Elizabeth Rios got her period in fifth grade. The 20-year-old Miami native knew her mom and older sister developed early, but when it came, she was scared.
“I thought I was in trouble for getting it early. I thought it was something I had done wrong,” Rios told Glamour. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not supposed to get it yet,’ as if there was a certain time when it was supposed to come. But I think that just comes from a lack of education about it,” she said.
Rios is one of the many Floridians who got her period before sixth grade. Now, as Florida legislators debate whether or not a bill—referred to as the “Don’t Say Period” bill and meant to limit sexuality and health education in the state’s schools—would prohibit young girls from talking about their periods in the classroom, young women like her have a message to their elected officials: leave our periods alone.
While the bill doesn’t explicitly mention menstruation, an early version sought to limit health education before sixth grade. The proposed bill is the latest example of Florida legislation meant to curtail what can be taught in the classroom. Pressed by Florida state Rep. Ashley Gantt, a Democrat, last week over whether the bill would limit conversations about girls’ periods before sixth grade, the bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Stan McClain, said, “It would.” When Gantt pushed back, asking if teachers could be penalized for talking about menstruation with students who get their periods earlier, McClain said that while they “haven’t contemplated that,” it was not the goal of the legislation, and he would be willing to adjust the language. A later version of the bill appears to have removed the grade provisions, but still restricts conversations about sexuality and health education.
It’s just a medical thing that happens. It’s like, ‘Oh, I broke my foot.’
Though she went to a small Catholic school, Rios thinks her home state should be prioritizing sex education, not limiting it. “I feel like, if anything, it should be talked about more,” she said. As for conversations about menstruating, she said periods shouldn’t be “looked at as something weird and hard to talk about, but natural for every single woman.”
“It’s just a medical thing that happens. It’s like, ‘Oh, I broke my foot,’” she said.
Like Rios, young girls and women in Florida – many of whom got their periods before sixth grade – say they’re concerned about the reality that (mostly male) legislators’ want to limit sex education in the state, calling the push “dangerous” and “unnecessary.”
“Banning any discussion of menstruation or other ‘sexual’ topics before sixth grade will be harmful to kids who start menstruating before that cutoff,” said Floridian Emilia Rubalcaba, who’s 15-years-old and a student.
Rubalcaba got her period when she was 11 and in fifth grade. As the first of her friends to get it, she talked to them about it. “They had lots of questions, and over the next two years as everyone else caught up, they knew to come to me for pads or anything if they were ever short,” she said.
“It can be scary not knowing what’s going on with our bodies. And if we can’t go to a teacher or a school friend, it’s just going to perpetuate that kind of fear and worry around a process that’s completely natural and normal,” Rubalcaba said, noting that more girls are going through puberty earlier.
Everyone’s first period is different.
When Georgia Bernbaum from Maitland, Florida, got hers in sixth grade, it was something to feel proud of. “We celebrated in the locker room at my middle school, as I was finally becoming a woman,” she told Glamour.
It’s important we equip young people, especially young girls, with the language necessary to explain what is happening with their bodies. We must guarantee they are able to advocate for themselves and are aware of their bodily autonomy.
Yet, growing up in Miami, Nathalie Saladrigas didn’t talk about it with her friends at school. “I feel like it was a taboo or something you don’t talk about it at all,” she said.
Despite their varied experiences, Bernbaum and Saladrigas, both of whom are now 20, say this bill is unwarranted. Though they grew up in different parts of the state, they described receiving little to no sex education in their public school districts and said there should be more sex education in Florida – not a paired down version.
“We don’t talk about [our periods] because we have been conditioned to think that it’s something bad or something hidden. I feel like we need to overturn this narrative by providing this education to people… If not, we’re going to have young girls and young people who menstruate who do not have a clue what their body is doing,” Saladrigas said. “To spare this confusion or anxiety over it, it’s really something that should be talked about.”
“I think it’s really important we equip young people, especially young girls, with the language necessary to explain what is happening with their bodies. We must guarantee they are able to advocate for themselves and are aware of their bodily autonomy,” Bernbaum said.
A lot of girls will get their period at 10, maybe even younger. They should feel supported, they should be given the proper resources.
Understandably, many mothers are also upset by legislators’ desire to control conversations about their periods and sex in the classroom.
Monica Perez, who is 35 and a mom to two daughters in Miami, got her period when she was 10. She was the first girl in her class to get it, she said.
“I remember feeling a little confused and nervous. I didn’t really understand much about it,” Perez said, adding that while she initially went to her mom to share the news, they didn’t spend a great deal of time talking about it. So she turned to her friends, who started to ask questions: “What is it like? What do I feel?”
“Being able to talk about it with friends put me at ease. If I would have not had them to talk about it, those nervous feelings would have never gone away. My teacher was well aware, but I don’t have much memory of what that was like. I do remember it was not a bad thing that she knew,” Perez said. “They were actually really supportive because, turns out I had an ovarian cyst during one of my cycles and the pain was so bad I was hunched over in the classroom from pain.”
Asked about what this bill could mean for the next generation of young girls in Florida, like her daughters, Perez said it makes her angry.
In my home, when I have my period, I’ll say to the boys, ‘Can someone run upstairs and grab me a tampon?’ It’s not gross to them, because the human body is our body.
“Honestly this [potential] law pisses me off for so many reasons. One, it was written by a man. Two, why do legislators in Florida continue to go after children? This is an incredibly natural part of life. It’s a disservice to young women but also to boys who are going to grow up with women in their lives, possibly even daughters. Three, we are telling kids that there is something wrong with them, something to be ashamed of. A lot of girls will get their period at 10, maybe even younger. They should feel supported, they should be given the proper resources,” Perez told Glamour.
Like Perez noted, though young women and those who menstruate could be most directly impacted by the restrictions on health education, the bill could have implications for young boys, too.
Lindsay Roth, a 45-year-old nurse and mom to three elementary and middle school boys in Palm Beach County, said that regardless of gender, students need to be taught the truth about science and biology in school.
“As the mother of boys, one of whom is going through puberty right now, it’s our job. It just comes down to respect. We need to teach these boys how to respect a female body,” Roth, who’s on her sons’ parent teacher association, said.
“In my home, when I have my period, I’ll say to the boys, ‘Can someone run upstairs and grab me a tampon?’ It’s not gross to them, because the human body is our body. If we don’t take care of it and teach people how it truly works, then we don’t respect our bodies.”
Roth fears the consequences of a lack of education could be detrimental.
“If we don’t teach them the true story from a young age, stories will be misconstrued and made up. Boys are going to bully girls and destroy their self esteem, and it will be really toxic,” she said.
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