Three Reasons to Celebrate Menarche (first period), Menstruation and Menopause
Melonie Syrett explores three reasons why we need to celebrate menarche, menstruation and menopause – and shares the inspiration behind her education and healing work – including her personal experience of painful periods and negative body image.
Three Reasons to Celebrate Menarche (first period), Menstruation and Menopause
1. These are key rites of passage – powerful physical and emotional changes from one state of being female to another
2. Breaking down taboos – we need to open up the normality of these processes that every biological female will experience
3. Education – we just don’t learn about these things in a way that helps us understand our bodies
Who is Melonie Syrett?
After 15 successful years working as a primary school teacher I now work as a consultant in my specialist field of Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE) - which includes Relationships and Sex Education. I work with schools, local authorities, charities and organisations on PSHE, menstrual education and girls’ self-esteem and body image.
“I help create safe spaces for women and girls to learn about what it is to be ‘them’ and to be their most authentic selves.”
I also work as a Women’s Healer, which started as a hobby and grew into a business! I support women one-to-one and run events that reconnect groups of women and girls to that ‘village’ support that we have lost.
What inspired you to talk to women about their wombs, their menstruation and self-love/care?
I have a history of horrendous periods and body disconnect.
No one really told me about puberty; how my body would change and how to ‘be’ a female in the world, aware of her needs and her boundaries. As a result I had a negative self-image from about 12 years old, maybe even earlier… Very few pictures of me exist from 13-15 years old and I made some choices that I wouldn’t have if I had understood myself better.
My bleeds began at 14, and I used to wish that they wouldn’t ever come. They were always heavy and painful but when I got to 27 they became debilitating and excruciating. I ended up in hospital twice; convinced I was having a miscarriage and was just sent home and told it was ‘period pain’. After many days off work in excruciating pain; many days out or holidays ruined, many trips to the doctors, including being body shamed and many times told: ‘its just period pains’ I was finally diagnosed with endometriosis.
“I was told there was no cure. I should go on the pill or have the Mirena coil, or have a baby ‘because that might work’.”
I went on the pill.
During this time I went to a ‘Heal the Womb’ retreat that I saw advertised. It was here that I first sat in a circle with other women freely sharing their stories and I felt safe enough to begin to tell mine. Here too I first connected to my womb in a gentle breathing exercise, where she told me she felt ‘acknowledged’.
“I realised at that moment that I had hated my body - from under my breasts to the top of my thighs - all of my life. I thought horrible things about my body – my big belly, my periods, my bleed. I hated it all.”
And then came an epiphany. I realised that I was totally disconnected from my body, like so many of us. I lived in my head, working most of the time and living for the weekend. I had made poor partner choices and was looking for external validation of who I was.
So I began this change: I resolved to love my body myself….to reconnect with my soft belly…to turn the hatred of my bleed into a celebration of my body’s monthly work renewing my womb… and to see the wonder in every single part of me. This began my self-care and regular connection to the womb.
“Straight away I noticed differences. I am now mostly period-pain free. In three years I have had only 3 endo pain periods when previously they were every month.”
I discharged myself from the endo clinic. And after all this time – 38 years –
“..I can say truthfully that I truly love myself, and my body. My life has changed completely.”
Alongside this personal journey, I was developing my understanding of PSHE and Sex Education. I watched as many children started their periods with no preparation. I observed some awful teaching and I resolved to improve this neglected area of school life as I could see the link between self-esteem, body image and self-harm, risky behaviour, not asking for help, teen pregnancy etc.
So, these two seemingly very different areas are what motivated me to share. But actually, they aren’t that different. It’s like a bridge between education and day-to-day women! I see the changes that can be made by addressing things at an early age and I am so fired up to support children because if we can change the stories - like that of 12 year old me - maybe women would not need the support that they seek from me as adults. Maybe their lives would have been different?”
Can you give us three reasons why we should celebrate menstruation? Explain
1. Because it is a key point in a girl’s life – Menarche marks a change from being that ‘little girl’.
Most of us can cast our mind back to our first period. Mine was horrible. I went to the toilet, saw the line of blood and called my mum. To cut a long story short- it took a long time for her to come to me and then she left me whilst she went to buy pads. There was no period talk, nothing…just get on with it. I felt like an inconvenience, I felt shameful. I hated my period and I didn’t want it. I didn’t know where I stood anymore. I felt like an adult but I wasn’t really. I needed the support of those who had been through this around me and they just were not there.
Many of us have these kind of stories, or we just can’t remember – we have kind of blocked it out. If you are one of the few who has a positive story you are so lucky!
Celebrating this rite of passage provides a space for us to mark this powerful change in our lives and gives us the support we might need at this strange and new time.
2. Breaking down Taboos
It can be a scary time for girls as there is little quality education at school and often not at home, about their changing bodies. How can we understand things that we have never spoken about? How can we embrace that which no one speaks about?
“Celebration gives periods a voice; it allows us to talk about the body and remove the stigma and associated shame.”
If we don’t create a safe space to explore what is going to be happening or is already happening to our bodies, how will we have all the facts? How will we know and own our bodies?
“I was at an adult event recently where we were given a diagram of the female reproductive system to label. No one could label it correctly! “
This societal ignorance keeps us from really connecting to our patterns and natural hormonal rhythms and what is right and normal for us. It keeps us away from doctors because talking to someone about ‘down there’ can be so embarrassing. It keeps us feeling shame about our bodies, and changing and disposing of our menstrual products in secret for fear of someone seeing it. We need to change this.
Are the Red Tent or Menarche events medical or holistic? What topics are talked about in the session?
The Red Tent is a gathering space. It is a place for women to arrive, take off their many hats and come as they truly are. Red tents are a global movement and each tent is different in its approach but there are some key things that most aim to do – to help women learn about their bodies and stages of life and to provide a safe, sharing space for women to speak from their hearts without judgement. So no, it isn’t medical but there may be medical professionals invited to speak. It is holistic in the sense that it takes in the ‘whole’ sense of being a woman and experiences will change depending on the tent you go to.
The menarche events I run are also not medical. I meet with the mums a few evenings before and we discuss their girls and what they might need, we talk together about their reasons for wanting their girls to have their menarche celebrated and we do things like make them a necklace to give to them on the day and write a letter to read to them sharing all the things the mums want their daughters to know about this special time of their lives.
“We also take some time for self-care and nurture – because mums need that time too!”
A few days later, with the daughters, there is an educational element with talk, some games and some chat as we do crafts. We explore things like what happens during puberty? What is a period? What do our internal reproductive organs look like and what do they do? What should we expect across a menstrual cycle – what is the body doing? What might our energy levels and moods be like? And then ‘how can we manage our periods?’ – considering things like tracking the cycle to see our patterns, preparing for periods in school etc.
Then we discuss the celebration part and what it will look like: we make flower crowns for each other to wear. To celebrate we bring the mums in first to make their circle of women and after some special words, the girls join their mothers in the circle to receive their necklace and letter. It is a beautiful, humbling experience, full of so much love and connection.
What is the most challenging part of the work that you do?
Trying to get the word out there to those who are not already period positive. It can be really hard and sometimes disheartening when you mention periods and stages of life and it hits a brick wall. Our society teaches us to recoil at such talk and to see menopause as a disease with symptoms to cure. We are taught to disconnect from our bodies so much so that even when someone offers a beautiful event or solution to people’s pain it can be quickly ignored.
Tell us about other work you do?
I run ‘Gather the Women: A Red Tent Retreat’. We just held a 2-day event at low cost in Harlow, Essex with a range of inspirational women running amazing workshops that connect us to our bodies, celebrate who we are, and encourage us to stand in our authentic power. The next one will be in March – drop me an email to be added to the newsletter list for updates.
I run ‘New Beginnings: A menarche celebration for mothers and daughters’ on request. I ask for a minimum of 5 girls and a maximum of ten. The next one is in The Life Therapy Centre in Southend. There are spaces available, click the link for more information.
I run a course for women who would like to learn how to run menarche celebrations called ‘From Maiden to Menarche’. The course aims to bring likeminded women together where they will learn about menarche and share their ideas. Everyone will go away with a plan for their own events and buddies made from the course, to run them with or call upon when in need. The next one is Saturday 24th November in London. Tickets are available via the link.
I also run monthly groups: the South London Red Tent in Streatham (free, with Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/302681553188990/ with all events shared) and Finchley Moon Circle.