If you're reading this right now, the odds are high that you got your first period in middle school — the average age of first menstruation today is 12.5. Based on my own anecdotal research, I'd say the odds are also high that if you got your first period at that age, at least one older woman in your life remarked about how "young" you were to be dealing with ye old Crimson Menace. That's because, historically speaking, you probably were.
It happened to me and most of my friends: as we spent 6th grade trying to figure out exactly what these "stick-on wings" were all about, our moms — who all claimed to have gotten their periods around the age of 16 — clucked their tongues about how "young" we were, as if we had gotten our periods at that age on purpose or something. It annoyed me (I didn't want to mess with pantyliners at 11! I just wanted to give my American Girl Dolls bad haircuts!), but it also made me wonder: were they actually right? Had the age at which we get our first period really dropped that sharply?
There's been a lot of discussion recently about how American children (both male and female) are entering puberty at earlier and earlier ages. Early puberty is attributed to everything from better nutrition to poorer nutrition genetics to environmental pollution to indoor lighting. And while I would never say that we can't or shouldn't find this concerning, when you look at some history, the narrative of the steadily declining age of first menstruation isn't entirely accurate. It actually seems that the average age has fluctuated over time.
So at what ages have women typically gotten their first periods throughout history, and why? Let's take a look.
1. The Early Middle Ages (5th Century-12th Century)
Average Age: 14
There's not a ton of historical records about the age of first menstruation before the Middle Ages. In his book, Women's Bodies, Edward Shorter estimates that most ancient Roman women got their periods between the ages of 13 or 14.
Similarly, historians believe that girls in the Middle Age got their first periods around the same age, according to "The Age of Menarche in Medieval Europe," published in the September 1973 issue of Human Biology. Records from the era report girls getting their period at ages as young as 12 and as old as 15, but the article's writers quote research suggesting that 14 remained the average age of first menstruation until the Renaissance.
2. The Renaissance (1300s-1600s)
Average Age: 16
According to Shorter's research, by the 17th century — the end of the Renaissance era — the average age of first period had risen to 16. Shorter attributes this to widespread malnutrition in the era; Renaissance girls who were underfed typically went into a state of delayed puberty. He also notes a class divide among the age of first period, quoting an anonymous Austrian author in 1610 who claimed that, "The peasant girls of this Country in general menstruate much later than the daughters of the townsfolk or the aristocracy...The townsfolk have usually born several children before the peasant girls have yet menstruated."
This meant that early puberty was seen as something of a luxury, since, you know, you needed to have adequate nutrition.
3. The Victorian Era (1800s)
Average Age: 14
The Victorian era — known for its bone-crushing women's clothing and quaintly charming pornography — also represents the beginning of the downward slope in the age of women's first periods, from the high hit in the Renaissance.
The average age of first menstruation among European women in 1860 was 16.6 years old. But according to a publication put out after the 1901 annual meeting of the American Gynecological Society, the average age of first period among Victorian girls had dropped to 14.
If you look at the American Gynecological Society report from the era (and plow through their horribly classist talk about "the girl of the highest refinement and education" and "the American born of laboring classes"), you'll see that again, a difference of about one year is pointed out between when upper class and working class women begin menstruating — 13.5 years of age versus 14.5, respectively — implying that nutrition probably still played a role in who started menstruating when.
4. The 20th Century
Average Age: 12-13
In 1928, Howard Kelly, a gynecology professor at John Hopkins University, claimed that the average age to get your period for American girls was 13.9. Surveys of British teens in the 1950s and '60s found that they typically got their first period around 13.5 years of age. A 2012 New York Times article reported that the average age for women getting their first period in the 1970s was 12.8.
But even with all of our more plausible sounding theories as to why the drop occured — that the rise of indoor lighting impacted women's melatonin production, which in turn impacted how their bodies released reproductive hormones; improved nutrition and hormones in milk and food; exposure to chemicals that interfere with or alter hormone production — no single one can be pointed to as the agreed-upon cause of the drop in age of first menstruation.
Average Age: 12.5
Which brings us to right here, right now. Today's girl gets her period when she's around 12 and a half — not a far jump from 1970s average of 12.8.
That's not to say that precocious puberty is not a serious medical concern with very real effects on people's physical and mental health. That's also not to say that there are not very real and unfortunate health risks out there for those of us who got our periods early — according to the American Cancer Society, women who start their periods before the age of 12 have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer than their peers who got their periods a bit later. There are also, unfortunately, other risks.
But it is worth remembering that, rather than being on a straight downward slope, the age at which we get our first periods has been all over the place throughout history — so don't feel bad if you were "young" or "old," because really, it's all relative.
Images: Giphy (5)