PMS and Sexism
So many women I know, including myself sometimes, are ashamed of their PMS symptoms. Even in San Francisco, the most liberal city, women come into therapy and sheepishly confess “I get really bad PMS,” as if it’s a sin or a personal flaw. They want to know how to manage it, how to be less volatile to the people around them. Sometimes PMS is the one octopus leg that they can’t wrestle down, and they think the problem is that they’re not wrestling enough.
Our embarrassment comes out of what’s called “Masculine Normativity”— the cultural belief that normal is male, and what deviates from “male” is abnormal and inferior. Masculine normativity dictates that women should not have fluctuating moods (as if men don’t!), that we should remain roughly the same temperament week to week, month to month. Western patriarchy adds to the shaming by insisting that there is a state called “rational” or “intellectual” that is somehow separate from “emotional” and “embodied.”
The core of sexism is this belief that women are supposed to be like men (and the reverse, men should not be like women), and when the myriad of ways that we are not like men become apparent, we are mocked, shamed, and silenced. “It’s just your PMS,” we hear. “You won’t feel this way next week.” (As if that makes it not real this week).
In fact, I’ve noticed that women are afraid of expressing pretty much any emotion because there is a mockery of each one, a caricature of THAT woman or THAT girl that we all try so hard to not be. Love or infatuation means you are silly and naive and easy to take advantage of, or else you are too needy and demanding. Rage and anger means you are a bitch, or a bitter ex. Grief means you are weak. Insistence makes you a nagging girlfriend or wife. These caricatures are all sexist tropes, tools of the patriarchy, aimed at severing a woman’s connection to her own heart and soul and intuition.
The most piercing accusation seems to be that you are PMS-ing. Culturally, that’s just understood as a bad and shameful state. Women go to great lengths to try to manage their PMS, to not have others notice it. They try to stuff their PMS-y feelings down.
Women’s Health Expert Dr. Christiane Northrup has a different take on PMS. She sees it as the MOST important week for a woman. It’s the time to attend and listen to your feelings, she asserts, not the time to explain away, ignore, or tolerate them begrudgingly. In an interview, Dr. Northrup explained:
What I found years ago was that the women with the most severe PMS were the ones who had suffered the most abuse in childhood. The beauty of the menstrual cycle and our connection with the moon is that it literally connects us with the ebb and flow of creativity. You become very vulnerable, pre-menstrually, to the unfinished business in your life and you suffer to the degree that there is still some unfinished business in your life. Most of the unfinished business in our lives, by the way, just comes down to an iteration of the belief [that] I’m not enough and I’m not loveable.
In the same interview, Dr. Northrup continues to describe how PMS and menopause are related on both the soul-level and the neurobiological level:
What usually happens at midlife—and remember it’s a process not an event, so it’s a 6–13 year process. What usually happens is you become irritable about the things that you were willingly doing for the past 20 years. Folding the towels, doing all of the shopping, cooking the meals, cleaning up after everybody, trying to fit in and have everyone love you. Well, what happens is—if you have put yourself last, which many women do—you’re going to begin to become irritated by this continuing self-sacrifice, because your soul is knocking on the door saying, “What about me?”
And your soul is aided and abetted by your hormones because estrogen dominance will create a kind of epinephrine-like cortico-estrogen stress hormone that knocks on the amygdala and the forebrain, where the memories are stored. All of the memories of having been done wrong by someone will come up. You’ll remember them. Many women remember abuse that they never even thought of or they had forgotten long ago.
So, generally, the wakeup call comes as you taking a stand for yourself. Now, what would be great is if you understood that the day or two before your period and the first three days of your bleeding were sacred times, when you’re more in touch with the dictates of your soul. If that were the case, then all during your cycling years, you could tune it to the dictates of your soul and you would not need to be hit over the head with a hammer at midlife.
PMS gives us women a chance to see what most needs our attention, to take off the mask that we might be wearing in our daily work and family lives. It’s too easy for men to wear the mask— the system of patriarchy has even glorified the mask, mocking those with the courage to take it off. Men can lie to themselves all the time without realizing they’re doing it. As bell hooks writes:
The wounded child inside many males is a boy who, when he first spoke his truths, was silenced by paternal sadism, by a patriarchal world that did not want him to claim his true feelings… When men and women punish each other for truth telling, we reinforce the notion that lies are better. To be loving we willingly hear the other’s truth, and most important, we affirm the value of truth telling. Lies may make people feel better, but they do not help them to know love.
Do you hear it? For four or five glorious and terrible days, women become less able to lie, which means we bring the gift of truth into all of our relationships. And truth is always a gift, even if it is a tearful, angry, splotchy-faced, tirading gift.
When women come into my office in more distress than usual, often I ask where in their cycle they are that week. This is not to shame them, or to suggest their PMS feelings are “not real” and they should hunker down and wait it out—but so we can use those five precious days as a time to see, hold, and mourn. PMS makes us less able to engage our usual defenses, which might mean we are in more emotional pain, but it also gives us a chance to address the very center of what’s wrong, of what has likely been very wrong for many years. PMS lets us, slowly over time, clean out the infection that we work so hard to keep bandaged up the other eighty percent of the time.
Of course, there is certainly a time and place for comforting yourself rather than exploring your feelings, for choosing to do something fun rather than start a fight, for acknowledging that this week you will feel everything at an 11 on the one-to-ten scale and your thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt. Sometimes that’s the right choice. But I do agree with Dr. Northrup that PMS is a gift that allows us to know ourselves more deeply, and to care for ourselves with ever-greater love and compassion.
Honor your PMS.
Bring it to therapy.
See it for the gift that it is.