Friday, July 21, 2006

PMS as a feminist issue

The Happy Feminist has a really good post called Pre-Menstrual Syndrome: a Confusing Springboard to Prejudice. She does a really good job of out-lining some of the politics of the way PMS is issues involved, but to me it's clear it's from the perspective of someone who has never had serious symptoms before or during menstruation. I wanted to write a little bit from the perspective of someone who has had both mild and severe symptoms at various stages of my life.

Most of The Happy Feminist's points are about the number of women who don't have pre-menstrual symptoms as the media portrays them. I understand why a lot of feminist analysis of premenstrual problems emphasise on the fact that many women don't have any symptoms associated with menstruation, and the majority don't have severe symptoms. PMS is often used as an excuse to discriminate against women. But I feel that this defence often gives up too much ground, it feels like conceding that discrimination against people who are suffering from severe symptoms would be reasonable, and that nothing can be done for those who have symptoms.

Most jokes about premenstrual symptoms are referring to psychological symptoms, not physical ones. I don't have severe physical symptoms myself, but I did have severe and unrelenting psychological symptoms for 3 or 4 years. Depression, Anxiety, absent-mindedness, and dizzyness would last one week out of four if I was lucky and two weeks out of four if I wasn't.

It's difficult to have a medical condition which is fodder for mediocre comedians everywhere. It's hard when your friends are telling jokes about it. It's harder still when no-one can tell that you have it, because you're certainly not going to tell them after they've made some stupid joke. The derision with which PMS is treated makes it that much harder to live with.

And live with it we have to, individual women have to learn to deal with whatever symptoms they have pretty much alone. There's often sympathy from other women, and some women may get support from men, but generally you're the one with the symptoms and the point is to make sure that they don't bother anyone else. This is true on both a structural level - 5 days sick leave doesn't go very far divided by 12, but also on an individual level. I was barely functioning up to half my life, but I worked so hard to make sure that that no-one else would notice. That's the point of most of the jokes, of course, making fun of women who dare to let menstruation get in the way of men's lives.

Then there's the medical problem with PMS, which is that no-one seems to give a shit. I once had a doctor tell me that there used to be quite a lot of interest in PMS, but then they found out that Prozac worked, so they stopped bothering (I only wish I was exaggerating). No looking at the root causes, no attempt to turn it from a syndrome into something we actually understand and can dilineate - once a drug company was making some money out of it that solves that problem.

I think it's fantastic that some people can make things easier by taking the pill, and others can make things easier by taking prozac. I found the root cause to my problems (it was dairy products - I'd been intolerant for years and I hadn't known it), but I did it by myself. I read many different books, I tried many different things, and finally stumbled on something that worked. That's not good enough, we need to find out what's going on and how we can change it.

PMS needs to be treated like any other medical condition or disability - and all medical conditions and disabilities should be treated better. There needs to be support and resources for people whose bodies don't work the same way every day of the month, until we can find out why it happens, and how to stop it.


  1. Maia I always enjoy your posts. Relished the dissonance you created with your 'Beautiful Boy' blog.
    The Pat Robertson quote is priceless. Those Republicans make satire redundant

  2. Ugh, I hate the PMS jokes. I hate the way that a woman's legitimate anger can be patronizingly dismissed with a condescending "Have you got PMS?" -- it's just another way of silencing women's rage.

    And I hate how a woman who actually dares to say "I'm feeling bad today because I have PMS" will probably be accused of making up dumb excuses. Jesus, this is a medical condition, not some kind of jokey figment of women's imagination.

  3. Thank you for this post Maia.

    I remember my (female) PE teacher at high school telling us not to try PMS excuses to get out of phys-ed because she was a woman and she wasn't going to fall for that rubbish. I was 13 and didn't really know what she was talking about at the time, but I remembered it. That set my thoughts about PMS for a long time, as I was lucky to avoid most symptoms myself.

    In some ways my experiences with depression and ME have been similar though - because I have a "weakness", i.e. I get upset and cry easily when I am angry, the legitimate grievance I might have is subsumed by the fact I have "broken down". So frustrating.

  4. Sounds to me like one of the big problems here is that PMS is NOT a disease. It is a bit like cot death or depression or obesity or being not pretty. In your case, I presume, it was lactose intolerance that was the cause, PMS was just a symptom. If I had had the same symptoms someone would probably have figured it out.

    What you really needed was for the doctor to NOT have a label for PMS so he didn't stop looking for a cure. If you spend ages dwelling on how you have PMS and doctors spend ages investigating cures for “PMS” none of you will get anywhere near realizing you need to stop eating peanuts or drinking milk (or whatever).

  5. For such a conservative country, I was surprised to see that they give women here in Korea get menstural leave!

  6. Anonymous12:41 am

    Thank you for this.

    I have severe PMS, both physical and psychological. The first solution a gyno offered me was going onto birth control. Since kids aren't in my future, I took it.

    A few years and a couple suicide scares later, I decided that I'd rather have a tubal than live with what the pill did to me, even if it lessened my physical pain. But, of course, now that I'm not on the pill, my period will take me out for one day, two if I'm unlucky.

    Before I went off to Japan, I spent a few months with my new gyno looking into possible reasons (and solutions) for my problem. Chances are I have endometriosis, but it can't be confirmed or denied unless I get a hysterectomy and they can examine the inside of the tissue, because it's not the kind that shows up while doing a laproscopy (I had one done when I was getting my tubal).

    Another option that was put on the table, by the doc who did my tubal, was taking meds that would induce a menopausal state for as long as I took them. However, that would leave me vulnerable to osteoporosis, and since I'm already in the beginning stages (that's another rant that has to do with the medical world, women, and my thyroid condition), it's really not an option. Even if I were to be able to take it, it could only be a temporary thing, not a lifetime solution.

    So, basically, there's nothing to be done except get prescription meds for cramps and treat them when they happen. Well, that or a hysterectomy. Which, granted, when my cramps are really bad doesn't seem like that bad of an option...

  7. I find it quite interesting Maia that cutting out dairy worked for you. I've seen a couple of references to studies recently suggesting calcium supplements might in fact be helpful for treating hormonally triggered migraines which are suprisingly common. A lot of PMS like symptoms similar to the ones you describe are associated with them. eg. Depression and vagueness as well as sensitivity to light and sound followed by the migraine.

    But everyone is different. The only thing I have found that really stopped the migraines for me was pregnancy. I can minimise them a bit by avoiding triggers- I try and organise my work so I'm not going to be too stressed out around those times but it is a struggle at times. I know exactly what you are saying.

    And I do think some strands of feminism are misguided in their interpretation of menstruation traditions. Personally I'd love to be able to retire to a nice little menstrual hut for a rest where I wouldn't have to do any cooking or other work once a month instead of having to soldier on. If the price for that was being called unclean at those times I'd gladly pay it.

  8. Anonymous9:47 pm

    A Holistic Doctor could be a good option for trying to resolve pms symptoms.
    They are still a GP but try to find the cause of the problem (usually through blood & allergy tests) and then treat it (usually with vitamin supplements and elimination of any allergy causing foods).

    Personally I have found this to be a much better solution than having a doctor tell me that I'm probably depressed and here's some Prozac.

  9. See this is what I'm talking about IP - you really are a terrible poster boy for mankind.

  10. Wow - that's a great post. You're right, I hate the jokes about it when it's a real physical and emotional problem. I never considered it, I just dealt with it internally, and tried to brave it on my own, and hoped no one noticed. I know I feel miserable, and I do and say things I would never do or say otherwise, and because of the stigma, I can't just explain it away as having PMS...that would somehow, once again, make me unequal to a man who doesn't get PMS, you know?