Why are female hormonal cycles always cast in such a negative light?  In an article in the Guardian, Georgina Rippon, professor of neuro imaging at Aston University asks why a “menstrual distress questionnaire” is a standard scientific instrument while an “ovulation euphoria questionnaire” has yet to be designed.  This is a really good question.

Could it be that ovulation is actually an endangered state, mostly now experienced by women newly off the pill and anxious to get pregnant?  And could it be that the wild and powerful aspect of femaleness is a much less attractive object of study to the scientific establishment than our weaker, tamer, vulnerable side?

I have cycled through both these states every month now for over 30 years.  I know both are real, both are natural and both are part of me.  And yet only one of these two poles is acknowledged in my culture.

Through my education, family, community and media I have received buckets of information on the difficulties and shame of bleeding, the pain of cramping and the horrors of pre-menstrual mood.  But even endless internet trawling has failed to turn up much about the other swing of the pendulum: the power, confidence, connection and delight I have experienced leading up to and during ovulation.  I have had to figure this out for myself, slowly, slowly growing to understand the summer as well as the winter of my cycle.

Only now, 30 plus years on, am I beginning to realise what an appallingly skewed and distorted reflection of femaleness we receive in our culture.

So, understanding the condition of femaleness to be one of discomfort and shame, it is small wonder that young women are easily persuaded that switching off the whole messy show with hormonal contraception is a win-win solution: no pregnancy, no cramps, no “being hormonal”

So what are these women missing out on?  Could it be worth the price?  Here are some of the ways in which I have experienced the summer of my cycle:

  • Desire.  Unless you’ve experienced the ripe to bursting desire that comes to accompany ovulation you can’t begin to appreciate the power of this experience
  • Desirability.  I know myself to be desirable.  I am absolutely immune to all the marketing men’s insecurities.  I may have spots, wrinkles, body hair and a thousand other faults but it doesn’t matter.  I know I am attractive.
  • Confidence.  Everything seems to flow.  Fear is gone from me and risks normally unthinkable become as nothing.
  • Creativity.  Without the automatic kosh of fear clubbing them to death before they are even formed, ideas get to arise and develop in freedom in a way that would be impossible at any other time of the month.
  • Awareness, delight and wonder: in sex, in touch, in people, in nature, in art and music.  I feel as if a dirty veil has been lifted and my perceptions are temporarily opened to the miraculous nature of things.  This is perhaps the hardest aspect to describe as such un-empirical experience has become heretical to our scientific-objectivist ideology.  It is, nevertheless real and at these times I know that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our current philosophy.

So, could it be worth giving all this up for the sake of convenient avoidance of pregnancy?

No, I say. No and no and no.  Every woman was born to know herself as desiring and desirable, as confident, as creative and as open to the miraculous.  As well as sometimes angry, uncomfortable, weak and awkward.

If some women, in the absence of proper information, have contented themselves with a placid, sensible, tame, all-month-round sameness, they have been sold very far short.  It’s our urgent responsibility to help younger women understand our incredible female strength as well as our weakness.  Feminist scientists please: where’s that ovulation euphoria questionnaire?

Empirical scientific method admits as evidence only that which can be physically observed or measured.  Information which resists observation or measurement is deemed at best irrelevant and more usually unreal.  If we can’t measure it, pin it down or prove it, it is untrustworthy, flakey and unworthy of further attention.

Of course this approach has given us huge rewards: comfortable lifestyles, longer lifespans, cures for diseases…This is clear.  But could it be that these wonderful rewards have encouraged us to apply empirical thinking in more and more spheres of activity while other modes of thinking and perception become more and more marginalised?

So powerful has the dogma of objectivism become that we now see people applying it not just in science but in interpreting their own lives.   The following quote is from an article in the Guardian by a recovering alcoholic describing his experience at Alcoholics Anonymous and subsequent disillusionment with the organisation:

I now realise that the rush I felt from being in a room full of people in the same boat as me – the sensation of peace, of God entering in through the ceiling – was simply  oxytocin (the human bonding hormone) triggered by the familiar rituals of the meeting. I was mistaking a chemical experience for a religious one.”

Even leaving aside the religious angle, what a tragic interpretation this is of an experience of peace and of being supported: In calling it a “chemical experience”, the writer strips an experience (which he admits elsewhere in the article almost certainly saved his life) of all meaning.

I see two problems with this interpretation

1   There is no “un-chemical” experience

What this writer forgets is that, through this lens, his current disillusionment is another chemical experience, as was his beginning to drink, his childhood and every other experience of his life.  Biochemical processes are associated with every moment of every experience of our lives but they are not the experiences themselves.   And making this simple thinking error is a very fast short cut to despair.

  1.  We have no way of knowing what is “normal”

The writer above clearly believes that his current state gives him “true” perception while his previous state gave some kind of drugged up and distorted high.  Different hormonal states are certainly associated with different modes of perception but there is no evidence that any one of these gives us a truer picture of our world.  Empirical science will tell us that the state in which we see the world as physical, observable, measurable and separate from ourselves is the most “rational”.  But this is a circular argument:

  1. This state is gives us the most accurate picture of the world because we perceive empirically, and
  2. Empirical knowledge is the truest knowledge because that is how we experience the world in this “true” state.

Other states of consciousness, such as that described by our alcoholic writer above, have long been marginalised.  We may have discounted, kept secret or forgotten experiences which are not sanctioned or recognised in our culture.

So I realise that in describing some of the very un-empirical states of consciousness and modes of perception which I have very regularly experienced as part of a natural menstrual cycle, I run a very high risk of being dismissed out of hand.  Nevertheless, I believe that, sanctioned or not, the varying states of consciousness which are part of a natural menstrual cycle are a female birth right, fundamental to our identity and our experience of being human, female and fertile.  But because this is unempirical territory, it is invisible, unspoken of, unsanctioned and therefore all too easy to give up for the sake of “convenient” contraception.

I believe that understanding about alterations to one’s personality, identity and world view should be part of “informed choice” for women considering hormonal contraception.  This information is largely unmeasurable – certainly within the fertile lifetime of anyone reading this blog today – and of course there is no corporate funding for researching the downside of a multi-billion dollar product.  We can’t afford to wait for the scientists to get round to this.  Nevertheless, the information we need is available to us right now in the form of women’s lived experience.  I offer my story as one individual woman.  I don’t believe I have all the answers but I do hope to begin a new conversation.

 

 

What is ‘real’ knowledge?  Empirical scientific thought tells us that only that which can be objectively observed and physically measured can be considered valid information.   This approach has clearly brought us great advances in many fields but it has also made us culturally blind to information which is not open to this kind of measurement.

Our daily experiences, the ways in which we perceive the world,  are complex, dynamic and invisible experiences and as such have largely been dismissed as irrelevant in science.  What is more, objectivist scientific thought has become so fully integrated into our culture that our subjective experiences have become marginalised, not just in science but across the board.  The very word “subjective” has come to mean something like “irrelevant to anyone but yourself”.

And yet, every moment of every day we live the experiences which make our lives real: we feel the sun on our faces, we are hurt by a cruel remark, we fall in love, we feel anger, we respond to a particular piece of music, we proceed through our menstrual cycle.  These are completely subjective experiences, each one absolutely unique to ourselves at a particular time and place.  And they are absolutely relevant to other people.

Without hearing the stories of others we have no way of making sense of our own.  By listening to another person’s experience and getting to vicariously experience it ourselves, we start to see where it intersects with our own experience and where it differs.  We gain a small glimpse of the infinitely complex web of interactions which have created this experience and thus bring another increment of understanding to our own life.

Contrast this with a conventional scientific approach.  When scientists examine human experience, the usual approach is to cut the complexity and reduce the experience to something that can be measured on a linear numerical scale.  We get questionnaires “On a scale of 1-5, please rate your muscle stiffness today”  or indirect measures such as how fast we walk after winning or losing a football match. Or sometimes it’s the concentration of particular biochemicals in our bloodstream.

All the other prolifically interacting variables that impinge on our experience: our memories and previous experience, our surroundings, the other people involved, the state of our bodies, the weather…all these are cut out as “noise”.  The very details which make an experience meaningful and a story interesting are ruthlessly stripped away.

And when conventional science presents its results and shows us that, for example, people tend to walk faster after winning a football match than after losing, have stiffer muscles at a particular time of the month, or have higher concentrations of oxytocin in the blood while breast feeding, the conclusions feel alien to us and do not seem to reflect our experience in the least.

Our stories describe our lives in complexity in a way that will never be open to objective science.  Our stories shared are our most powerful resource in learning how to live our lives.

So, without apology, I offer my story in these posts and invite you to share your own.   I believe that by sharing our experience, we can come to understand our bodies through the natural learning process with which we have evolved to date.  Objective science may chip in some useful information along the way but must never make us doubt our primary means of understanding our lives:  our own bodies and our own stories in communication with those around us.

So growing up in Britain in the 1970’s my understanding of the menstrual cycle was something like this:

Untitled

It didn’t exactly sell the idea of being a woman.  Although it did sell a range of shame-covering products designed to help us poor females disguise this unfortunate feature of our bodies.

Of course, no-one wants blood stains on their clothes, any more than they want coffee stains.  It’s also true that period pain and pre-menstrual emotions can both be crippling for some women.  This is the winter of our menstrual cycle.

But here’s the thing.

NO-ONE EVER TOLD US THERE WAS A SUMMER TOO.

I was probably in my 30’s before I started to understand what was going on but I gradually became aware of an intense period of extreme good feeling mid-cycle.  This is the time of ovulation, the fertile period, the flip side of ‘pre-menstrual’.  I became aware of myself overflowing with fertility: not just the ability to get pregnant but an all-encompassing sense of optimism, confidence and creativity, with sexual desire and desirability at a peak.

In later posts I will attempt to describe my experience of this time although it will be difficult to express its depth and intensity  in everyday language.

Despite much hunting for information, only the slightest hints seemed to indicate that this was a regular female experience.  “You may feel sexier around the time of ovulation” seemed to be the most anyone had to say. As if the female experience of fertility was, at most, an insignificant little buzz. “You may feel sexier”.  Or you may not.  Who cares?

For me, however, the experience of fertility (as part of a cycle which also includes a winter phase) has been central to my experience of being a woman.  It has been fiercely empowering  and wildly creative.  It is an essential part of my identity and without it my perceptions, my decisions and my whole life path would have been entirely different.  Although my fertile days are now over, it continues to shape my view of the world.

I can’t believe that my experience is unique.  I am sure other women feel this way.  But why is it that no-one talks about it?   Could it be that, for all our liberal notions, actually female fertility and sexual power is still absolutely taboo?  Is it easier for our society to focus on the pre-menstrual and bleeding aspects of our femaleness?  Are we easier to control as the weaker sex, rather than the powerful beyond all measure sex?  And crucially, how have so many of us unwittingly given up this power, our birthright, in return for “convenient” contraception?

Let’s begin at the very beginning: growing up as a female and learning what that’s supposed to mean.

Some women may of course have been luckier than me but it seems likely that the way I learned about menstruation is similar to many women’s experience.

I first heard the “p” word from friends as a great and terrifying secret.  We shared our inaccurate knowledge, wondered when we would start, feared that we would be the first or worse still, be left behind.

At home I received a brief and embarrassed warning of the forthcoming bleeding and “this is where the pads are kept”.  End of story.

School gave a biology lesson on the subject.  Just one:  …lining of the womb….builds up…egg unfertilised….comes away.  Draw the diagram.  Now let’s move on.  Phew.

We had a single, girls only session in home ec. too: carry pads in your school bag but we have spares in the home ec. cupboard in case of emergency.  A disappointment after the build up  surrounding the exclusion of boys.

I think these were my only “live” sources of menstrual information.  All brief ‘let’s get this out of the way’ interactions and all exclusively focused on the bleeding, or more accurately, keeping the bleeding out of sight.  No discussion or questioning was invited and no other part of the cycle was discussed.

The teen magazines we read chipped in then with more upbeat information but still presented in that ‘we’re modern and grown up and not embarrassed’ style and still focusing exclusively on the bleeding.

The wider media, meanwhile, has continuously from then to now, presented me with a vast array of products, often “scientifically proven” to absorb vast quantities of euphemistically blue liquid, allowing me to smell like an air freshener while roller skating in tight white shorts “at any time of the month”

Women, fear not, they tell us.  We understand about your shameful bleeding and we can fix you.  Science is here.  Science can help you cover up the stinking and blood stained creature you really are and make you actually acceptable in polite society “at any time of the month”

So.  Messages received so far:

#1 Menstrual cycle = Sometimes bleeding, sometimes not

#2  Menstrual bleeding = inconvenient, fun stopping, shameful

#3 Strong, confident, modern women conquer menstruation with the help of science.  They look and act the same at all times of the month.

So, on into the 1980’s and 90’s.  Nothing much changes on the first three messages but we do get another part of the cycle thrown into the mix: the premenstrual stage.  Suddenly our cycle had an extra downside: a time of the month when women turn stone crazy.  They are dangerous with mad rage and can actually get away with murdering their parnters while under the influence of pre-menstrual madness.  A staple of stand up comedy and tabloid media, pre-menstrual emotions have been caricatured to expand on our first message above:

#4 Menstrual cycle = sometimes bleeding, sometimes being psychotic/murderous, sometimes neither

So thankyou, home, school, media and business for your explanations about my body.  It seems like a pretty bad thing.  With this blanket negativity, a woman could easily be persuaded that it would be better to be rid of this inconvenience.

But folks, this is not the whole story.  Not by a long chalk.  In the next post I will tell what I have learned all by myself.  Not from books, TV, friends or family but by simply living in my own body though 30 some years of almost totally uninterrupted menstrual cycling.  It’s a very different story.