USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘menstruation’
Folk Beliefs

Bears and Menstruation

My mother grew up in rural California. She spent a lot of her time outside and hiking. When she was a Girl Scout, she heard that when you are on your period you should avoid going in the great outdoors.

JE:”I always heard growing up that it wasn’t safe to hike or go camping while you were on your period. Apparently bears and other predatory animals can smell it and are more likely to attack. When I was growing up, two women were killed by a bear and the rumor was that it was because one (or both) of the women were menstruating.”

Me: Who told you this?

JE: My Girl Scout Leader was the most distinct person I can remember. There were some men at my church who wouldn’t let their daughters (my friends) because they thought that women should not hike, camp or even venture into the back county during their periods because it will attract predators who will come and eat them. This cautionary advice goes for women around the world. ”

Analysis: I researched the validity of this superstition, and it holds little scientific evidence. The superstition has a strong hold on people because it’s a pretty visceral- blood, gruesome attacks, young girls, etc. To me, however, it seems like a fear of bears morphed into an unfounded belief. At one point, this was perhaps a good way to keep young girls from exerting themselves in the woods when their families believed women should be at home. The stereotype only reinforces the idea that women are not as suited to survival in the wilderness as men.

For the Yellowstone Bearman’s advice on this folk belief, see:

Gestation, birth, and infancy

Mexican Pregnancy and Menstruation Beliefs

LP’s (the informant) family is originally from Mexico. She learned this superstition from her mother who advised her not to eat certain foods when she was menstruating. I remember when I was roommates with LP my freshman year, and her mom would bring her certain foods that she believed would help reduce the pain of menstrual cramps. For the pregnancy part, she said her entire family believed in the tradition and that her mother used this method to determine the sex of a baby, and has never been wrong.

Both of these things apply to women, either pregnant or menstruating women specifically. Therefore, the following needle test is used on a pregnant woman, usually within the home.

“During your period, don’t eat spicy stuff because those make cramps worse. Don’t eat watermelon because that makes it worse too, or any watery fruit will hurt you. It’s bad to eat these when you’re menstruating. Also, when you’re pregnant don’t eat watery foods because they’re afraid the baby will slip out. Ha, it’s so strange….Oh also! When you’re pregnant there’s a test to see if you will have a boy or girl baby. Someone will put a needle on a red string and dangle it over the mother’s stomach when she’s lying down. If the needle starts swinging back and forth it means it’s a boy, and if it goes in a circle, it’s a girl. My mom has done this and has always gotten it right. Also if your pregnant stomach is bulging out, it’s a boy, if it’s round and droopy it’s a girl.”

I’m very curious as to how this needle test came about. Is there some sort of reasoning behind it? LP did not know how it came about, so she wasn’t able to answer me. I’d like to know where they got the idea about the direction of the needle swinging indicating the sex of the baby.  Additionally, LP tried to explain the reasoning behind eating certain foods during menstruation and while it seemed plausible, I don’t think it’s scientifically accurate. 

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Cure for Menstrual Cramps – Bananas

“My mom always told me to eat bananas when I’m cramping”

My informant told me about this cure when I asked her for advice concerning my own menstrual cramps.  She went further on to explain that when she was a young girl, she noticed that her mother was constantly buying bananas even though her mom hated the taste of bananas.  One day, she finally asked her mom why she kept on buying bananas.  she told my informant that her mother, my informant’s grandmother, had told her that the bananas help to remove cramps.

After hearing about this method from my informant, I actually ate a banana, and to my surprise, the cramping stopped.  At first, I believed that this was possibly the result of the placebo effect since my friend had assured me it would work.  However, after conducting research on the matter, it turns out that bananas contain a high amount of potassium, and potassium has been medically known to reduce muscle cramps.  This case is a great example of folklore medicine finding scientific backing and turning into a form of published media.

Folk speech

She’s Seen the Moon

“Anytime a girl has her first period, they tell her she’s finally seen the moon.”


The informant heard this phrase from her mother, who, in turn, heard it from her cousin. The informant’s mother is Cameroonian and in their culture people speak in a roundabout way. You are not supposed to say directly that someone has started menstruating, so, instead, they used this phrase. According to the informant, women are connected to the moon and their periods have to do with the lunar cycle. She said that the moon changes every twenty-eight days and that a woman’s cycle is twenty-eight days.


Slap in the Face


“In my Jewish family, and I’m sure in many other Jewish families, when the girl got her period, the mother would slap the girl across the face, very hard, and leave an imprint. I’m not sure what the reason was… something about warding off evil spirits, I think. To keep the devil away from you.”


When a girl begins to menstruate, she is able to get pregnant. This can be a great worry for many mothers who are trying to keep their children pure for marriage, or, at least, keep their children from becoming mothers before they are ready. The slap is supposed to be painful so that it warns you against becoming pregnant; the pain of the slap is symbolical of the pain of pregnancy and the difficulty of raising a child. Furthermore, being pregnant at a young age is like a slap in the face to your family. An unwed, pregnant girl would bring great shame to a traditional Jewish family. The sting of the slap, on one level, represents that sting of shame that the family would feel. The slap is supposed to leave an imprint for a while so that it serves as a lasting reminder not to get pregnant.

Judaism in its institutional form does not tend to deal with spirits or concepts such as the devil, so it is interesting that this Jewish folk practice invokes those ideas. This practice is an example of how folk traditions can deviate from a religion’s scripture or institutionalized forms.

Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jewish girls get slapped on their first menstrual cycle

When a Jewish girl has her first ever menstrual cycle, every woman in the family (and sometimes, any woman) will slap her across the face. 

My informant recollects getting her period for the first time while she was alone with her younger sister at their grandma’s house. She was panicking because no one was home and her post-menopausal grandmother doesn’t keep the necessary supplies in the house. When her grandma got home that afternoon, she tentatively whispered what had happened. Her grandmother screamed in delight, raised her hand and slapped her across the face with full gusto. My informant started sobbing, and then her sister did too, because they had no idea why grandma was hitting her!

I’ve been on both the receiving and giving end of the slap, and it’s meant as as gesture of love, and a very exciting time. When a girl gets her period for the first time, it’s not unusual for the entire extended family to be informed, and then that girl is subjected to slaps as her aunts and cousins and grandmothers come to congratulate her. It’s part of the rite of passage that comes with “becoming a woman.”

The slap supposedly comes out of ancient times, when a woman getting her period was a sign of her coming into her sexual maturity–and needed to be slapped for being a sinful, sexual being (basically implying that she is a whore.) For most Jews now, though, the slap is a joyous, fun, and slightly painful tradition.

Folk Beliefs

Thai custom: First menstruation

The first time my informant got her period, her mother told her to go to the stairs, hold her breath, and walk down the number of steps she wanted her period to last for. For example, my informant decided that she wanted her periods from then on to last for three days, so she went down three steps while holding her breath. According to my informant, it worked for her; her periods now last three days.

I asked her why she didn’t just go down one step, and she said, “because it wouldn’t be possible, biologically, so to keep the legend true, you have to go down at least three or four.” This response suggests that there’s an element of conscious self-delusion for every girl who performs this custom, and that the belief is important more for its own sake than for the fact that it works.

My informant proposed that going down the stairs represents that the performer is taking the steps to becoming a woman. The girl holds her breath because Buddhism (the main religion of Thailand) encourages believers to endure suffering. Not breathing also symbolizes the pain of menstruation.

I agree with her assessment. A girl’s first menstruation is, biologically, the marker of her transformation from girl to woman. Taking physical steps represents that she is crossing that threshold.

Annotation: This folk custom appears in the 2001 Thai movie The Legend of Suriyothai.

Folk speech
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Folk Speech/Rite of Passage – Jewish


“If a girl got her first period, we would pinch her cheeks and say Mazel Tov.”

“If a girl got her first period, we would pinch her cheeks and say Congratulations.”

Mazel Tov is a Hebrew congratulatory word. It is often said during times of rites of passage, such as at Bar/Bat Mitzvahs or weddings. It is said with intentions of wishing the participant luck and prosperity as well.

A first period is a time of celebration for fertility as well as a rite of passage, marking a significant time in a young girls’ life. The pinching of the cheeks causes redness to form at the area being irritated, perhaps signifying the blood from the menstruation. I have also heard similar stories of mothers slapping their children in their face. Although traditionally not intended to be threatening or to hurt too much, perhaps this is a customary ritual which warns the young girl that she better be careful not to get pregnant (for the time has come where it may be possible).


*Rites of Passage was first suggested by Arnold Van Gennep in 1909