Sunday, May 28, 2006


Somewhere at the end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002 I started suffering from really serious pre-menstrual symptoms. It wasn't the symptoms of jokes and sitcoms. I wasn't particularly moody. I was just deppressed and absent-minded and my brain wouldn't work properly. I felt like I was walking through treacle, I couldn't focus, and in quite a literal way that I was hopeless - I had no hope. Even when I knew that soon it would be over, I didn't quite believe it would ever end.

It wasn't just the symptoms themselves, it was the length of time they lasted for. Usually I'd get between 10 and two weeks of symptoms, and the symptoms would get worse as the month went on. I was losing half my life, and living the rest distorted while I waited. About half way through last year I stoppped eating dairy products (I've had symptoms of intolerance since I was a child, and thought I should see what happened if I stopped eatng them altogether). I haven't had any symptoms since. I'm still sort of in shock over this - I was so used to my life being hobbled, that I haven't quite learned what it means to be well.

I find it really hard to read material about pre-menstrual syndrome, particularly that from a feminist perspective. Unless it begins "Pre-menstrual problems can be horribly severe and hard to deal with" I get angry, because I feel like they're denying my experience. You sometimes get feminist material that links pre-menstrual symptoms with feelings of shame about menstruation and it makes me realy angry.

I am actually going somewhere with this. I've been following a couple of impassioned feminist debates about bodies oer the last few days. One started on Alas where guest poster Rachel S said I want my period, at least until menopause Amanda at Pandagon replied Natural vs. unnatural is a cover to romanticize oppression. I tend to agree with Amanda's arguments more, even though I'm too scared of my hormones to as much as touch a packet of pills. But it's actually the discussion that interested me, and how many people, on both sides of the argument, had had exactly the same reaction I do, when people suggest PMS is all in women's heads.

The other debate was one I've already written about. Chris Clarke and Zuzu. Most of the debate happened at Feministe - and I think Chris Clarke hit the point reasonably early on with this comment

I would like it if we all had the feeling that our individual experiences were considered to be valid.
The problem when it comes to discussing the politics of our bodies, is that there is nothing which is more personal, there is no other issue where experiences are more central to our analysis, there is no other issue that is centred as much in our 'self'.

What this means is that it is incredibly easy to discuss issues about our bodies that invalidate other people's experience. It's so easy for to read a statement about our personal experience as a political statement or a political statement as speaking for everyone.

I would go further than Chris and say any political action around our bodies depends on us talking about the political issues in a way that ensured no-one felt their experience was invalidated. I'm just not sure how to do that.

I have some ideas - precise writing and generous reading is probably a starting point. But I'm not sure it's enough. How can we write about bodies in a way that respects difference but still has political meaning?

EDITED: I want to add a caveat about my pre-menstrual symptoms - I don't want to give other people false hope, or give them another reason to beat themselves up about what they eat. I've had symptoms of a dairy intolerance since I was less than 3 years old, I stopped drinking milk when I was 5. I've no idea if other people would find stopping dairy products helpful. I worry, a lot, about giving women another list of ways they should be controlling their food intake.


  1. I would say impossible...everyone is different. And the minute you say I experience X,Y and Z for condition A, someone else might have a different experience.

    I think in the end it's just about learning to accept that other people are different and there's nothing wrong with that, it's actually kind of cool. The world would be a very boring place if everyone was the same.

    And with that pollyanna like thought, I'm off to bed.

  2. Thank you for this post, Maia, thought-provoking as always. Are you familiar with Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom? That's one of the few gynaecological books that I can read without my feminist hackles rising too much. Northrup writes that dairy is one of the commonest causes for menstrual problems such as dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia and PMS. Yet New Zealanders (and most other Westerners) generally consume far, far too much dairy, because of government propaganda and so on. (The "Milk is good for you" message children get told in schools, etc, plus the fact that we have a strongly agricultural economy.) Milk actually isn't good for you. Well, it's good for baby calves to help them grow into adult cows, but it's one of the commonest allergies. Actually, I could go on all day and night about my anti-milk rant, so I should probably leave it at that before I get carried away!

  3. In the last couple of years, I've started to get really bad pre-menstrual symptoms. I'm glad to say I don't get moody, but I do feel very ill, for a few days beforehand, and on the first day of my period.

    I eat a lot of dairy.

  4. I don't know if dairy is always the problem. The asian diet is almost entirely devoid of dairy, yet a lot of colleges here give days off attendence for period leave.

    I'll pay through the nose to eat dairy here because, I like it and I don't suffer any health effects.

  5. It could be dairy products, and it might be worth not eating them for a couple of weeks before your period to see if it makes a difference.

    I don't want to give anyone false hope - I've known I was allergic to dairy products since I was about 7. Like Stef says there are heaps of people who aren't allergic to dairy products who have symptoms.

    It probably is worth doing some research into whath as helped other people, and doing some experimenting.

  6. Great post.

    >I would go further than Chris and say any political action around our bodies depends on us talking about the political issues in a way that ensured no-one felt their experience was invalidated. I'm just not sure how to do that.>

    Not saying I do it all that well, necessarily, but I do use what I've learned in group/psychodrama therapy as a template (speak from the "I," as much as possible, among other techniques that are kind of hard to describe in text, at least for me right now).

    I also think *living* in your body is really key. I get impatient with political talks where I get the impression that everyone is talking/living from the neck up. Take a moment. Breathe. Put your feet on the floor. Slow down. How am I feeling right now? A big part of the reason people invalidate other peoples' feelings is because they haven't really learned how to identify their *own* feelings. I find.

  7. Thanks for the heads up. I commented over there.

  8. I also think *living* in your body is really key.

    This is probably the thing I struggle with most. I find it tremendously difficult to *live* in my body. I'm very detached from it in a lot of ways which are hard to describe here.

  9. followed a link from Alas, a blog...
    After all my research attempts, it's amazing to find someone who has experienced PMS the same way. Probably I should just have googled 'walking through treacle'. Ugh. I used to count days and calculate my chances of actually surviving to the next period.
    I tried cutting back on dairy, meat, wheat - everything the books said could trigger it. In the end I took a sabbatical year since diet appeared to make no difference at all.
    It's less of a problem than it used to be, but I can't say why. I lied to my exboss that I was completely recovered because I don't think he'd have given me a work reference otherwise. Once he knew that I had this problem he never listened to another word I said. Just the insanity talking.

    I'm glad to be out of that zone. It's still bad, but not like it was.