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.