Update: I ended up having a really good and positive chat with the team behind the image described in this blog – thank you to Clue for listening.
Hi, my name’s Alice, and I’m currently deep in the throes of PMT.
I don’t say this simply as part of my usual oversharing – it’s actually a very timely occurrence. This morning, I saw a link to this study about ‘positive premenstrual syndromes’, and have been mulling it over – with a scowl and quite a few mutterings – ever since.
I have Thoughts about this study – or rather, about the posting and phrasing. The study itself sounds promising – I’m all in favour of demystifying periods and PMT, dismantling stereotypes around them, and tackling the taboos that make people (cis men in particular) go “Ewwww that’s gross! (But also it’s not a big deal and you’re all just faking).” But, to my mind, there’s a lot in the wording, and particularly the image, that needs unpacking.
I will freely admit that a lot of my reaction here is due to personal bias. My body has been playing a long and painful game of Gynae Issues Bingo with me since I was twelve years old, and as a result, I don’t have any positive associations with any aspect of my menstrual cycle whatsoever. My uterus is an unwanted stranger squatting in my body who periodically (hah) likes to indulge in a bit of physical and emotional torture. I’m never going to use it for anything, and it’s taking up space that could instead be occupied by…I don’t know, an entirely new organ that lets me perceive multiple timelines at once. Or a small internal air-conditioner that stops me getting too hot in summer. Or just empty space. Something more useful and pleasant than the current tenant.
Based on this, it’s not a surprise that when I first saw the image from the study, I mentally ran down the ‘Negative Symptoms’ column and put a big fat tick next to every single one.
Seriously, I was like the aliens from Sesame Street:
Being a curious little Martian, I was interested to see what kind of positive premenstrual symptoms people experienced, because in my eighteen years of sporadic bleeding, I’ve never had (or heard of) a single one. The closest I can think of is that, in the week leading up to my period, my sense of smell and taste gets more acute – which is kind of cool and makes me feel like I have superpowers, but is also annoying because it comes with an aversion to some of my favourite, staple foods, like salad. None of my friends or relatives who menstruate have ever mentioned anything good about the whole PMT lark. But just because I’ve never heard of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, right?
So, I looked at the list of positive symptoms.
I had two main reactions to this, and I’m going to deal with the less-irritated one first. If anyone out there gets more energy and motivation, and feels more efficient and in control, when they’re up to their eyeballs in pre-menstrual hormones, I would genuinely love to know about it (the comments section is open if anyone’s happy to share their story). When I have PMT, my focus is so poor that I can barely work out questions like “Why did I come to the stationery cupboard?” (answer: to get stationery), and the only thing I’m motivated to do is curl up on my bed and binge-watch whatever TV show I’m on at that particular moment. I’m so far away from relaxed that my fists are near-permanently clenched, and my energy levels are non-existent. So, if anyone turns into the enhanced individual described above, I’m deeply envious of you and I also kind of want to know your exact hormone levels throughout the month and attempt to replicate them.
Now for the second reaction. Two of these things are not like the others. Can you spot them?
There they are. Two of the ‘most frequent positive symptoms’ of PMT are, apparently, ‘younger facial appearance’ and ‘more attractive breasts’.
What’s wrong with this? Oh, so very much.
First of all; attractiveness is completely subjective. Look at the way beauty standards have changed over time, and how they differ from culture to culture. Think about all the different things that you and people you know find attractive or unattractive (if you experience sexual and romantic attraction, which not everybody does). So what does this study mean by attractive breasts?
The answer, apparently, is “bigger”. Which plays into the most basic tropes of white Western patriarchal beauty standards, and is just plain insulting. “Yeah, your boobs might feel like two bags of rocks and hurt with every step, but they’re slightly bigger, and that makes them better!” The same goes for ‘younger facial appearance’ – when I’m crying because my hormones are picking my brain apart for funsies, I don’t care that I might look like a weeping 28-year-old instead of a weeping 30-year-old. I’d rather look 50 and feel cheerful, thanks.
Second of all; attractiveness doesn’t matter. It really, honestly doesn’t. Your physical appearance is almost entirely out of your control – genetics rules nearly absolutely when it comes to the way you look. And on top of the fact that (as mentioned above) people’s reactions to it are going to differ wildly depending on circumstances, there’s the much more significant fact that their reactions to the way you look are not important. Sure, other people are allowed to have opinions about you – but the only one that matters is yours.
Implying that a “better” appearance is a “positive” part of PMT ties in with a very old, very sexist stereotype. While not everyone who has periods is a woman (and not every woman has periods), people who menstruate are very often coded as women by society at large – and part of being coded as a woman means being told, not in so many words but repeatedly and pervasively, that you are an ornament to decorate someone else’s life, not an active agent living your own.
I stressed above that appearance doesn’t matter, and I meant it – on the real, fundamental level, where we treat everyone as people, it’s only your actions and your behaviour that matters. However, out in the world, women, and other people put into the ‘woman’ box by society, are so frequently told that our appearance the only thing about us that does matter – that if we’re going to insist on living our lives, making our own decisions, being full and actualised people, then we’d better look young and pretty doing it, otherwise what’s the point of us?
The point of us is that we’re people, like everyone else. Suggesting that a physical process, which may be causing someone immense pain and playing havoc with their mental health, has its good points because it gives some dude bigger boobs to stare at, doesn’t support that. It just objectifies us all over again.