Women's Empowerment Women's Wellness Writing & Wellness

Anatomy of a Normal Period: An Idea You Should Toss.

A lot of what I work on with women and what you will also find on this blog will relate to cultivating wellness and balance. In the realm of the wellness industry, there is an undoubtedly yet somewhat silent reality of privilege. When I talk about coming into balance, I recognize that the journey to balance is not the same for us all and what works for one person may not be appropriate or attainable for the next.

Our bodies desire equilibrium and have built-in mechanisms that bring it back into balance when we get thrown off, and it often feels good when we are in a state of balance. Though the capacity for balance is inherent is us all, there are pressures and barriers that some people may face due to factors like socio-economic class, personal lifestyle, gender and sex, and “race”. 

Those of us who work in the wellness industry have the ongoing opportunity and responsibility to remain sensitive to the socio-cultural, economic, and political influences that shape our communities and the people we work with. So when I talk about coming into balance with your menstrual cycle, it’s absolutely necessary to consider the variety of factors that could be influencing the imbalance you’re experiencing.

This brings me to the notion of a normal period where the journey to balance would surely lead. What is all this work for and why would anyone care about balancing their menstrual cycle? What is a normal period anyway? This is an important question, especially because many women do not know what it is like to experience their menstrual cycle as anything but imbalanced.

Anywhere between 10-90% of women experience PMS (Stanton et al., 2002) and 60% will experience dysmenorrhea, painful cramps that occur during menstruation. And for the most part, it is completely acceptable to just “deal with it”; we are encouraged, in fact, to tough it out and accept that painful periods are the norm.

As women, we have been told to be ashamed of menstruation and receive mixed messages about our bodies and our roles. Patriarchy and androcentric notions of male-superiority have inhabited the cultural expectations and interpretations of menstruating bodies. We’ve been told blood is dirty and shameful and to be hidden away. The stigma attached to menstruation often sequesters women into isolation and effectively severs the connection of many women to their bodies and cycles. Keep in mind that this is a natural experience that happens every month for a large proportion of the lives of half the world’s population.

Pause here. What ideas do you have about your period? When you think about menstruation, what type of sensation arises in your body? There is no right or wrong here, but it’s worth noticing what is present for you as you consider these topics. Why? Because it matters what you feel and think.

Recently I had a memory of trying to silently pull a tampon from my purse, moving like some menstrual ninja so that no one would hear the crinkle of the wrapper. In a room full of other menstruating bodies, my worst fear was that someone may know that I was… menstruating. A reasonable response for someone who was publicly made fun of for getting her first period at school. If you are a person that menstruates I am certain you can come up with your own list of experiences that made you feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or like you need to hide away a big part of your life.

Photo by Monika Kozub

Definitions of menstruation vary depending on who you ask (Kissling, 1996), and this turns out to be a very important consideration. Indeed, the dominant forms of knowledge production often serve a status quo and reinforce the reigning ideologies that stand to benefit. Medicine has what Kissling terms “linguistic capital”, which means that the definitions of menstruation enforced by medical science become positioned and accepted as factual in the mainstream.

When medical/scientific definitions are taken as the only truth or view, we can miss out on a lot of the details and different dimensions of an event. Social influences are often ignored or diminished in efforts to legitimize the pursuit of science. This knowledge can then be internalized and strengthened as it becomes solidified as social norms and cultural beliefs, even when they lack substantiation. Simply deeming menstruation as a biologically deterministic event overwhelmingly ignores the multidimensional experience.

It matters how we discuss menstruation and what kinds of interpretations we assign to regularity, imbalance, or the experience itself. There are medical and scientific interpretations, and there are social, cultural, and symbolic representations.

There is a long history of women’s health concerns being overly pathologized and diminished by lack of research, understanding, and/or interest. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), for example, is a diagnosable condition that is characterized by severe premenstrual distress and has been criticized for medicalizing a normal biological process (Offman, & Kleinplatz, 2004). Medicalization is the term used for taking a social situation or personal experience and making it into a medical concern; this reinforces the historical reliance of women on a system that has marginalized and/or completely ignored women’s experiences.

Offman and Kleinplatz (2004) argue that PMDD is in actuality a socially constructed diagnosis, and call into question the distinction between pathology and physiological events like menstruation. How does clinically categorizing the changes that occur through the menstrual cycle further marginalize women and negate their subjective experience? PMS, as an example, does not even have an agreed upon definition and contradictory research emphasize the importance of knowledge of menstruation being derived from a shared cultural knowledge. The reliance on scientific facts and medicalization of menstruation-related changes negates subjective experience and reinforces pathologizing language and discourse.

Most of the research available on menstruation has involved PMS (Stanton et al., 2002) though this has lacked when it has come to finding differences in women who report PMS symptoms compared with those who do not (Offman, & Kleinplatz, 2004). This is true on a psychological level and a biological one. Premenstrual research, like a lot of research in the area of women’s wellness, has been mostly correlational. This means that there are no direct cause and effect explanations; sometimes, the assumptions drawn from this research has merely been extrapolated from data derived from males. 

Imbalance in the menstrual cycle can impact every area of a woman’s life, especially when you consider conditions like endometriosis or dysmenorrhea. And for the most part, it’s all hidden away and never really talked about; the research is lacking and historically embarrassing; we’ve learned to accept that it’s just how it is. We accept the diagnosis and deal with it (a part of the mentality that prizes productivity over anything else).

But, menstruation is not a one dimensional thing; it is hormonal, cultural, social, and political. It is a major part of the lives of half the people living in the world. Imbalance happens, but why is it accepted as the status quo? It’s just assumed that the only experience of the menstrual cycle is one that is shameful and painful; that emotions are a product of raging and uncontrollable emotions. This is the problem with pathologizing experiences and events like menstruation; we become characterized and confined by the definitions attached to our bodies.

It is not enough to slap a label like PMS on imbalance, nor is it a suitable definition for an event that extends beyond being only biological. Cultivating wellness and balance includes a conscious effort to look at all of the contributing factors to something being out of whack. I think a “normal period” has to include a reduction in the stigma that surrounds menstruation; this is essential on a personal level and a cultural one. The last thing we need is to create more shame or uncertainty around women’s wellness; the intention should be to create awareness and connection to one’s own body if that feels right.

Some women, myself included, love to menstruate and find a lot of joy, freedom, and a sense of empowerment in it; this might not be the case for everyone. Regardless of how we experience menstruation, the discussion is essential. The lack of discourse reflects the dominant perspectives and knowledge produced in a highly androcentric atmosphere; it reinforces destructive ideas about being a woman. Im sure you can and perhaps have already been thinking of some of these destructive messages while reading this. What other ideas come along with them and how do they tie into other contemporary concerns, like human trafficking and eating disorders? If we are told from the onset of menstruation that our bodies are dirty, wild, and shameful, how will that impact the views we have of ourselves and others in different aspects of our lives?

I’ve given up on the definition of normality when it comes to menstruation (or to the human experience in general!). Balance is personal and derived from self-awareness and connection; these are the elements of human nature I believe should be fostered in the pursuit of wellness.

Photo by Monika Kozub

References

Chrisler, J. C., Rose, J. G., Dutch, S. E., Sklarsky, K. G., & Grant, M. C. (2006). The PMS illusion: Social cognition maintains social construction. Sex Roles, 54, 371-376. DOI 10.1007/s11199-006-9005-3

Kissling, E. A. (1996). Bleeding out loud: Communication about menstruation. Feminism & Psychology, 6(4), 481-504.

Offman, A., & Kleinplatz, P. J. (2004). Does PMDD belong in the DSM? Challenging the medicalization of women’s bodies. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 13(1), 17-28.

Stanton, A. L., Lobel, M., Sears, S., & DeLuca, R. S. (2002). Psychosocial aspects of selected issues in women’s reproductive health: Current status and future directions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70(3), 751-770.

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