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Lift the curse

We live in the age of sexual liberation. Everyone's either doing it or talking about it. Except the talking bit is still a problem, especially when it comes to menstruation. But with a growing number of girls starting their periods at primary age, the need to take the shame and ignorance out of a perfectly normal bodily function is greater than ever. Reva Klein reports

It used to be, when I was young, that nice girls didn't get their periods until they were 14 or 15. Or later, if they could manage it. In the American Midwest, it was a badge of moral purity, as if to show that your brain had better things to do than choreograph your hormones for the dance of sex. Plenty of time for that malarkey later.

Those unfortunate few who did start at nine, 10 or 11 had a terrible time of it. As if the cramps, spots, moods and hideous belts you had to wear to keep the pad in place weren't bad enough, these poor girls suffered the opprobrium of everyone in the school community. In those primeval, pre-feminist days, they were called "whore'' by the other girls and had their bra straps snapped from behind by the boys. The primary school teachers weren't much better. Because they didn't know what to do with girls who had sprung a leak or were racked with pain, they would pass them on to the fearsome school nurse.

At home, things were just as bad. Because early menstruation was tantamount to putting an advertisement in the local paper announcing your availability for sexual services, parents were as shocked and embarrassed as the girls. Mothers would bite their lips and explain how we were being punished for Eve's sin - or something equally abstruse and depressing.

Today, many mothers and daughters celebrate the onset of menstruation, at any age, as an entry pass to the sisterhood, no matter how beset with problems and pain that not so exclusive club can be. Menstruation is more out in the open than when the dinosaurs roamed in my youth. There are adverts on TV and on billboards, and jokes by women comedians.

But if attitudes to menstruation have matured, there is little evidence that schools, particularly primaries, have changed with the times. Shirley Prendergast's 1992 book, This Is the Time To Grow Up, highlighted the shortcomings of primary schools in dealing with early menstruation and made recommendations for improvement.

Her survey of 500 girls showed that very little information on menstruation was being provided at primary level, and there were few facilities to help girls who were having their periods. School toilets, often substandard at the best of times, were downright hostile to the needs of menstruating girls: no bins, no locks on the doors, sometimes no paper or soap. The supply of sanitary towels was an issue, too. Girls spoke of having to go to the school office to ask the secretary, in front of other people, for supplies.

Prendergast's recommendations included improving the conditions of toilets, and introducing the subject of menstruation at an earlier age for both boys and girls.

Five years on, things have changed little, according to people working in the field. A recent US study indicated that the number of eight-year-olds starting puberty was larger now than ten years ago. But there is no equivalent research in Britain, and therefore there is no evidence that girls are starting their periods at a younger age than the previously accepted average of 12 years and seven months.

Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that this indeed may be the case. According to John Coleman, director of the Trust for the Study of Adolescence, "Teachers are saying that more and more girls in Year 6 are getting their periods. But because there isn't the research, we just don't know." Paula Power, an advisory teacher of personal, social and health education for Newham education authority in east London, agrees. She reports that primary teachers are finding that more girls are getting their periods before they move on to secondary, some of them before Year 6. "Because of this, an increasing number of primary schools are asking me to provide input on menstruation in their sex education lessons," she says.

In addition, some primary schools are inviting in what Power calls the "Tampax ladies" - specially trained lecturers, all with nursing backgrounds, who are employed by Tambrands to talk to groups of primary and secondary girls about menstruation. And, adds Paula Power, about why they should use Tampax tampons. "In the session I observed, the Tampax lady referred at least 10 times to negative aspects of using sanitary towels, like how they can smell, how awkward they are to carry and to dispose of, how conspicuous they are to wear. To illustrate their bulkiness, she displayed a particularly big pad.'' A spokeswoman for Tambrands says the company trains its lecturers to give a balanced view of sanitary protection.

Power is concerned about the health implications for young girls using tampons. Tampax packets themselves carry warnings and advice about toxic shock syndrome, which they define as "a rare condition that is associated with tampon use". Power also worries that schools are using outsiders to tackle issues that should be handled by their own staff. "Schools are allowing these lecturers in because they don't want to teach the subject themselves. This way, they don't have to deal with it," she says.

In a bid to get more teachers to do just that, she and health educator Scilla Alvarado wrote The Inside Story, a pack on menstruation designed for use across the age range, from primary school through to adulthood. Paula Power believes it is too fundamental a subject to leave to a one-off session, especially when that session is run by someone with commercial interests. "Menstruation is very important to young women, and is something that the whole school should consider. Primary schools should designate a staff member to assess the situation from all angles - curricular and practical.'' If, as Clare Rayner estimates, one in 10 primary school-aged girls is menstruating, schools will have to adjust. One reason that they haven't is, suggests John Coleman, "attitudinal. It's easy to hide behind the fact that there's no money. But it has to be prioritised.'' And if that means a few bins, a less stigmatising way of making towels available, and rejigging staff for a couple of sessions so that girls and boys can have segregated and mixed sessions on the subject, then so be it. As we approach the year 2000, girls, no matter what their age, should not feel ashamed of and discomfited by this most natural of bodily functions in the way that their mothers and grannies were.

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