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.
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.