There is something insulting about the image of a carefree, painless menstruating woman. You’ve seen her, probably in tampon ads, smiling and frolicking on the beach or perfecting her headstand near the front of her yoga class. I am sure these low-flow, emotionally balanced women exist in real life – they’re probably on the pill and so their periods are a light, two-day affair – but they are a small subset of the menstruating population. The rest of us experience our periods through our aching muscles (no, it’s not from yoga), the crime scene in our pants, and what feels like an angry wolverine trying to claw its way out of our uterus.
And through the particular emotional surge that makes us wonder, “Am I going crazy?”
Not all women suffer from premenstrual syndrome. In reality, somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent of us get bloating, headaches, and mood swings in the week or so before our period that are bad enough to be technically called PMS. Almost all of us have experienced at least one of these symptoms at some point, though. And PMS is often conflated with the cramping and aches that coincide with the first few days of our period, too. But the physical pain of an imminent period often pales in comparison to the short temper, quick tears, and easy frustration that can go along with it.
Even if we aren’t ashamed to menstruate, it’s messy and annoying at best, and completely debilitating at worst
Although most of us feel free to make the occasional joke about PMS these days, over the years women have gotten a pretty strong cultural message: if you’re really suffering every month, your crazy-making PMS symptoms belong at home – where you are free to eat whole chocolate bars and and cry at every elimination on The Voice – not in the workplace, or god forbid, on the beach. Public spaces are for women who can play through the pain and swallow their tears. If you must go outside, be discreet about the fact that you’re bleeding like mad. Tampax advertises one of its products as "protection that you can keep secret."
Tampax probably don’t realize that they’re playing into centuries of pressure on women to shut up about how emotionally draining it can be to bleed for five days every month. Before the modern medical era, period-related symptoms were broadly classified as “hysteria”. Confessing that your hormones had you feeling a little “off” was enough to get you certified and locked up. Second-wave feminists in the 1970s, who were fighting for women to be paid and treated as equals to men, pushed back against the idea that PMS was a debilitating condition. “If Men Could Menstruate,” Gloria Steinem wrote in her 1986 essay, they “would brag about how long and how much.” The implication being that in a non-patriarchal society, women would be loud and proud about every used pad and every mood swing.
Most women have had an angry comment or emotional reaction dismissed with, “You must be on your period”
But for most of us, they’re not actually great. Even if we aren’t ashamed to menstruate, it’s messy and annoying at best, and debilitating at worst. Even now that science confirms that many of us are dealing with a storm of hormones and very real pain, there are still strong social incentives to keep quiet about them. At least once in our lives, most women have had an angry comment or emotional reaction dismissed with, “You must be on your period.” And so we keep to ourselves (“I should be shunned by society and put in a red tent during PMS when I'm a crazy, stressed out, crying mess,” one woman says), or we claim that PMS is not a big deal at all. We might not be smiling on the beach in white spandex, but we discreetly hand off tampons to each other on our way to the bathroom. We work a full day even though our heads are pounding and none of our clothes seem to fit right. We try to hide the fact that we’ve been crying at a radio advertisement as if it were a rerun of Grey’s Anatomy.
But maybe that’s changing. In February, top British tennis player Heather Watson told the BBC that she lost her Australian Open match due to "girl things”, by which she meant dizziness, nausea, and low energy levels associated with her period. Some praised her openness; others claimed she was making excuses. Several other women athletes spoke up and said that their period pain was bad enough they dreaded it arriving on important competition days. Those of us who aren’t professional athletes can all recall important moments at work that happened to coincide with PMS. Several countries require employers to offer “menstrual leave” to women who experience extreme symptoms. Japan’s law was written in 1947, a time when many workplaces lacked sanitary bathroom facilities, but some women still take menstrual leave today. In 2013, a Russian legislator proposed a law that would grant women two days off every month, to accommodate their periods, and he was quickly condemned by Russian feminists. It’s complicated. For those of us who don’t wish to be defined by our gender, a special law focused on “easing the burden” on women workers seems patronising.
In countries where paid sick leave is the norm, special menstrual leave laws are unnecessary. Taking a day off for period-related reasons is justifiable. In the UK, you don’t need a doctor’s fit note if you’re off sick for fewer than seven days. For most women, that’s plenty of time for the worst of the aches and cramps to subside, along with the emotions. The problem is that most of us have so thoroughly internalized the “play through the pain” idea that we don’t feel entitled to stay home and work from the comfort of our beds, where there’s no one to irritate us, just the warm hum of the laptop balanced on our lower abdomen. Acknowledging the toll that our periods can take – and adjusting our lives accordingly – can feel like a feminist failure.
Confessing, “I can’t come to dinner because I’m bloated and could cry at any minute” is harder than saying, “I’m staying home with a cold”
Openly embracing the emotional and psychological effects of PMS can prove even trickier. “In the days leading up to menstruation, when emotional sensitivity is heightened, women may feel less insulated, more irritable or dissatisfied,” psychiatrist Julie Holland recently wrote in The New York Times. “I tell my patients that the thoughts and feelings that come up during this phase are genuine, and perhaps it’s best to re-evaluate what they put up with the rest of the month.” The truth could be the opposite of what popular culture has long told us: It’s not that women are overly sensitive when they’re on their period. It’s that we feel restricted from expressing our real emotions when we aren’t. Wrap your head around that one. Or talk it over with your own psychiatrist.
The notion that our periods have no impact on women’s lives whatsoever is as false as that blue liquid they use in maxipad advertisements. We aren’t shy about discussing this fact amongst ourselves – because other women understand that you can have period pains and mood swings every month and do your job just as well as men – but when it comes to claiming PMS symptoms publicly in front of male friends or coworkers, or even giving ourselves permission to slow down for a few days, women tend to clam up. Confessing, “I can’t come to dinner because I’m bloated and could cry at any minute” is still a lot harder than telling a little white lie like, “I’m staying home with a cold.” More often than not, we swallow two Nurofen along with our irritable feelings, and force ourselves to go out anyway. We’ve gotten so used to it that we don’t even think about it. Maybe we aren’t consciously trying to be the carefree woman on the beach in yoga pants, but she’s haunting us. The trick is to realize that we don’t have to smile back.
Picture: Advertising Archives