As a woman, naturally I love it when I’m told that my opinions or actions are overblown, dramatic, or exaggerated, and that I should simply “calm down.” It’s always so enlightening when somebody can point out to me that my feelings are in some way illegitimate; I never would’ve realized that on my own!
Just kidding, that’s fucking bullshit. And yet, it’s a sentiment that’s often deployed with startling frequency and fervency.
Nothing makes my blood boil quite so much as when a friend or significant entreats me to “chill out,” or “stop being so dramatic” when I’m feeling heated or passionate. And I’m not alone. This is a prolific problem for women, and it’s based not in fact, but in a series of harmful stereotypes about “the fairer sex,” the long reaches of which cast shadows on our daily interactions even today.
The root of the issue here is that there is a long history of women being characterized as histrionic, unreasonable, and altogether emotionally volatile and unfit. And, furthermore, the equally damaging distrust and demonization that has accompanied the qualification of women as such.
Throughout history, women perceived as non-normative or antisocial have been vilified. This is epitomized by the Salem Witch Trials of the seventeenth century, during which women whom the community deemed unusual or threatening were accused of witchcraft, and many ultimately executed.
During the eugenics movement, which reached its zenith in the early twentieth century, women who exhibited traits that the medical community considered “mental illness” were covertly sterilized. For context, at the time, something like promiscuity would qualify as a mental illness. (The eugenics movement also focused on the sterilization of other “undesirable” populations: people who were poor, disabled, had committed a crime, or–of course–people of color.)
In other words, the behavior of women has always been under intense scrutiny. And furthermore the privilege of defining acceptable temperament for women has always fallen in the hands of men. Patriarchal ideals about how women should act have proven to be limiting and false.
Let’s fast-forward to president-elect Donald Trump’s treatment of Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly during the 2016 campaign. After some hard-questioning during a debate in the primaries, Trump accused Kelly being unfairly hard on him. He then attributed what he judged to be her unnecessarily harsh tone on the ultimate scapegoat: her period.
Trump famously said, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her… wherever.”
Blaming the actions of a woman on her wiley vagina is an offensive cop-out. Despite the obvious ludicrousness of it, the tired myth that womens’ menstruation makes them unfit to hold positions of power and weight has been deployed time and time again.
In this same election cycle, a Letter To The Editor for a local newspaper in Williamsport, PA, made the rounds on the internet. A disgruntled reader named Carl Unger penned a message, entitled “Take Our Country Back,” in which he laid out his grievances with Barack Obama and liberal America. He also claimed that he faced false accusations of sexism because of his distaste for Hillary Clinton, yet in the next breath posed the hilarious hypothetical that he feared might hinder her ability to govern: “What if that time of the month comes and she is sick at the same time?”
Do I even need to point of the irony here (hint, hint, Hillary Clinton is nearly 70-years-old…)
However, for us gals, menstruation is really the gift that keeps on giving. Because while in the hands of the ill-informed, the concept is contorted to be a condition that precludes us from being level-headed and capable human beings, its real physical symptoms are often written off as nothing more than figments of our imaginations.
Bet you didn’t realize that tampons are in fact double-edged swords: misogynists can simultaneously blame womens’ behavior on the capricious nature of anatomy, whilst also denying the legitimacy of things like PMS and PMDD. Fun!
Earlier this week, Slate Magazine published a piece by Frank Bures, entitled “Is PMS Real?” In the article, Bures claims that it’s our society that has fashioned a fear of menstruation, and that as a result we’ve created a culturally constructed ailment: PMS. His concluding line reads, “if it is a syndrome, it’s almost certainly a cultural one.”
Naturally, there is a damaging nature to the narrative that women’s hormones make them unpredictable and hysterical in the time leading up to their periods–but to imply that the symptoms women experience (both physical and emotional) are somehow imagined or purely socially imposed is pretty fucked up.
For years, when women have suffered from menstrual pain, they’ve been brushed off, told that they must be overreacting: however, about 20 percent of women have dysmenorrhea (extremely painful periods), while about 10 percent are diagnosed with endometriosis—a condition with similar symptoms which, left untreated, can lead to infertility.
For Quartz magazine, Olivia Goldhill wrote about her experience with doctors who were indifferent to her complaints about the crippling symptoms that accompanied her period. She wrote, “Every month I spent hours lying on the floor, unable to move, and literally crying out in agony.”
And yet, when Goldhill visited healthcare professionals they either insisted that ibuprofen would suffice, or looked elsewhere for causes for the pain outside of her period. Doctors, she said, did not seem informed. The underlying assumption here is that because men have never felt this particular type of pain, than it must be imagined or exaggerated. Goldhill explained, “Since periods are a condition that only affects women, it’s simply not given the attention it warrants.”
There has simply not been enough research or medical attention directed toward endometriosis or dysmenorrhea.
So, world, stop acting like our periods are all-encompassing demonic forces which can at any moment overtake our bodies and our minds. Stop denying the truth of our pain, be it emotional or physical. While you’re at it, stop attributing our feelings to our vaginas. And please, for the love of all that is good, stop telling women to chill out.