Well & Good
News of the death of pre-menstrual syndrome came as a terrible shock.
It broke late last year. A death squad of Canadian academics did the deed - they published a review of 47 English-language studies of PMS (described as ''Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder'' by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, aka the bible of psychiatry).
For a start, most of the studies did not meet correct scientific criteria, the Canadians said. And of those that did, only 13 per cent reported an association between the pre-menstrual phase and a negative mood. The rest of the literature found either no mood association with any phase, or an association between negative mood and other phases of the cycle together with the pre-menstrual phase.
So the average woman was certainly more likely than not to be peeved, but there was no use pretending it was just a once-a-month thing, like a werewolf enjoying a lunar frolic.
The Canadians concluded there was no clear evidence of the existence of a ''specific pre-menstrual negative mood syndrome'' in the general population. ''This puzzlingly widespread belief needs challenging, as it perpetuates negative concepts linking female reproduction with negative emotionality,'' they wrote.
Lending more weight to the theory that it is all in women's minds, as opposed to their endocrinology, is the realisation that the concept of PMS is primarily a Western one.
According to Jane Ussher, professor of women's health psychology at the University of Western Sydney, there is no similar concept in India, China or Hong Kong. Perhaps Western women invented PMS, or had it invented for us. But instead of feeling liberated (what could be better than having a wrongful diagnosis retracted?), women have not taken well to having their PMS taken away.
As Ussher learnt, nobody wants to be stripped of a biological licence to be pissed off. As Fairfax Media reported just before Christmas, her article on the subject for the academic website The Conversation elicited angry reactions. Her colleagues and readers hated being told what they felt wasn't real. They hated having their experience ''denied''.
It's understandable. PMS allows women to be irritable and snappish. Hell, if a woman is suffering badly enough, she can even get away with being a monstrous bitch for a short window each month. Who wants to give that up? It's like having an emotional get-out clause, an invincibility cloak.
And if women don't have a biological reason to be moody, then they shouldn't get so moody, right? But then, if you can no longer blame biology - the modern, scientific version of destiny - then what are you supposed to do with the gnawing feelings of low-level rage?
If PMS is a myth, then women lose an excuse to be angry - that they're running late, that their partner left the washing up, that they're paid less than their male counterparts, that they carry an unequal load of domestic work, that they're subjected to unacceptable levels of violence, that the female toilet queues at music festivals are ridiculously long, that their haircuts cost more, and that they are expected to pretend the ageing process doesn't apply to them.
Ussher points to the parallels with the Victorian diagnosis of ''hysteria'' - a catch-all ailment that boxed-up women who were anxious, depressed, women who liked sex too much, women who were frigid and any woman who was somehow ''nervous''.
The medicalisation of women's sexuality goes much further back than the Victorians - the Greeks and Romans believed the womb travelled around the female body, a sort of bloodstream-bound hitchhiker-organ - and caused insanity.
But the Victorians were the ones serious about treating women's problems with medical interventions. The 2012 film Hysteria was a (very silly and bad) fictionalised account of a Victorian doctor who ''invented'' the vibrator as a way of inducing ''paroxysm'' to treat nervous disorders blamed on female-ness.
Victorian diagnoses of hysteria fell out of favour with the advent of the discipline of psychology, and also as society liberalised.
Of course, with 21st century eyes, we can see that it is no wonder middle- and upper-class Victorian women were depressed and anxious - they were physically confined to home and expected to adhere to stringent standards of moral behaviour. If they transgressed, the social sanctions were harsh and irreversible.
Perhaps future generations will look back on PMS and revise it in a similar way, within the context of our times. Contemporary women face a great deal of stress as they manage work and family life. Much of it they internalise. It's little wonder they get the grumps from time to time.
Women may have lost the excuse of PMS, but perhaps they have gained a different kind of freedom - to examine the true causes for their anger.
Or just accept it as a normal, non-pathological part of their lives.
Turns out women just have feelings.
No cure available.
- Daily Life
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