I, like many women, am prone to PMS.
This is not unusual for women in the United States, and it’s often cited as a reason for “bad behavior,” such as expressing anger, taking time to oneself, and eating pleasurable foods. These are not things that women (at least, many of the white, privileged, middle-class women that I know) are often encouraged to do. We are instead often required to be selfless as mothers, workers, friends, and partners; we are kind and compassionate and never raise our voices. We are neither assertive nor aggressive, but passive and yielding in both work and home environments – encouraged simply to be “nice,” pretty much from childhood. We are discouraged from taking up physical space and shamed into losing weight or derided for eating more than salad. Of course, we also have to be tough and assertive and take no crap and be strong, but that’s a topic for another post. Thanks, double bind!
So when we’re PMSing? We violate all those expectations. We are more likely to respond harshly to negative situations; we are more likely to be “selfish” and take time to ourselves; we are more likely to gorge ourselves on chocolate or ice cream or whatever our particular vice is.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that PMS is fake, nor am I saying that this is a thing that women do on purpose in order to manipulate their environments without having to take responsibility for their actions. (When discussing this post with others, they often said, “But it’s not an excuse for bad behavior!” No. It’s not.) I’m saying instead that it’s a logical response to an illogical situation. Being granted a reprieve from perfection is a relief. And cramps are indubitably real anyone would be cranky in that much pain.
Unfortunately, this reprieve is only partial. Like Coco Papy said in her post two years ago on the role and treatment of women’s anger, instead of being viewed as legitimate or a sign of strength, angry women are seen as “crazy.” Women’s anger is discouraged; as we all have heard ad nauseam, assertive women bosses are more likely to be seen as bitches and less likely to be seen as competent. See, for instance, the recent brouhaha with the New York Times where editor Jill Abramson was disliked for being “brusque.” Her male counterpart was described at one point as punching a wall, but instead of becoming the subject of a critical Politico article, he earned the staff’s loyalty. Mystifying. Women of color receive even worse treatment than white women in their expression of anger, often being framed as an “angry black woman” regardless of the reason or way of expressing that anger. Just look at Michelle Obama’s treatment by the media. Angry Asian women are “cute,” or “tiger moms” – and the stereotypes continue.
We are tired of being asked if we’re “on the rag” or to “take our Midol before we come to class.” Because women’s emotions should not be inherently ridiculous. But still, there’s the question: are these feelings legitimate?
I think the answer is yes.
Physical reactions to mental factors, both subconscious and otherwise, are well-documented. In Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, author Asti Hustvedt discusses the history of hysteria: an ailment that was and is unique to its time, primarily impacted women, and preyed on a particular type of woman – generally, one with little to no social power. Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve became medical celebrities, drawing huge audiences to the hospital theatre to demonstrate their odd symptoms. Hustvedt suggests that their behavior was often subconsciously communicated to them by their doctors, particularly the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Not, however, that the doctors were intentionally duping their audiences, nor that the women were acting – both appeared to believe genuinely in the ailment.
The same could be said of instances of witchcraft (or victims thereof). Simply because the stimulus is not real does not make the impact any less so. Take the case of the Salem Witch Trials. I draw here from The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. While Carol F. Karlsen’s major conclusions regard the gender implications of the witch trials (most conveniently solitary women, many conveniently with unusual levels of social power or money or property that would then pass into the hands of greedy accusers), she also discusses the very real psychological consequences of a rigid social structure. She argues that while the “possessed” women and girls were suffering from very real fits, they were a symptom of frustration with patriarchy and the limited social roles available to them, rather than possession by Satan.
Think too, for instance, of your teenage drinking days. We’ve all heard the stories of young imbibers who had one or two beers and were then staggering around, acting silly and disinhibited. I know someone who was given a non-alcoholic something-or-other and told it was vodka; she was first unusually flirtatious, then vomiting in the bushes a few hours later. Our subconscious expectations impact our lived experiences.
Scholars like Shirley Lee have found that women who identify less with the PMS label have more positive experiences of their periods, and vice versa. Others, like Emily Martin in her book Woman in the Body, note that PMS and menstruation in general provide a “backstage area” where women can retreat and preserve autonomy, despite confinement. And here’s a fascinating fact: according to Jane M. Ussher and Janette Perz, PMS is rarely recorded in women women outside of the Western world. There are no documented instances of it in China, India, or Hong Kong. That in and of itself (as well as an absence of thoroughly convincing biological explanations) has led many people to say that PMS isn’t real. Some women are pleased by this, because it’s high time we stop pathologizing women’s behavior. Others are glad because they’re tired of monthly expectations undermining the perception of their work. I’m not so sure that it’s the right move, though.
Amanda Marcotte recently published an article in Slate asking whether PMS is culture-bound. She cites Carol Tavris’ argument that, “PMS persists because it gives women an excuse to express anger and irritation in a culture that expects them to be unendingly cheerful and pleasant.” Yep. Ussher and Perz would agree; in their interviews with self-defined PMS sufferers, they found that PMS is more than something that one passively suffers from; rather, it’s a constantly negotiated event, experienced by autonomous agents. They suggest that the, “Reframing of “˜symptoms’ as normal change, behavioural coping strategies, and self-monitoring, can effectively reduce premenstrual distress.”
Perhaps PMS is an example of our subconscious need to be real human beings, subject to negative emotions (that we then express) and permitted to eat things that we’ve been told we shouldn’t. It’s a reason to stay in bed a little bit longer, or read a silly book, or watch a sappy movie. It’s a disinhibiting factor, allowing us to express our displeasure with our partners and parents and friends and say things that we’ve been meaning to for weeks, things that have been bothering us but we’ve been overlooking to try to be nice. PMS allows us to recharge and take time to ourselves at home when ordinarily we would have obligations and a happy face to show to the world (And let’s not even get in to street harassers telling us to, “Smile, baby, you’re too pretty to not share!” Ugh.).
It sounds to me like all of us could use some chocolate, a good fight (you know, so long as it’s productive), and a little extra time in the bath.