PMS. Pre-menstrual syndrome. A syndrome that occurs in many women from 2 to 14 days before the onset of menstruation (Free Dictionary). A varied group of physical and psychological symptoms, including abdominal bloating, breast tenderness, headache, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and depression (Urban Dictionary).
I have such a conflicted relationship with this aspect of my biology, and I’m sure many others who experience PMS do too. First and foremost, it sucks. It really sucks. It sucks when your symptoms are extreme, and it sucks when they sneak up on you. I’m in the latter camp. I’ll be living my life, totally normally, and then I’ll be all bloated or snippy and be like, “Man I am having a bad day–oh shit, what week is this?”
But the worst part about PMS, for me, is not the symptoms themselves. It’s the social reaction, the way PMS is used against women by forces outside our bodies. I’m not going to get into a deeply ideological discussion about it in this post (see the helpful links below for that kind of thing!), but I do want to just write a bit about my experience.
I got my period when I was 14, and many things changed. In some ways, it was great. Suddenly I had this wonderful excuse that no one questioned! I didn’t have to go out if my PMS was “too bad.” I didn’t have to do chores. I could lay in bed and eat crappy food and watch movies or read books for hours. In other ways, it was not so great. My three brothers didn’t see PMS as a reason to let up on teasing me and when I got upset they were quick to tease me more about how “hormonal” I was. Even the occasionally sincere condolences when I was feeling really unwell were to the tune of “man, I’m glad I’m not a girl.”
The social stigmas surrounding PMS got a little more sinister toward the end of college, when I was in my first serious, sexually active relationship. There were a lot of things wrong with the way my partner and I communicated, and the ideas we both had about PMS only exacerbated those problems. I blamed so many things on PMS–if I was tired, or quiet, or unenthusiastic, or annoyed, or genuinely upset but not for a “good reason.” If he thought something was wrong with me, it was, and it was because of PMS.
My untouchable excuse became a scapegoat for our issues. I used it to apologize for everything, including things I didn’t really need to apologize for. Worse, I used it to deflect and to avoid actually talking about the things we needed to talk about. It was so much easier to say that I was “just hormonal” when I got upset, than to try and explain what had actually made me upset.
Fast forward to today. I’m not one who believes that it’s all psychological. I do generally feel crappy around my period. I feel fatigued, bloated, more prone to minor headaches. Because of all of these things, I get cranky. And when I get cranky, I get snippy and easily annoyed. And I do sometimes burst into tears when my GPS takes me on a toll road after I expressly told it not to. I try to power through politely at work and in public, but I’m sorry to say that my darling boyfriend gets the brunt of my bad mood.
He definitely noticed the change in my behavior, more pronounced this month because we’re living together and are in constantly close proximity at home, and it definitely caused him some anxiety of his own. As he asked me about it one night over the weekend, I realized that I had no idea what to do. Should I tell him not to worry about it, I was just PMSing? Should I try to convince him that the crankiness was inconsequential without mentioning any lady business at all? Should I simply say sorry and offer no explanation whatsoever? What would he accept? What was the most accurate? What was the most feminist?
For you see, I did not want to again fall into the trap of using PMS to contextualize or justify a bad mood. More than that, I did not want to fall back to a purely female problem to justify my bad mood.
I’m still not 100% sure how to balance all of this. I am still definitely cranky because of symptoms I experience prior to menstruation, but I hate buying into the “PMS is shorthand for don’t mind the cranky lady, her hormones have taken over” mindset. I suppose I could just power politely through the week with my boyfriend too, but number one, trying to stay polite when all you want to do is give up is exhausting, and number two, it’s really nice to not have to worry about pretense at home.
Do any of you PMS-experiencing folks know my feels? What are your PMS enabling stories? And for you non-bleeders–how do you react when someone you know and love is gearing up for shedding the lining of their uterus?
For more reading on PMS, society and feminism, check out these links:
Period Shaming. It’s a Thing and It’s Dumb. — A Confederacy of Spinsters
That Time of the Month: An Excuse for Sexism All the Time — Miss Representation
Feminism 101: Periods — Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog
PMS is a Social Construction — The Feminist Agenda
The Social Construction of Premenstrual Syndrome — Mari Rodin (actually an academic paper)