(Sorry for what looks like a typo in the title. Still trying to figure out why the new theme is doing that.)
In an understandable effort to throw off decades of sexism and prevent gaslighting, some feminists seem determined to negate the idea that women are subject to monthly hormonal fluctuations that may make them sensitive or irrational. As much as I wish that were universally true, it’s not. In the midst of a battle for equal pay and respect in the professional realm, it seems strictly detrimental to admit this, but to deny it is to marginalize the experience of a subset of women who deserve respect as much as anyone else. It is a continuation of the problematic trend of making women in the workplace equal by making them, functionally, men. Freeze your eggs so you can lean in for longer, don’t admit that your period affects you, don’t let your emotions affect you. That’s not equality. Or at least it’s not the kind I want. But then, I’m biased. I’ve struggled with PMDD or extreme PMS or whatever the hell it is since I was a teen. (Seeing as you can’t ethically poke around the brains of hormonal women, the science isn’t well established.)
We may not know about the chemical causes and such, but I can attest that the effects are real. I assume most people can relate to the notion of a critical voice that niggles at the backs of their brains. Maybe it says you’re a failure, or you’re fat, or you’re unlovable, but your logical brain can usually shove the genie back into its bottle. Now, imagine that your logical brain switches places with that voice for several straight days. Suddenly, every bad thing seems real and true. You know in the back of your mind that it’s wrong and that you should have hope, but there’s nothing you can do to fix it. Everything in your life and interpersonal relations that has bothered you even the slightest bit for the past month (or longer) is blown out of proportion and the totality of it all makes you feel, well, crazy. Then add headaches, insomnia/fatigue, achiness, bloating, and ridiculous breast swelling/pain to the mix–and, later, nausea caused by the birth control that’s supposed to be helping this whole awful periods thing–and tell the afflicted woman to act the same as a man. HAH!
Maybe my topsy-turvy brain is being unreasonable to think that I deserve equality and respect as much as women without PMS/PMDD/whatever, but I hope not. It is, after all, a female-specific condition like pregnancy, and I think we’ve come to the consensus that pregnancy should not make a woman “less than.”
Wikipedia estimates that as many as 85% of women experience discomfort associated with normal ovulatory function, but because there are no lab tests we can run at present to diagnose PMS or PMDD, estimates for the former range from 3% to 30% depending on the definition, and from 3% to 8% for the latter. Again, PMDD may or may not be a separate thing; we can’t say “serotonin levels above this concentration are PMS and above this one are PMDD.” Regardless, it is clear anecdotally and otherwise that periods have negative effects on most women’s lives.
Professional female athletes are starting to speak out about the impact their periods have on their performances, which is an excellent first step. I’m afraid, however, their momentum will be lost when it comes time for women who work in office settings to pipe up about the impact of the mental and other effects on their jobs. We still live in a culture where physical health is legitimate and mental health is not, where the quantitative prevails over the qualitative. The effects of pain, discomfort, and hormone fluctuations on women of childbearing age are real and we need to stop pretending otherwise.
Take me, for example. I pride myself on striving to be logical and fair. I aim to say what I mean and mean what I say, so I don’t play mind games. I’m someone with no other [clinical] mental health issues who is perfectly socially functional except when the PMDD (or whatever you want to call it) strikes. When it does, though, I feel like shit and I bawl like a baby at that IAMS commercial, St. Jude commercials, stories about little kids and their pets… I can’t speak for all women but it’s not a fabricated excuse for me to be catty, or whiny, or self-indulgent (although sometimes that does help a little), and I’d so much rather not have it. But I do, at least for now. And I do my damndest to take responsibility for my actions, even when I don’t feel like me, and to conduct myself as “normally” as possible. (And yes, I’m sure there also exist women who use their cycles as an excuse, but humans use excuses. Get over it. In fact, they use plausible ones that other people actually experience because they’re credible.) So for the love of chocolate, don’t throw women like me under the bus because you think we’re faking it or because you’re ashamed to admit that there are relevant biological differences between males and females. (And if you think no one’s doing this, Google “stop using your period as an excuse” and get back to me.)
All [women] are equal, but some [women] are more equal than others. – certain feminists
As for what to do about it, I have no idea. Menstrual leave policies are fairly common in Asia, but it seems both like a barrier to use if you have to disclose why you’re “out sick” and a barrier to workforce equality if all hiring managers are looking at all women, wondering how many more productive hours they could get for hiring a man instead. And that sucks. But if I’m being honest, depending on the task at hand, I can be less productive when my hormones go haywire. I’d like to think that I more than make up for it the rest of the month, when I’m an efficiency machine, but I can’t prove that offhand, I certainly wouldn’t bring it up in an interview, and the free market has every reason to choose a guy over me on this basis. If you knew a job candidate would get the flu every 28 days, would you hire him? Probably not. If you knew that he had bipolar disorder, would you? Probably not. So for women, of whom a subset gets physically and/or mentally ill each month, how do we pursue a “different but equal” standard in the workforce?
My best guess is that we start by making mental wellness a universal goal, just like more companies are making physical wellness a goal. We push for better work-life balance for everyone and let women use that increased time off or flexibility to do what makes sense for them. We should continue to fund research into the metabolic causes that underlie mental health issues, given our abysmal understanding at present, and into the genetics that might predispose people to these disregulations. We also need to make it okay to talk about things related to periods. I’m not suggesting that everyone go around talking about their personal health problems at work constantly, but we do need to find the right setting for some education. There is so. freakin. much. misinformation about women’s bodies and it needs to stop.
The kind of feminism I want to fight for acknowledges that women aren’t monolithic and chooses to trust them–especially in the absence of reliable data–with regard to their individual experiences of womanhood. It also believes women don’t have to act like men to be valuable. It knows that there are biological differences between men and women and, rather than allowing them to be tools of denigration, it gets its hands dirty with nuance in an effort to find solutions that are fair to all.