(Courtesy of Cori Howard)

Last spring, my 11-year-old daughter got her period. Her early physical manifestations of maturity took me by surprise, but I didn’t want to let this huge milestone pass unmarked. I was determined to find some way to honor this rite of passage.

I wanted to give her an experience that would elevate the physical changes to her body into something powerful and positive. To offer her an antidote to the unattainable, airbrushed images she’s bombarded with every five seconds on Instagram and Snapchat that may make her feel small, ugly and unworthy. To show there are ways in which she can cherish and protect her body. To give her a taste of what it feels like to be part of a tribe, a community of women, a sisterhood, so she knows there’s an alternative to our detached, disconnected, often superficial online lives.

So I threw her a First Moon party. Blame Google for the inspiration. A brilliant ad for a company selling period starter kits had gone viral, and my daughter and I watched it several times, doubled over with laughter. In it, a girl fakes her period and her mom throws her a party.

Initially, I thought I would just copy the party in the ad, but when I started researching, I rediscovered the biblical tradition of women menstruating together in a red tent, a phenomenon I had read about in Anita Diamant’s “The Red Tent” years before. Many cultures have menstruation rituals and ways of honoring and celebrating women, while the North American mainstream has nothing.

Most women my age remember getting their periods and trying to figure it all out, embarrassed and alone. No discussion. No celebration. Nothing. We didn’t talk to our mothers about it. And we only secretly discussed it with our closest friends. I remember getting whispered instructions on how to use a tampon from the other side of a school bathroom stall when I was 14. But my friend didn’t actually know what she was talking about and I ended up wearing the tampon — still in its cardboard casing — in agony for a few hours until I gave up, removed it and swore off tampons until many years later.

Thankfully today, we are talking to our daughters more. Check out this hilarious exchange between mother and daughter about buying tampons. Its popularity is symptomatic of a major shift taking place among young girls and their mothers as they respond to the barrage of negative social media images around their bodies. Girls are starting to fight back. They are asking good, hard questions and having lengthy discussions with their moms about their bodies, their friendships and their sexuality. And although many girls may not welcome a first moon party, my daughter did.

So I hired a shaman named Nikiah Seeds. She brought her version of the red tent — a massive white yurt painted with red moons. She spent several hours adorning it with carpets, pillows, scarves, candles and carefully crafted altars with figurines of goddesses. My daughter entered with her friends, passing through the metaphorical door of womanhood, full of trepidation and excitement. The adults weren’t invited in until later.

For the first hour, the shaman led the girls in crafts, storytelling and guided meditation. She asked them to lie down and close their eyes as she told a story about a baby girl in her mother’s womb who was visited by a woman dancing down to her on a moonbeam bridge. The woman kissed the baby girl’s eyelids and placed special seeds on her belly before dancing back up to the sky. When the girls opened their eyes, each one found a red velvet pouch on her belly, full of symbolic stones and seeds.

I heard them opening their pouches with oohs and ahhs. I heard the shaman talking to them about moonstones and moon time, about menstruation rituals in other cultures, the significance of the red tent and the importance of reclaiming something that has long been considered negative. They were quiet and humbled, and seemed relieved it wasn’t at all like sex education class.

Later, I asked Nikiah what it was like in there, and she said the girls were curious, funny, open, joyful. “Without any pressure or expectations, things got real,” she said. “Girls aren’t asked often enough to show up to be themselves. We all wear masks to get through the day. But in a young girl’s life, there are so few times an elder says, take it off. What is under there is really beautiful.”

My friends and I were then invited into the tent to impart our wisdom as women and mothers. We entered into a space that felt light and magical. But as soon as I started reading my prepared words to my daughter, I broke down. “Love your body,” I sobbed. “It will never be perfect. Perfect is boring. You are not.”

I passed the wooden talking stick to my friend. “You have so many firsts ahead of you,” she read. “First kiss. First love. Choose wisely. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from them and move forward. Don’t ever let anyone hold you back from being you.”

Then it was another friend’s turn: “Listen to the voice inside you even when it’s soft, uncertain and saying something different from everyone around you,” she said. “That voice has truth and power. Trust it. Trust yourself. Take chances and you will soar.”

Listening to their words, I wished I had been able to have a red tent ceremony, to have received this kind of female wisdom, to have understood, way back then, the importance of stories passed down and the power and beauty of my body. I also wished I could stop crying. My daughter and her friends seemed freaked out by my uncontrollable tears. But what happened next was totally magical. My vulnerability opened the floodgates for the others in the tent.

Unbidden, the girls started passing around the talking stick and sharing stories with one another about what their friendship with my daughter meant to them. Almost all of them cried. All of this emotional sharing led to a sudden feeling of deepened connections and we all sat there, full of love and gratitude. It was the closest to a spiritual moment I’ve had in a long time.

When the ceremony was over, my daughter led her friends outside, into the sunlight, for a piñata and cupcakes. I didn’t want the entire day to be heavy and serious. Soon, they were all on the trampoline, playing tag and truth — back, so easily, to being 11.

The next morning, my daughter said, “I wish I was still in the red tent.”

“Me, too,” I said.

But I knew I had given her a special gift, a talisman she could hold in difficult times and an understanding of her connection to a long chain of women before her, women who took the time to slow down, pay attention and see the magic in our bodies and in our lives.

Cori Howard has written for newspapers, magazines, TV and radio and is the editor of the anthology, “Between Interruptions: 30 Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood.” Find her at corihoward.com.

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