NO LAUGHING MATTER By Emily Gerstell
“I’d be a hell of a lot happier if we didn’t use stupid euphemisms to refer to shedding the uterine lining, if men didn’t pretend like even sealed, packaged boxes of Tampax were radioactive, if someone didn’t quip that it must be “her time of the month,” every time a woman makes an aggressive comment, and, of course, if healthy men with good teeth, deep voices, and strong jaw lines were offering to fertilize me.”
Calling “Code Red” because “Aunt Flo’s in town” and you’re “riding the crimson wave?” Well, that’s fine…we’re not complaining that it’s “that time of the month” and time for the old “rebooting of the ovarian operating system.”
An entire industry and culture of humiliation and revulsion are predicated on the notion of menstruation “monsters,” turning women from rational, compassionate human beings into bipolar she-devils that smell funky. A recent tampon run to Duane Reade nearly caused me to lose it. The “sanitary and female supplies” are never located on the main level, but always nestled between baby diapers and adult incontinence devices. Though I understand that Pull-Ups, plastic-lined panties, and Playtex are all worn or inserted in the same general region, having your period is very different from peeing yourself; indeed, it involves entirely separate organs. To be perfectly honest, it would make far more sense to stock Durex condoms next to the Depends—at least men ejaculate and eliminate from the same organ. And my ire only starts there. The preponderance of douches, scented tampons, and feminine wipes constitute a fraction of the cottage industry that tells women that when they menstruate (and the latest niche even in between menstruation), they are filthy and odious. The worst part of this is that were I to complain, I would almost immediately be dismissed as a hormonally-crazed harpy.
At the same time, I’m the first to acknowledge that hormones affect mood. A recent anecdote involving my friend’s cat has made me wonder if there may be a grain of truth to some of the hysteria surrounding menarche. At the appropriate age, the cat got spayed. The veterinarian explained, post-op, that their cat, for whatever reason, only had one ovary, but that her ovary had been successfully removed. Flash forward three months: the cat starts going crazy. Meowing, scratching, pacing, and howling to the extent that my alarmed friends take the cat back to the vet. Turns out they missed the other ovary. And the cat wasn’t rabid—she was ovulating.
Sure, humans have opposable thumbs, but on a purely biological level, for a week out of every month, are we basically just bitches in heat? Whether we like it or not, when put under the microscope (and, let’s be realistic, in a bar, too), humans around the opposite sex behave as predictably as the animals we truly are. A study published by the University of St. Andrews examined the relationship between menstrual cycle and masculinity preferences. Scientists already knew that while masculine traits in men indicate enduring health and increased reproductive success, they also signify lower commitment to long-term relationships. The corollary holds true: men with more feminine traits (low testosterone) correspond to greater relationship commitment and paternal investment. From biological and sociological point of view, the smart way out is to mate with one man and have another to help raise the kids. Generally, when women evaluate male faces for a relationship, they consistently prefer faces that indicate high levels of testosterone. When women are in their most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle, the late-follicular phase (14 to 21 days before menses), their preference for masculine faces is at its highest. This makes sense, as we’re biologically hardwired to seek the best mate. The study particularly focused on a woman’s attraction to the perceived masculinity in male voices during the course of their menstrual cycles. The results were as anticipated. At their most fertile, women were markedly most attracted to male voices whose pitch and timbre conveyed masculinity and dominance than they were at their non-fertile phase.
Basically, there are four stages of the cycle. It begins with menstruation, the shedding of the uterine wall, a.k.a. blood and bloat funness. Menstruation is followed by the late-follicular phase, when a woman’s estrogen is at its peak. Ovulation happens at about day 14, after which the woman enters into the luteal phase of the cycle. The first few days of the luteal phase are when women are their most fertile, but since it takes the sperm a few days to climb up the fallopian tubes, women are impregnated during the final days of the follicular phase, and the egg is finally fertilized several days later, by which time the woman is in her luteal phase. While estrogen dominates the follicular phase, progesterone rules the luteal phase.
In addition to its association with the luteal stage of the menstrual cycle, progesterone also plays a major role in pregnancy. During the early stages of pregnancy, progesterone stays at its luteal high, reaches its peak as the baby nears term, then plummets post-delivery, enabling the onset of lactation. Birth control works by manipulating levels of estrogen and progesterone, inhibiting ovulation by inducing a state of “pseudo-pregnancy.” This is where birth control pills present a fascinating, if problematic, roadblock in female sexuality in women of childbearing years. When you’re pregnant, you’re not fertile because you’ve already been fertilized. And while we all know that pregnancy comes with its own hormonal rollercoaster, it’s a decided departure from the 28-day cycle of menstruation. The University of St. Andrews and the University of Aberdeen worked together to examine the question of whether women on birth control, pregnant women, and women with natural menstrual cycles differed in their attraction to apparent health in male faces.
The study was asserted on the knowledge that women prefer men with masculine traits when they are in their fertile phase; the question then became whether perceived health also factored into the women’s preference. The assumption would be that women would pick the healthiest looking man when they were at their most fertile, but, oddly enough, the pregnant women and women on birth control were significantly more attracted to apparent health in male faces than the non-pregnant, non-pill popping women were. If, however, we remember that pregnancy in and of itself is a time of immunosuppression, it stands to reason that pregnant women and women whose bodies think they are pregnant (those on the pill) would want to protect their unborn fetus by surrounding themselves with healthy-looking people. For pregnant women and women on birth control, the premium lies in health—they’d prefer a fling with a man sporting a robust complexion, “feminine” characteristics aside, while the other women will, in their fertile stage, opt for the “masculine” looking man, even if his pallor is a bit pallid.
The overall message of the studies that examine the effect of menstruation on women emphasize that when a woman is most fertile, masculinity is a magnet. And while it’s clever to joke about women wanting to jump Fabio’s bones between days 7 and 14 of their cycle, the findings from the scientific community start to sound a bit like excuses for Stepford-esque reasoning about a menstruating woman’s ability to make decisions. Aston University released a study that showed a correlation between a woman’s place in her menstrual cycle and her social decision making. The study had 13 women who had natural menstrual cycles to participate in a mock job negotiation scenario. The women were responsible for assigning either a high or low social status job to a series of men who had been previously determined to appear either dominant or non-dominant. Based on their data, they concluded that women in their follicular phase were more likely to assign dominant looking men jobs with maximum social status. The sample size may seem too small to be scientifically significant, but the urge to link menstruation with decision making that extends beyond reproductivity remains.
While the feminist in me (and by feminist, I mean one who fights for gender parity) balks at the notion that menstruation impairs my judgment or morphs me into some crazed Gorgon, I cannot believe that we cannot make the space for an understanding of menstruation and women’s reproductive systems that encompasses both nature and nurture. I’d be a hell of a lot happier if we didn’t use stupid euphemisms to refer to shedding the uterine lining, if men didn’t pretend like even sealed, packaged boxes of Tampax were radioactive, if someone didn’t quip that it must be “her time of the month,” every time a woman makes an aggressive comment, and, of course, if healthy men with good teeth, deep voices, and strong jaw lines were offering to fertilize me.