Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde: A Myth

by | October 24, 2012
filed under Feminism

by Jasmine Peterson

I have long been disdainful of the idea that having a menstrual cycle renders me, or any woman, moody and unpredictable once every month. This widely-accepted cultural idea of women’s emotionality is problematic in so many ways: it can result in dismissing women’s voices, overlooking women for positions because they’re perceived as less emotionally stable than men (even though men are also susceptible to hormonal fluctuations), and brushing off legitimate concerns as nothing more than a PMS-related mood swing.

At the same time, I think a lot of women latch onto this notion that emotionally-charged reactions can be related to their menstrual cycle because it provides an excuse for otherwise “unladylike” behaviour. If a woman is upset and reacts angrily (to actually upsetting circumstances), sometimes it’s easier to blame an angry outburst on hormonal fluctuations like PMS than to acknowledge that we’re not always submissive, calm, nurturing, level-headed ladies. It can excuse us from otherwise being labeled a bitch.

I don’t want to delegitimize any woman’s personal experiences with PMS. I do not disbelieve that women experience physical symptoms around the time of menstruation such as bloating, cramping, cravings, and headaches. I don’t disbelieve that many perceive themselves to be moodier or more emotional during this time, either. But I wonder how much of this is due to an actual increase in emotionality, and how much is related to the cultural construction of PMS as the time of the month in which it is not only acceptable to be moody, but expected.

Are women actually moodier, or do they just perhaps allow themselves to be more emotionally expressive than at other times, because PMS excuses emotional expressiveness?

I have never been one to attribute my emotional state to my menstrual cycle. If I’m feeling something, it is in relation to the context, situation, and environment I find myself in. There is nothing worse than being angry with good reason and being told “Oh, it must be ‘that time of the month’ or you wouldn’t be reacting this way”.

My ex-partner so often tried to silence me in this manner when I was angry or upset with him for something he’d said or done (which only ever succeeded in making me angrier). It is infuriating to have my anger delegitimized simply because I have a uterus. And perhaps the most frustrating part of this cultural phenomenon is that one doesn’t even have to be menstruating to be accused of PMS-ing. So basically it is a tool that is at the hands of any person, at any time to be used to delegitimize a woman’s anger, to silence her.

In a recent study, researchers concluded that our culture has a tendency to over-attribute women’s moods to their menstrual cycle. However, they found no evidence that women actually become cranky or irritable right before they menstruate. So why this fixation on the manner in which the inner workings of the female body control and modulate women’s moods?

I think it is related to a long tradition of pathologizing women’s lived experiences, rooted in historical beliefs that women are ruled by their reproductive organs – like the wandering womb of Hippocrates’ teaching. For centuries, millennia even, women’s reproductive organs have been believed to make women inferior – emotionally and mentally – to their male counterparts. PMS is rooted in this tradition of labeling women “hysterical”, if only a week out of the month, such that we are considered less competent and stable than men.

It’s difficult, however, to shift these beliefs for a number of reasons. First, they function well within patriarchy to maintain the status quo. A great example of this is the photographic image of Hilary Clinton in the Situation Room – people latched on to the fact that Hilary is the only one in the photograph who appears to be having an emotional reaction (and even if she were, I still cannot fathom how being an emotional being, as we all are, is such a negative attribute). This became fodder for those who believe women ought not to serve in such an important political office: because women cannot be trusted to make good decisions through their emotionality. You see how that functions?

It is also effective in dismissing pesky women when you don’t want to listen to what they have to say (like my ex would do when I was upset at something he’d said or done). But the myth can also be a protective one employed by women themselves. As dismissive as it might be when someone else brushes our anger off as simply a symptom of PMS, it can also act as an excuse for when someone perceives our reactions to be inappropriate or disproportionate. We can just blame it on PMS.

Again, I don’t want to delegitimize anybody’s personal experiences. If a woman says she’s moodier at the time of her menstrual cycle, I’m inclined to believe her. That’s her body, and she is the expert on it. However, I do think we need to move away from blaming emotionality on women’s reproductive organs because it supports ideas about women’s unsuitability for particular types of work and facilitates the silencing of women’s voices in public and private spheres. I am not the sum of my reproductive parts.

(image source: http://www.usdoctor.com/pms.htm)

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  • Jewel of Toronto

    Thanks for this. I had the same reaction when I saw the article the other day. While all the other women in my office (we work at the institution that released the study) were wringing their hands at the loss of an excuse, I was celebrating the fact that I now had scientific proof that “I’m not PMSing, I’m just being a bitch.”

  • Jasmine

    I love that! “I’m not PMSing. I’m just being a bitch”. :) Way to celebrate the bitch (although I think it would be even better if women could just be legitimately angry and not be considered a bitch for doing so… like guys are privileged enough to do)! But honestly, I’d rather be a bitch than to be told I’m just ‘PMSing’.

    • Nick

      Jasmine – If a guy is angry for a less than reasonable reason he’s an asshole. Guys aren’t privileged to get angry and usually the guys that think they are… are assholes.

      • Jasmine

        Hm, I can’t say I agree. I’m interested to know if you have an example of this functioning? I’m not suggesting men are not silenced, but they are certainly permitted anger as an emotion – perhaps not violent, over-exaggerated anger – but a reasonably angry response to a situation is far more socially acceptable for men than it is for women.

  • Thanks for this. While I have never had someone accuse me (to my face) of PMSing for expressing negative emotions, my internal experience is one of increased emotionality. However, I do not attribute it to PMS, but rather the very natural fact that when a person is in pain, tired, and generally annoyed by their inconvenient bodily functions (menstruation and its preceding days ain’t a box of puppies), it seems reasonable that they might also feel a little grumpy or vulnerable. If asked, I usually explain it thusly: “I imagine you’d also be less than chipper if you’d eaten a bad burrito. My stomach hurts and I am tired. This can sometimes influence my mood. No mysterymindcontrolladyhormones explaination required.”

  • Erin15

    The key point you mentioned but did not identify is the phrase “actually upsetting circumstances.”

    Men and women are extremely different in what upsets them and the degree to which it upsets them. Most of the PMS myth is an attempt to explain this chasm.