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PMS is real. The „premenstrual syndrome“ plagues about 20-40 percent of menstruating people every month and can be summarized as a rather uncomfortable state. Headache, mood swings, sleep problems, weight gain, tightness in the chest, abdominal pain, indigestion, loss of appetite or food cravings (or alternating between them), acne, circulatory problems and mental disorders such as depression, irritability, aggressiveness, etc. – so what we call negative side effects of menstruation now – can go along with it.
Approximately 5 percent of all people with PMS suffer so much from the complaints that they are not able to keep up with their everyday life.¹ (In Italy, politicians are discussing in parliament whether to grant those affected by particularly strong mental or physical period problems up to three days‘ paid leave –this desired regulation is often absurdly described as a „menstrual holiday“…that sounds like skipping school, chilling in the sun, drinking cocktails and exuberance …)
Five percent. Five out of one hundred.
But who cares. It is much easier if we lump them all in together. Yes! All menstruating people are all hysterical, bitchy or moody creatures – in any case, they should not be taken seriously.
That even the basic possession of a uterus is enough to accuse a woman of „hysteria“ or other hormonal insanity, was showed to us by the master of well-thought-out contributions himself: In 2015 Donald Trump obviously had some troubles to defend himself against the allegations of being a sexist in an interview with the former Fox presenter Megyn Kelly.
In a later conversation with a journalist, he described Kelly’s questions as „unfair“ and justified himself:
„… she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions, and, you know, there’s blood coming out of her eyes, uh, blood coming out of her, wherever, but uh, she was, uh, in my opinion , she was, uh, off-base … “
-Donald Trump, 2015
When Trump was told by his advisors that this misogynist commentary did not live up to the fine presidential style, he tweeted that he had meant her nose. Sure, of course! Everybody knows that people with nosebleeds are aggressive, irritable or in a shit mood for no other reason!
Incidentally, this was not the only appearance of PMS in the US election campaign. (As you can see menstruation is political in so many ways).
The candidate Hilary Clinton (age 70) was publicly questioned in a US newspaper as a potential president. An obviously very concerned citizen wrote in the Williamsport PA Sun Gazette „What if that time of month comes and she is sick at the same time?“ According to him, of course, he wanted only to ensure the health of the politician and the well-being of the holy nation – but in no case be sexist. Sure.
Was he worried that Hillary would be waking up in the morning and decide to start a war because of frustration due to migraines and loss of appetite followed by a munchie attack?!
In addition to the fact that a woman in her 70’s is unlikely to menstruate, studies show that complications with PMS have no bearing on people’s political decision making (sad that such studies are even needed …) ².
This makes us come to the question: Why do so many people think that women are hysterical – especially at the time of their menstruation?
To answer this, we need to go back about 2000 years – to the usual suspects in „creative puzzles about female sexuality and psyche“. The ancient Greeks. Hippocrates – also known as the „father of medicine“ – described the uterus as the „cause of 1000 evils“, which was happily accepted by many of his colleagues. In this way, if something unfavorable happened, you always had a scapegoat. So simple, but so brilliant.
From then on, women were repeatedly referred to as chronically ill – the reason for that was the possession of a uterus. In the 19th century, this strange „gynecological disease“ was called „hysteria“ (hysteria = uterus in Greek, how creative).
Interestingly enough, women who were unmarried, working, courageous, independent or even political were often considered „hysterical“.
Overall, it was agreed at this time that menstruating women should spare themselves from both, physical or mental endeavor. Doctors said that female education or „mental effort“, occupation or early sexual maturity or masturbation could cause painful periods or other problems (such as hysteria). Better yet, locking menstruating women into a dark room with no books or any other opportunity to engage cognitively or intellectually.
As a therapy for rebelliousness and (similar) menstrual problems gynecologists at this time recommended marriage as soon as possible. Other common „treatments“ in the 19th century were also (not ranked by cruelty here):
- Leeches on the labia,
- Pump the uterus full of blood until the blood vessels are unable to withstand the pressure and burst
- Use of electricity
- Influx of chloroform vapours into the vagina.
- Use of opioids and cocaine (German doctor Wilhelm Fließ reported enthusiastically that the menstrual pain was blown away within 5-8 minutes).
Furthermore, many resorted to operational treatments against „hysteria“. Thousands of women who were seen as „periodically insane“ had their uterus removed or their ovaries cut out because suddenly someone had said that the „labile female nervous system“ is caused by the ovaires“.
(In my opinion, looking back at this history, maybe women do actually deserve a little „menstrual holiday“, as reparations, so to say.)
For a long time the picture of the psychologically restricted woman with period was kept in society – even in a legal way. Until the 1980s, women who committed a crime while menstruating (and they could prove that) were given less punishment. Menstruation was seen a mitigating factor. (Similar to the influence of alcohol, or drugs today.)
And even today, sayings like „she’s only moody because she is on her period“ are common.
The result is that a woman is often labeled as „bitchy“ and not taken seriously, even if her complaints are valid. Being treated a bit like a toddler who throws a tantrum. Isn’t this a bit unfair?
But PMS also has good sides. There are women who feel particularly profound and creative just before their menstruation. This is especially useful when writing heartbreaking ballads about separation pain and fear of loss, or holding funeral orations.
One singer-songwriter is said to have even remarked that she would have no creative power to write songs at all without the mental PMS pain.
Swedish comic artist Liv Strömqvist comments:
„If we were to live in a matriarchy, PMS would of course have a much higher status, much like male melancholy in the 19th century, or the attention of certain male podcasters today.“
-STRÖMQVIST, Liv (2017): The Origin of Love. P. 120
Gloria Steinem is also convinced that menstruation would have a better image if it was a male and not a female phenomenon. In her opinion, men would boast about who can last longer (menstruating), who has to suffer the greater pain and shower each other with compliments when they have their days – of course the period would be the highest seal of spiritual and physical purity and beyond that, the requirement for a leadership position or military service. Hygiene products would of course be free for everyone – but the well-groomed man who takes good care of himself would buy luxury tampons from a well-known actor or boxer and discuss this in late night shows.
What a strange parallel universe.
¹ (https://www.regelschmerzen.de/regelschmerzen/pms [Stand 15.09.2018])
² (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0112042 [Stand 15.09.2018])
HERING Sabine/MAIERHOF Gudrun (2002): Die unpässliche Frau. Frankfurt a. M. S. 29-51
STEINEM Gloria (1987): If men could menstruate.(http://www.mylittleredbook.net/imcm_orig.pdf, Stand 15.09.2018)
STRÖMQVIST, Liv (2017): Der Ursprung der Liebe.