PMS‑ing May Be a Sexist Stereotype, but It’s Also a Real Thing
PMS-ing has been largely bastardized in pop culture to mean when a person, usually a woman, is being unreasonable, unfair — bitchy. The accusation — at least that’s what it sounds like — of PMS-ing is meant to devalue the person’s opinion, reasoning, and actions by portraying them as stemming largely from uncontrollable emotions spurred by raging hormones while they’re on their period. Feminists have waged war on this trope, written scathing think-pieces about it, and engaged in general hand-wringing against those who dare to call a woman “too emotional.”
But what if once a month — some, perhaps not all — people who menstruate do become unreasonable and unpredictably bitchy? And what if it is because of the hormones? What if acknowledging this very real, horrible thing that happens monthly is not rude or sexist, but simply … run-of-the-mill biology? Because PMS-ing is a real thing, folks.
But that doesn’t mean you can dismiss people because of it.
Called premenstrual syndrome, as many as three out of every four women have experienced it at some point in their lives, according to the Mayo Clinic, which adds that symptoms tend to recur “in a predictable pattern.” These symptoms include anxiety, depressed moods, crying spells, mood swings involving irritability and anger, a change in libido, poor concentration, social withdrawal, and trouble falling asleep. For people who experience severe pain alongside their period, the physical toll can exacerbate the abovementioned mood issues.
All of these symptoms can occur due to hormonal changes in the body — mainly, fluctuations in serotonin levels before periods begin that affect mood and make the person more prone to depression and fatigue.
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For the longest time, doctors and scientists have played with the idea of considering PMS a valid medical condition. In 1996, sociologist Susan Markens shed light upon the “paradox” PMS presents: “On the one hand, feminists acknowledge the importance of women’s complaints receiving medical attention so that women’s reported discomforts are seen as legitimate and not as a product of their imagination,” Markens writes for the journal Gender and Society. “On the other hand, there is fear that if the syndrome gains legitimacy, women will be seen as emotional, irrational, and unreliable, victims of their own biology, and once again will be reduced to their ‘raging hormones.'” Markens adds that while women themselves have been pushing to have PMS recognized by the medical establishment, the fear that others won’t understand, or worse, will denigrate, their lived experience has spurred defiance against acknowledging PMS — for example, the ubiquitous feminist advice instructing people never to ask a woman if she’s PMS-ing.
This advice comes from a largely altruistic, feminist place; the emotions of people who menstruate, especially anger or irritation, have long been attributed to their reproductive anatomy. This prevents people from taking the menstruating person’s feelings at face-value; what if they’re upset about legitimate things, but everyone around them keeps explaining it away with hormones, preventing them from being taken seriously? The best bet, it would seem, is to steer clear of the subject altogether, especially if the only alternative is to make fun of the person who is menstruating. And when looking at how the internet has converged on menstruating tips and tricks to reduce PMS — by and large focusing on how not to lose your man while in the throes of PMS angst — it’s understandable feminists would have this knee-jerk reaction.
But there is a third alternative, in which we’re all feminists and never encroach on another person’s agency or try to dismiss their feelings, while at the same time giving space to people who are PMS-ing to be horrible if they so wish. The answer here is to embrace the grey area in between, to afford menstruating persons, even the hard-to-be-around ones, agency and respect.
People are usually allowed to ricochet between extreme states of being — from completely rational to foot-thumping, tantrum-y, and aggressive — especially men. But people who menstruate are expected to don cheerful, sickeningly rational, and calm personas … until nature interrupts this default state. As soon as the period passes, they’re expected to bounce back to ‘normal,’ and this normalcy otherizes PMS-ing further. But what if we normalized bouts of insecurity, paranoia, and irrationality in all genders? People who menstruate experience these, as does the rest of the world. Normalizing mood issues outside of menstruation can help normalize them as PMS, so people wouldn’t feel the need to attack or dismiss, and feminists wouldn’t feel the need to defend, and in defending, also dismiss. We could just exist — in our periodically crazy, asshole-like glory.