Feminism/Women's Issues

Is PMS Real?

June 7, 2016

Disclaimer: I am not seeking to illegitimize anyone’s experience with PMS or menstruation, nor I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I am simply trying to explore my own thoughts and confusions surrounding what I perceive to be PMS.

I’m expecting my period to begin in a few days, which puts me in that window of time darkly forecasted with a slightly distended abdomen, an increased appetite, and everyone’s favorite malady, a unpredictable mood. My behavior yesterday could have been chronicled in some encyclopedic entry on pre-menstruation: “Four days before her period Sarah found herself consumed with a fog of emotion she couldn’t explain, accompanied by a tight abdomen, and a compulsive desire to eat various condiments straight from their jars.” I was pissed off, and I did the thing you usually do when you know your period is coming, I said “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I’m just PMSing!” This morning I woke up in the same foul mood, allowing myself to wallow in it all the way to work, but when I sat down at my desk I found myself pondering a curious, and scandalous, question: is my PMS real? Can I turn down this fog?

The larger problem is that if you’re a woman who has been pissed off it’s likely that someone has invalidated your feelings as being PMS, or dismissed your valid feelings during your cycle because of your hormonal state. You know what I mean, you express something not-so-floral and someone says “Is it your time of the month?” I mean, shit. I can’t cry over spilled coffee/milk/pickle juice whenever I need to? For the sake of consideration, here are several feminist responses to PMS as we think of it it this culture. As a point of reference, these articles are responding to several studies claiming there is no identifiable medical cause for PMS, i.e. while symptoms may happen in the days preceding menstruation no one can find a pattern/cause as to why specific symptoms happen, or when they come on, except that we are culturally conditioned to expect them at a certain time.

PMS is a Social Construct” (Feministing.com)

Finally, reports of PMS symptoms are far more severe in women who are in or have a history of abusive relationships , are experiencing high levels of stress, feel overwhelmed by their workload, or are unhappy with their lives in general. This correlation suggests that women who are unhappy with their lives subconsciously utilize the construct of PMS as a socially acceptable outlet for the suppressed frustration and rage they feel, since expression of these emotions is widely viewed as ‘unfeminine.’

PMS and the Wandering Womb” (The Atlantic)

In their paper they note that the menstrual cycle has ‘historically been the focus of myth and misinformation, leading to ideas that constrain women’s activities.’ An association between negative mood and the menstrual cycle has a long history, first noted in the scientific literature in 1931 by gynecologist Robert Frank and psychoanalyst Karen Horney. Long before that there was the wandering womb — the notion, in the teachings of Hippocrates, that illness was due to the uterus moving around the body like a wild beast. The word hysteria is even derived from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus.

Is PMS Overblown? That’s What the Research Shows” (Ms. Magazine)

Feminist critiques of PMS as a construct point to both the ever-increasing medicalization of women’s lives and the dismissal of women’s emotions, especially anger, by attributing them to biology.

Women in cultures without a cultural understanding of PMS do not report experiencing symptoms leading up to their cycles, and furthermore in some cultures menstruation is revered and women actually report having positive mood swings. Similarly, in cultures where there is not an expectation of birth as painful and traumatic, women do not experience it with the same reported unbearable pain as many of their Western counterparts. The problem, of course, is that even if PMS isn’t a medical condition, we are socialized in specific cultures from birth (usually), so even if these conditions are psychosomatic, you can’t easily reverse a lifetime of training after discovering another possible way to view this process in the blogosphere. It also seems possible that if you can imagine a negative understanding of menstruation adding more unrest to the physical process of your period, then you can also deduce that the opposite might also be true, that a more positive view might not eliminate pain but make it a necessary evil, like, I don’t know, the pain from getting a tattoo. You know the process of a tattoo is going to hurt, but you can bear it because of the end result. This might be too far a stretch?

There’s also the fact that not all symptoms of PMS are psychosomatic, and as much as research can’t validate PMS, PMDD does exist and is not to be taken lightly. I know I will inevitably bloat because my body is preparing to eject my uterine lining, and I do experience tiredness, cramping, etc. as a direct result of what’s happening to my physically. On one hand it makes sense that if we aren’t feeling great physically we’ll get cantankerous, and I do think there are many things that can exacerbate the physical symptoms that would have to be considered in this cross-cultural evaluation. Diet and expectations of other life stress are also highly contextual and can directly impact our physical well being, not to mention environmental toxins, activity level, quality of sleep. This list could go on and on.

As I was in the process of considering PMS as a social construct (or not), I came across this article by Amber A’Lee Frost addressing the “trauma industry” and the ways in which confessional style accounts of trauma by women fit into a larger historical narrative of women as victims. To be clear, women are victims in the situations Frost is talking about, and I am not suggesting that women shouldn’t speak out about these awful incidents, but it is important to consider how we allow women to do so. The PMS narrative also seems to fall in line with this victimhood, i.e. making us victims of our own biology. Can’t I experience PMS, mood swings included, and acknowledge what’s going on as  rational, intelligent person? Translation: PMS can still be real, I can still feel/acknowledge its effects, and I can still function as a human being.

One final point of consideration: migraines. No one would deny that migraines are a valid medical condition, and yet science still fails to find direct causation and even cessation. I have a good friend that suffers from horrendous migraines and no one can tell her why they happen or how to stop them. I have no doubt that I am feeling at least some effect of PMS as I sit here typing this today, as a migraine sufferer can tell you when another headache is coming on. During the months that the timing of my cycle has been off, my brain does not fabricate symptoms, psychological or otherwise, at the time I am expecting my period, but said symptoms come on at the actual, i.e. unexpected, time that my cycle actually arrives, which means there is no way it’s something I’ve conditioned myself to feel.

So, PMS is real and it is not empowering to deny it. I’d like to be able to ride this estrogen see-saw in peace with my chocolate stained teeth (yes, I just perpetuated the menstruation/chocolate craving stereotype), and if I’m moody so be it. I will try to be more conscious of letting the moodiness simply be PMS instead of blaming it on that thing you said to be three weeks ago that pissed me off. (It didn’t, and maybe I can stop searching for reasons if I/we accept PMS as something less stigmatized than The Female Crazies.)

*Photo credit: yosuke muroya

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