The Olympics which were slotted to take place in Tokyo this summer have been postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic, and that’s okay by me. I’m not really interested in the games although I do occasionally tune in when they are being aired. One time during the Rio Olympics I happened to hear a Chinese swimmer being interviewed after coming in fourth in the women’s 4×4 medley race. When asked why her team had lost the young women replied that she was off her game because of exhaustion brought on by her period. That was the first and only time I have ever heard a female athlete mention menstruation as a hindrance to her performance, although I’m sure it often is.
That got me thinking about all of the women who uncomplainingly forge ahead despite experiencing terrible menstrual symptoms. How often do lawyers win a difficult case while fighting excruciating cramps, do bank tellers appear cheerful despite suffering from a blinding hormonal headache, or do ballerinas enchant an audience all the while battling extreme menstrual fatigue? Why is menstruation never an issue for female characters in movies and on TV? I can think of only two times I have ever seen a woman’s cycle figure in the plot of a TV show, and both times it was used as a comedic device. I would speculate that the reason this elemental part of female life is ignored and disparaged is because most cultures cast menses in a very negative light.
I have always taken exception to the way society views menstruation as though it were something gross and contemptible. Menarche marks a girl’s entry into womanhood, a perfectly natural and necessary development for the procreation of the species, and yet girls are made to feel unclean and ashamed from their first period on.
The most stark example of this phenomenon occurs in Judaism. Jewish mothers typically slap their daughters in the face when they experience menarche. No one knows the exact origins or meaning of this tradition – perhaps it is meant to prepare the girl for the years of painful cramps ahead, to awaken her to her burgeoning womanhood, or to indicate that she should be ashamed of her menses and therefore deserves punishment. An article I read noted that despite not knowing why they are doing it, many Jewish women continue slapping their daughters to this day.
In many Islamic countries women are barred from entering the mosque while menstruating. They also must perform ritual bathing after the bleeding stops before being permitted to resume religious duties or have sexual relations. The implication I read into all this shunning and scrubbing is that women are unholy, untouchable and unclean during menses, and that only prescribed techniques can render them fit to rejoin human society following the cessation of their period.
Even in our own relatively progressive country there is still a stigma around menstruation. Women hide feminine hygiene products in their pockets or purses when in public, and are embarrassed and apologetic if a stray tampon or pad falls out and is seen by others. There are countless euphemisms to describe a menstruating women – as “visiting with Aunt Flo”, or experiencing “that time of the month”, or simply “on the rag” – as though calling menses by its real name were naughty or forbidden. Equally bad, pads and tampons were taxed like luxury items until just a few years ago, financially penalizing women for having a period as if they had a choice.
Women frequently get dismissed and shamed for emotional issues which arise around and during menstruation. Displaying seemingly illogical and disproportionate emotions was historically called “hysteria” in psychological parlance, and for millennia was thought to be an illness connected to female genitalia. Freud and his ilk admitted in the late 19th century that men could become hysterical as well, but the pernicious and misguided perception that women are more likely to experience ungrounded emotions than men persists to this day. I fully admit that sometimes a woman’s reaction can be overblown due to hormones, but the idea that women have a monopoly on irrationality is inherently offensive and empirically untrue. Despite this, men often accuse women of being ridiculous even when their annoyance is absolutely warranted. Every woman I know, myself included, has had a man dismiss their righteous anger by attributing it to hormones. He’s not being an asshole, she’s being unreasonable. How convenient.
Which brings me to P.M.S. and the very real and often uncontrollable emotions it generates. I’ve known many women who suffer from angst and depression at the onset of their periods. I myself was extremely blue the day before my flow began. These may sound like small inconveniences, but arbitrarily experiencing intractable sadness and/or anxiety every month has a cumulative negative effect on one’s mental well-being.
Some women’s P.M.S. symptoms are bad enough to put their relationships in jeopardy. I worked at a public library in Toronto in the early 1980’s and one of my favourite colleagues was a woman I’ll call Anya. Anya was very bright, thoughtful, compassionate, and extremely good at her job. The cornerstone of Anya’s personality was her coolness under pressure; the comments of irate patrons merely slid off her back, and she worked best when given a short deadline. I was therefore surprised one afternoon when I came upon her weeping uncontrollably in the staff washroom. I asked her what was wrong and she replied through her sobs,
“I’m getting my period tomorrow which means I’m just about to turn into an absolute bitch. Every month this happens – like Jekyll and Hyde but in real life. I’ll go home tonight and ream out my husband and son for no reason at all. They don’t deserve that! It’s like I’m possessed and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.”
Most women menstruate for thirty five to forty years. If Anya’s period made her an unhinged screaming harpy one day a month, then over the course of her menstrual life she was irrationally angry for at least four hundred and twenty days. That’s fourteen months of being held hostage by uncontrollable rage; more than enough time for a family to incrementally fall apart. I hope Anya’s husband and son were understanding and loved her enough to stay, and that she learned to forgive herself for treating them so badly.
Menstruation also brings many unpleasant and sometimes debilitating physical side effects; bloating and cramping are the two which immediately come to mind, but there are a host of others. I have one friend who suffered from excruciating migraines which laid her low once a month. Another friend had a condition called menorrhagia which caused her to bleed so profusely that she was chronically anemic, and which made the flow on her first day sufficiently heavy that even wearing a full-sized tampon and maxi pad combined couldn’t contain it. Women also have to live with the annoyance of perennially blood-stained underpants and sheets, and just about all of us at one time or another have to endure the enormous embarrassment of having blood leak onto our clothing in public.
The first few years of menstruation are often amongst the most difficult of all. During her teen years my niece had a hormonal imbalance called dysmenorrhea which would cause her to repeatedly vomit at the onset of her flow while simultaneously creating such severe pain that she would basically pass out for a few hours. This horrible condition persisted until she was 18 and began taking a birth control pill to regulate her hormones. My menses started when I was 13 and my cycles were so short in the beginning that I developed an iron deficiency which left me constantly exhausted. My period was also very irregular and I consequently became reticent to make plans because I never knew when it was going to hit. It was so bad that as soon as I turned 16 my mother instructed my doctor to put me on the pill in order to chemically ensure that my period came at the same time every month. You know your situation is bad when your mother insists you get oral contraception.
The complications outlined above frequently intensify as a woman approaches the end of her reproductive years – to misquote T.S. Eliot, “This is the way menstruation ends. Not with a whimper but a bang.” Millions of women, myself included, suffer through years of crazy symptoms during perimenopause, the medical term for the phase leading up to menopause when one’s period finally stops. My perimenopause lasted eight long years and I endured a host of unpleasant health problems throughout. First came heart palpitations, a sometimes terrifying fluttering sensation in my chest. Hot on the heels of this delightful development came insomnia, mood swings, anxiety, digestive issues, hot flashes, weight gain and – the craziest of the bunch – a burning sensation in my tongue. Type “perimenopause symptoms” into a search engine and you will generally see 35 listed. 35! They are all considered common and are uniformly unpleasant to varying degrees.
Human females are tossed about by menstrual hormones like small boats on a stormy sea – sometimes we’re up, sometimes we’re down, and sometimes we’re just wrecked. As long as society perceives menstruation as gross, private and shameful, women will never receive the credit they deserve for stoically persevering through all of the extremely difficult physical, emotional and psychological symptoms it entails. My Nana used to say, “Growing old is not for the feint of heart.” To that I would add, “Neither is being a woman.”