I think that it’s very important to celebrate these changes.

Of course, there’s a fine line to walk when it comes to celebrating menstruation. On the one hand, yes, we should celebrate this milestone and ensure that the next generation of women feels comfortable with their bodies. However, on the other hand, we should still acknowledge that menstruation can be burdensome and annoying, especially for women who have heavy and painful periods. So, it’s definitely something to be careful about.

21 04 2009

…Menarche parties seem, just… odd, to me.
Obviously, as a transgender who was so far “in the closet” at that time as to not even be aware of what transgender meant, my first period was traumatic and shameful, given that, well- it was my body doing things I REALLY didn’t want it to do, and the developement of a reproductive system that was (and is) shameful to me.

Needless to say, this isn’t an issue to the vast majority of women; but there are so many other issues to do with periods. It just seems odd to me to celebrate that.
“Oh, this is the first time you’re experiencing something which might make you put on weight, have painful breasts, have agonising stomach craps which may even be bad enough to stop you moving, have skin problems, or be hormonal! Hooray, let’s celebrate the potential for all that crap, once a month!”
I don’t know if it was down to hormonal imbalences, but I had horrific periods from day one. They were always completely irregular, sometimes incredibly heavy, sometimes little more than spotting; sometimes a week long, sometimes two days, and everything in between. PMT varied just as much, from a mild tummy ache to pains which literally made it agonising to stand; from no skin issues to having a full facial eruption; from being completely rational to turning into a screeching harpy. And trying to live as a man, and having your breasts swell and become incredibly tender and therefore too painful to bind down, was yet more fun.
Now, my experience is worse than many, I know, especially considering I’ve yet to hit 30 (apparently, most women suffer from worse PMT in middle age. I intend to never know.) But still, most women will at some point suffer from painful or unpleasant PMT. And I can’t wrap my head around celebrating that, at all.

…Celebrating a woman’s body, and her coming of age, could potentially be a wonderful thing, I agree. But focusing it on the period makes my mind boggle.

As for purity balls- seems like we’re taking a step back a couple of hundred years, really, doesn’t it? Except in some places, in some mindsets, we never left that time. Which is troubling.
And yes- creepy.

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