I am just going to lay this out here. If you want to discuss when we start giving children the message that STEM is for boys and not for girls, you can’t get any earlier than the selection of newborn baby clothes. Cars? Robots? Spaceships? Dinosaurs? For boys! Could we get any clearer? (Editor’s note: As a currently preggers person, I have to say that it could be with decorating for the incipient baby since most people find out what sex their baby is before it’s born. So I win? Or we all lose, maybe… Definitely I win for using ‘incipient.’)
The complaint that kids’ clothing is drowned in gender messages is a well-trod progressive parent’s rant. Girl’s shirts pronounce them little cuties and princesses while boy’s shirts are covered with superheroes and sports imagery. If you are looking for something more egalitarian, you will need to look to the more expensive baby clothing lines. However, first, most babies will not be wearing those clothes, and, second, I am just not interested in paying $30 for an onesie that my baby will outgrow in three months.
I strongly suspect that because baby’s bodies are so free of outward expressions of gender, and because we view gender as so primary to a person’s identity, that there is a correspondingly strong drive to make sure a baby’s biological sex is obvious through what the baby wears. (Why, oh why, would I want to pin a tiny functionless bow in my daughter’s wisps of hair for her to grab and pull?) Baby clothes are where you can clearly see society’s free association of what goes with what gender. And in the breakdown of what goes with whom, just about all the imagery that might represent excitement about building, designing, and discovery, e.g. STEM fields, is found in the boy’s aisle. That is, unless, you are thinking about working with wildlife, because giraffes, elephants, ducks, and frogs are firmly in the “gender-neutral” yellow/green aisle.
This is something my wife and I became aware of in a practical way as we anticipated the birth of our daughter Maya. In her first few years of life, our daughter will be dressed in outfits with cherries, robots, owls, giraffes, frogs, cars, cupcakes, and dinosaurs, and in the colors blue, pink, purple, yellow, green, and all the rest of the rainbow. We want all these things and colors to be in her world (Editor’s note: DRESS THE BABIES IN ALL THE THINGS!!!). But, because we are proud geeks, we really love clothes with robots. Slap a goofy little robot on a shirt, and these suckers will buy it. But, almost without exception, clothes with robots are found in the “boy” section and are colored blue. Specifically they are colored in the shades of blue that are coded to be the “boy” shades. As a case in point, when we dress our daughter in a featureless outfit of that shade of blue, we are often asked how old our little “guy” is. We did find one exception to this robot rule of color. A few years ago, we gasped with excitement when we found a roll of fabric at a craft store with pink and purple robots. It was notable for how unusual it was. (Editor’s note: My people are the people who gasp with excitement at diversely-hued robots.)
So if you want to know when precisely we start giving boys and girls the message that the STEM field is masculine, look to the baby clothing aisle. The brilliant thing about baby clothes is that they are never subtle. (That is, unless they are the expensive ones).
Editor’s Note: Here is a guest post by Stacey Ritz.
We put it in pink so that people with girl-eyes could read it.
ATTENTION WOMEN SCIENTISTS: It’s not our propensity for falling-in-love/being-falled-in-love-with (#distractinglysexy), or all the weeping (I’ve been drinking PBS to rehydrate myself), or our inferior genes, or our lack of original thoughts, or our “belligerent moods”, that have been holding us back in the laboratory…it has been the lack of an appropriately feminine pipettor! And thank goodness those dark days of marginalization are over, because there is now the PIPETGIRL. <<heaves sigh of relief>>
According to Integra Biosciences, features of the PIPETGIRL that distinguish it from the PIPETBOY are:
“A significant weight reduction…”, which is something we all want, AMIRITE LAYDEEZ, I mean I have to fit into this size 2 lab coat before the lab photo next Friday.
“….Lighter, with only 195 grams and an optimized ergonomic balance”, because our dainty lady-hands can’t handle the bulky heft of the PIPETBOY acu2, which weighs in at a hefty 195 grams….oh hey wait, that’s the same. They must mean the PIPETBOY pro then, the one that weighs 190 grams. Um, what? SO WHAT IS IT LIGHTER THAN? LIGHTER THAN WHAT? THIS IS SOME BULLSHIT I TELL YOU, my hands are going to get all cramped.
“Faster, the new Turbo Mode provides the unit with 20% extra pipetting speed.” That way we can save 10 minutes aliquoting the media and get home in time to make dinner before hubby and the kids start whining.
“Longer operating time due to the latest lithium-ion battery technology.” Just like women live longer than men, so the PIPETGIRL outlasts the PIPETBOY.
PLUS BONUS PINKWASHING, Y’ALL! The nice lady scientist wearing a pink sweater under her lab coat, making a heart shape with her hands, has a caption that says “Let’s fight breast cancer together!”, and says “A $15 donation per PIPETGIRL goes to breast cancer research institutes.” To which I say HEY, what about ME and my non-breast cancer research, can you just give me a $15 discount on a PIPETBOY and make a donation to my lab instead?
Integra isn’t the only one selling the PIPETGIRL, you can also get it from other suppliers, and I plan to order mine from Vitaris, to reward them for their MOST AMAZING GRAPHIC of woman’s head making a kissy-face emerging horizontally from the side of a clipboard and her gloved hand clasping a purple pipettor (which is not actually the PIPETGIRL, which is pink, which is puzzling because why is the advertisement is for the PIPETGIRL, I AM SO CONFUSED) coming from above the clipboard.
The clipboard itself reads “ENDLICH ZIEHT DIE EMANZIPATION INS LABOUR EIN!”, which, if my memory of Grade 10 German is correct*, means “end draws the emancipation in the labour one!” But then underneath the picture it says “Emancipation has finally reached the lab – with full-on girl power!”, which is probably a better translation (though again my recollection of Grade 10 German suggests that “girl power” should be “Mädchen Macht” and I don’t see that on the clipboard anywhere). Which means that I guess we should be thanking PIPETGIRL for finally helping us reach gender equity in science! Who knew that a lighter** pink pipettor was all that we needed, eh?
Once, an undergraduate student told me she was experiencing depression, but that she had been concerned about telling me she was on anti-depressants. Why worry about telling me? I asked. She explained that she was worried I would think badly of her for using meds. I sat there, stunned, frantically running over the entirety of anything I had ever said to her or in front of her, wondering where this idea would have come from. Coming up blank, I asked her why she thought that. She explained to me that feminists were against anti-depressants. Again, I was stunned, did the frantic scrolling-through-the-entire-history-of-the-world thing, and came up blank. Of course, I congratulated her for getting treatment, for discussing mental health when it is more typically seen as taboo, and we had a long discussion. And it hit me, then or a bit later, where this all came from…
Feminists are very often against medicalization, but almost none are against MEDICINE. Do those words look too similar to mean different things? Kind of, eh? I mean, objectively they are different words, but they are so same-lookish! Maybe one is just a fancy way of saying the other? Nope. Medicine and medicalization are not the same. Even if they have the same first five letters!
Would you like some fancy definitions for the terms that I just made up? OF COURSE YOU DO! Medicine’s fancy definition: something you put in/on your body to reduce the negative effects of illness/sickness/bad health. And part of defining a term is thinking about who are the experts for that term. So, who is an expert on medicine?
Bon Jovi, obviously. This is what Jon Bon says: Your love is like bad medicine | Bad medicine is what I need | Shake it up, just like bad medicine | So let’s play doctor, baby | Cure my disease. Wow. That’s a bit confusing because why does anyone need bad medicine? And, is it all medicine that needs to be shaken, or just the bad kinds? Who else is an expert on medicine? Doctors, pharmacists, some biomedical researchers, epidemiologists, all in addition to Bon Jovi, the reigning champion.
Ok, now for the fancy definition of medicalization: something that unnecessarily grabs a phenomenon from the ‘regular life’ box and puts it into the medical domain box. Who is an expert on medicalization? Here, Bon Jovi lets us down as does music in general (try to get on with life, though) – there are no songs, brilliant or otherwise, about medicalization. Who is left to be an expert on medicalization, then, without the frosted hair contingent? Sociologists of medicine, feminist scholars, medical anthropologists, people with the lived experience of whatever’s being medicalized, and other critical thinkers.
Well! Easy peasy lemon squeezy! Medicine means one thing and medicalization another! Phew. Medicine = good; medicalization = not so good. Except that the line between the two isn’t so clear. In fact, that blurriness is kind of the point of the concept of medicalization: on one hand, medical folks think a phenomenon IS a legitimate medical target while, on the other hand, scholars and community folks do not. Who is right? This is a case of ‘competing knowledge claims.’ How do we decide which knowledge claim (medicine! or, medicalization!) is right? Helen Longino, a superfamous feminist philosopher of science, argues the only way we do this is with a “community of knowers,” which is a fancy way of saying ‘people.’ But she also argues that this community needs to be diverse. So, you can’t just have, say, MDs arguing over whether something is medicine or medicalization – in fact, the question of whether a thing that is already IN medicine might actually be not-medicine would probably not-occur to most or many mediciney people.
Tricky question: are pharmaceutical companies and their people experts on medicine? Some would argue that they can be experts on medicine but also that they are expert medicalizers. For example, they might have a medicine but no disease! What to do in that case? The case of the missing disease? Make one up! Critical scholars have demonstrated how diseases sometimes get manufactured so that an existing no-use medicine can be sold. Or, how something that is regular (like balding in men, or small breasts in women) gets repackaged as a disease that can be solved by 10 easy installments of $$$ CALL NOW!
So the line between medicine and medicalization can be blurry because people with differing perspectives and goals will argue about whether the same phenomenon is one thing or another. But the line can be blurry in another way. For example, I’m super preggers, if by ‘super’ we all agree to mean having a really superior experience of the worst parts of pregnancy but don’t worry: if you get pregnant, it will be the best part of your life I PROMISE BECAUSE I HAVE THAT KNOWLEDGE AND POWER. So, why is my pregnancy the worst? Well, I’ve spent many months in bed or on the couch, super nauseous and vomity and uncomfortable and NO, GINGER WILL NOT HELP and YES, I AM ALREADY IN THE SECOND TRIMESTER AND I’M STILL CRAPTASTIC and PLEASE, SOMEONE BUILD A TIME MACHINE SO I CAN FAST FORWARD TO THE BIRTH NO WAY AFTER THE BIRTH NO WAY TIL THE KID IS FIVE YEARS OLD. So, it’s pretty bad and I’ve been doing a lot of complaining (hey, do what you’re good at, eh?). My friends were all like: um, hey you friend of mine, do you know about this medicine for pregnancy nausea? And I was like yes, thank you, but things aren’t that bad yet. As things got worse, and my complaining ramped up, these friends were like: hey you friend of mine, seriously, there’s this medicine. For pregnancy nausea. Get it. Take it. And I was like, sure, when things get bad enough. Why? Because so much of pregnancy is medicalized, and I was trying to find the personal line between medicine and medicalization (and, no, I don’t need a ‘talking-to’ in the comments).
I mean, look, I’m a feminist scientist, a reproductive sciences person, a hormone researcher, and etc. I am generally pro-medicine and anti-medicalization. But knowing the difference in individual cases can be a nontrivial problem. Is taking anti-nausea pills self-medicating or self-medicalizing? Does it turn an incredibly common (horrifically so, given how debilitating it is) and regular part of the pregnancy “experience” into some sort of disease-like condition/state? I mean, my physical health wasn’t actually compromised since I was able to eat and, mostly, keep food down (sometimes women or other people gestating can’t, and very clearly need medical support to even just live). My psychological health was definitely another story: it’s a misery situation. Obviously, each person is going to have to figure this out for them. Once I finally decided the meds were medicine I took them and never looked back, feeling so much better, and happy with my choice.
So, the line between medicine and medicalization can be blurry, because what counts as a medical problem can be culturally situated (should there be a pill for lots/not much hair? are sticky-outy ears a medical issue? do periods have to be regular?). And, it’s not even always the case that we boo medicalization, because sometimes there might be benefits to putting something in the ‘medical’ box. Still, the presence of medicine (or a pill or a surgery) doesn’t magically transform whatever the medicine is for into a disease UNLESS YOU ARE HARRY HOUDINI AND THEN I RESPECTFULLY WITHDRAW. Feminism is, in part, about engaging with these distinctions (about medicalization vs. medicine, not Harry Houdini YET) even while supporting medical choices. Yes, there’s a tension there, but where isn’t there? (milkshakes.)
Guest post by Jeremy Bailin, Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy, University of Alabama!
Let’s talk about matter/anti-matter annihilation in the early Universe.
Okay, so that’s not normally what you’d expect in a GJS blog. There’s no relation between feminism or sexuality and particles interacting with anti-particles shortly after the Big Bang to turn into gamma rays, right?
Right. And that’s kind of the point.
Let me back up a minute. I am an astronomy professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alabama. I most often teach our 150-student intro astronomy class for non-scientists who need to fulfill their natural science breadth requirement. Lots of these students are scared to death of math and science, and so it is really important to build their intuition for important (and sometimes complicated and counterintuitive) astrophysical concepts using analogies to everyday situations where their intuition can point them in the right direction.
I pride myself on coming up with good analogies. In a good analogy, the correct answer in the analogy should be obvious, and the connection between the analogy and the actual physics should be easy to see. The expansion of the Universe is like the scene from Vertigo where the bottom of the tower stretches away from Jimmy Stewart. The “demotion” of Pluto is like an alien visiting a pet store and mistaking the first cat it sees for a strange dog. And, until this semester, matter/anti-matter annihilation in the early Universe was like boys and girls at a dance.
First, the real physics:
In the early universe, when it was extremely hot, there were almost equal numbers of particles and anti-particles. Particles and anti-particles could come together and annihilate, turning into photons (particles of light, in this case gamma rays), and there was enough energy that photons could turn back into particle/anti-particle pairs. But as the universe cooled down, the photons didn’t have enough energy anymore to turn into particle/anti-particle pairs. Meanwhile, particles and anti-particles kept on annihilating with each other as long as they could. It turns out that there were a few more particles than anti-particles, so the extra particles of matter had nothing to annihilate with and are still around today. Those few extra particles of matter are, in fact, the ones we are made of!
The analogy is that there are a bunch of boys and girls at a dance, who each want to pair up with someone of the opposite sex. While the dance is still going on, boy/girl pairs are forming — just like particle/anti-particle pairs coming together to turn into a photon — and coming apart at the end of each song — just like photons turning back into particle/anti-particle pairs. But once the music stops, all of the boys and girls pair up until they run out of potential partners. It turns out that there are more girls than boys in the population, so after all of the couples have gone, there are a few extra girls left.
By the metrics I listed, this is a great analogy. It is intuitively obvious that there will be a few girls leftover at the end of the dance. And the connection between forming couples and forming particle/anti-particle pairs is easy to see. It’s perfect!
It’s also awfully heteronormative.
When I use this analogy, some fraction of the class will be inwardly sighing as a situation where they do not exist is assumed as the norm [note: Thank you to Andrea Leistra for this turn of phrase!]. And during that moment, when I am trying to excite them with the idea that for every 1,000,000,000 anti-matter particles there were 1,000,000,001 matter particles, and *they themselves* are made up of those extra 1-in-a-billion particles, which I think is one of the coolest things in the entire course… they are not paying attention. Even if I wasn’t motivated to change it because I think that avoiding heteronormative analogies is a good goal (which I do), I would be motivated to do it as a teacher. Now, if I concluded that there really isn’t another good analogy, then I would keep it — it’s not offensive. But if I can come up with another good option, then I should!
However, I was stumped. So, of course, I asked Facebook. I got a number of good suggestions, but most had one of two problems:
The “leads and follows” problem: In ballroom dancing, people either learn to dance as the “lead”, who leads the dance moves, or the “follow”, who follows. Traditionally, for mixed-sex dance partners, males are the leads and females are the follows, but the reverse is perfectly possible, and for same-sex dance partners there is obviously no particular mapping between the sex and the category. This preserves the connection between the physics and the analogy perfectly — there are still two distinct types of dance partners, but there is no longer any connection to sex. However, it fails the intuitive criterion because it is too esoteric; there are likely a large number of students who don’t have enough experience with ballroom dancing to be familiar with the terminology (editor’s note: and this is the real tragedy of our educational system). If the analogous situation is not intuitively obvious, it’s no good.
The “extra sock” problem: Anyone who has ever done laundry in their life has been confounded by the fact that, when you take your laundry out of the dryer and fold it, and put all of your socks into pairs, there is always one leftover. This is definitely intuitive, but fails the other criterion — it is much less analogous to the physics because there is only one type of sock (i.e. left and right socks aren’t different).
In the end, there were two analogies that were left standing. One is a zipper: the Universe began as a very, very long zipper, and as it cooled it got zipped up, with every left zipper tooth joining with a right zipper tooth. However, it turns out that the zipper was longer on one side, so after it has been zipped as far as it could go, there was still a little left on one side. The other good analogy is musical chairs: while the music is playing, people (particles) are in front of first one chair (anti-particle), then another, and so on. But once the music stops, and all of the people sit on any chair they can find that’s free, there are some people left over. I think these are both just as good as the original analogy and are not in the slightest heteronormative!
So, is there a relation between sexuality and matter/anti-matter annihilation in the early Universe? There shouldn’t be. And now, in my class, there isn’t.
[Thanks to everyone who commented on the facebook thread that spawned this post.]
There are many things I’m an expert on. Here is a list:
Weather. Why? Because I have experienced weather for all the years of my life.
Existence. Why? Because not only have I experienced weather for all the years of my life, I have also existed for all those years too.
Gravity. Why? Because do you see me flying off the earth? No.
Milkshakes. Why? Because obviously.
Lists. Why? Because I’m making one right now. And, I’ll add, I’ve made them before. A lot.
House construction. Why? Because, apart from the years I lived in university residences or apartments, I’ve lived in houses. In fact, I’ve lived in a lot of houses. Have any of them fallen down on my head? No. Why? Because I’m an expert in house construction.
Astronomy. Why? Because I have seen the stars and once I learned how to pick out Orion’s Belt. I even once wrote a poem that mentioned Orion’s Belt.
Particle physics. Why? Because I am made of particles.
This list could go on, ad infinitum (I am also an expert on Latin because I used that phrase without even looking it up).
Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to be an expert, right? OR IS IT?! (cue dramatic music!) It is remotely possible that I am being sarcastic or facetious (as if I know the difference) with my list above. Also, I’d like to make clear that as a child I thought there were two words: 1) facetious and 2) facetitious, the more detail-oriented version of the first (hence attention to all the facets). Now that we’ve cleared that up (phew!), let’s talk more about experts and expertise.
Here’s a funny fact: I actually am an expert and so are many of my friends. It’s kind of no big whoop to be an expert around these here parts, to be honest. Can you believe we’re such a bunch of bitches to actually call ourselves experts?! It doesn’t matter; we are. We all have PhDs, do research, and are internationally known (to rock the microphone) (just kidding, Rob Base & D.J. EZ Rock!). We’re not experts in everything. We have specific areas of expertise, even beyond being a bunch of bitches. For example, my areas of expertise include hormones, sexuality, feminist science, intimacy, gender/sex, sexual diversity, and other things. Who do I think I am? Mr. Big Stuff? Can you believe I have the nerve to call myself an expert?! It doesn’t actually take nerve. For me, it takes a Ph.D., an ongoing research and publishing program, and the respect of other experts. But, really, aren’t we all experts?
We’re not all experts. Why not? Because experience doesn’t equal expertise (see my list above). It takes learning, critical thinking about your experience, weighing evidence and ideas, and exchange of ideas, among other things. Why am I talking about any of this anyway? Because, feminists and scientists (and, wow, definitely feminist scientists) often hear people question their expertise. Like, someone might say: I have gender, so basically I know as much about gender as a gender scholar. Someone else might say, I’ve had peeny-bageeny sex (that’s actually the Latin term; I know, because I’m an expert), so I’m pretty much a sexpert. Someone else might say, I’ve seen Black people, so I’m an expert on race. Or, I have a race, so I’m an expert on race! But even though the two words start similarly with ‘ex’, expertise and experience (no matter how broad or deep) are not the same things.
Do you need a PhD to be an expert? Nope. Why? Because I like to ask questions that have ‘no’ in their answers ever since someone told me to mix up my writing with longer and shorter sentences and ‘no’ is about as short a sentence can get. Also because you can have a lived experience that you do critically engage with. Like, having a gender does not make you an expert on gender or feminism. But, you don’t need a PhD in those topics to be an expert on them. Maybe you’ve spent a very significant portion of your life thinking about gender, talking about it, reading and learning about it, and developing your own insights on it that add value to the way people understand gender. You’re able to communicate things about gender that make it make sense to others. You’ve figured out a lot about it and have a good grasp on what other thinking people think about it. You could be an expert on it then. I give you permission. This might be more likely if your experiences don’t fall along the majority of other people. Why? Because. (Another short sentence! I win!) If you’re too busy living the status quo, you might not even realize it in the way that fish don’t know they’re swimming in water (I know, because the fish told me). If you’re being excluded because of your gender, you might just stop to think ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ Otherwise, you might have little reason to think closely about gender. This is something called ‘feminist standpoint theory,’ which makes the point that critical reflection on your position, especially a marginalized or ‘non-center’ position, provides for invaluable and unique insights.
The funny thing is that people tend to get what I’m saying about expertise when it comes to, say, physics. They know that, unlike item # 8 above, being made of particles doesn’t make you an expert on particle physics. But when it comes to other things – things like gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality – somehow this logic dissipates. How do I know? My partner is a theoretical physicist! Surprise! And when people meet my partner, they’re like ‘wow, you must be very smart.’ They see my partner as an expert. This never gets said to me and, so, yes, this whole post is really just for me to complain and blow off steam and be like I AM SMART TOO! Thanks! Bye! Just kidding! But, let me tell you something: in my presence, no one, and I mean NO ONE WHO IS NOT A PHYSICIST (except for my dad – who, like all dads – is a special case) has ever tried to convince my partner that they know more about physics than my partner does or that their take on a particular aspect of physics is more right than my partner’s is. No one ever says to my partner: but why call it physics? Guess how many people who have given feminism about one second of thought have tried to convince me, with total and complete sincerity, that we should change the name of feminism? I want to be like: HOW ABOUT WE CALL IT PHYSICS?!?! There are people who have literally never taken a course on feminism or gender, read a book on either, or even sat down and given the topics some thoughts who will, nevertheless, tell me – and, I would roughly guesstimate, ALL OTHER FEMINIST SCHOLARS AND EXPERTS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD (I’m an expert on guesstimating too) – that their views on gender and feminism, rooted in their deep thought of about one millisecond, are as expert as my own. Ironically, I’m a big fan of questioning experts, but I’m not a big fan of doing so out of a place of ignorance. I suppose I’m not a big fan of ignorance, now that I think about it. I am a big fan of ignoring, less so of igniting, and even less of ignominy. Just so we’re all clear.
Obviously, the point I’m trying to make here is that (a) I’m always right, (b) bow down, bitches (to quote Beyoncé), and also (c) I am an expert on lists (see item #5 above). But, really, it’s more that expertise isn’t something you get by dint of existing. Expertise is something you earn. Whether you’re a physicist (like me), a gender expert (like me), or an expert in house construction (like me).
Guest post by Tory Eisenlohr-Moul, Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s Reproductive Mood Disorders, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Both physical and psychological experiences of the menstrual cycle vary widely, and no one woman has the right to define or narrate the experiences of others. As we share our own menstrual narratives, we must be careful not to contribute to misogynistic, invalidating views meant to provide an excuse for dismissing women’s emotional experiences when they aren’t convenient.
Every once in a while, a product comes along that provides a context for a reflection on our culture. Today I write about “Period Panties” as one such context. Recently my partner sent me this link to a site for Period Panties– check them out. On a functional level, Period Panties are pretty much what they sound like: panties that you wear during menses. But as a fashion statement, they go much further. Their shape is modeled after men’s tighty-whities, and they are covered with humorously aggressive cartoon imagery that alludes to blood, such as “Shark Week”, “Captain Redbeard”, and “Dawn of the Red.” Inspired stuff–I laughed out loud.
Women have been shamed around menstruation in myriad ways for generations, from banishment to the “red tent” during menses, to being subject to the question, “Is this your time of the month?” after expressing a strong emotion. Recent iterations of these misogynistic attitudes include iPhone apps intended for (ostensibly male) partners of cycling women who wish to be alerted when their partners are nearing “danger weeks”. These apps exemplify the spirit of menstrual shaming: women are disgusting/worthless when they are menstruating, and their expressions of emotion are not to be trusted perimenstrually (i.e., prior to or during menses).
So, given this historical and cultural context of menstrual shaming, there’s a lot to like about Period Panties. In their creators and purchasers, we have women who, instead of presumably cowering in the shameful red tent of their ratty old granny panties, are choosing to turn this week of bleeding into a celebration of female power. Even the shape, co-opted from male fashion, might be intended to put a powerful spin on menstrual bleeding.
As the creators put it, these panties “high-five” you for menstruating. It sounds like a feminist party in my pants. What’s not to like? (editor’s note: I put this in big quotes because obviously.)
Is There Evidence for Premenstrual Aggression in the General Population?
As a scientist studying female aggression across the menstrual cycle, I can tell you that perimenstrual aggression, even defined very liberally, seems to be a pretty rare phenomenon. In fact, evidence for an across-the-board premenstrual syndrome in the general population is pretty nonexistent. A recent review of prospective studies (i.e., studies following women across the cycle) of mood across the menstrual cycle was unable to document a consistent pattern of effects for any emotion, including irritability or anger (Romans, Rose, Einstein, Petrovic, & Stewart, 2012). More specific work examining women’s mood and behavioral responses to the ovarian hormones, estrogen and progesterone, which fluctuate across the menstrual cycle, suggest extreme variability in mood and behavioral responsiveness to hormones (Schmidt, Nieman, Danaceau, Adams, & Rubinow, 1998), with the majority of women showing no significant effects (e.g., Schwartz, Romans, Meiyappan, De Souza, & Einstein, 2012). While there are some women–those with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)–who do show reliable, prospectively-confirmed premenstrual increases in negative moods or interpersonal problems, this is quite a rare phenomenon, affecting only about 5% of women.
Unfortunately, women are notoriously bad at diagnosing premenstrual symptoms in themselves (editor’s note: not just bad, but notoriously bad! that takes skill), a fact highlighted by the recruitment process in our lab. For some of our studies, we recruit using posters that invite women with “PMS” to enter a research study. They then participate in a diagnostic study, completing daily measures of mood symptoms and interpersonal problems for three months. Among this group of women who personally identify as having PMS, only about ⅓ actually show a link between the cycle and their symptoms. Furthermore, many of those women who show such a link do not have interpersonal symptoms (e.g., anger, aggression, conflict), exhibiting only internalizing symptoms such as depression or anxiety.
This suggests that, in our sample of respondents, at least ⅔ of the women who think they have premenstrual psychological disturbances are experiencing something other than PMS/PMDD. One possibility is that these women are falling prey to a confirmation bias phenomenon in which they misattribute emotions to premenstrual processes. This is even more troubling when one considers the negative mental health consequences of such self-invalidation (e.g., “There’s nothing really wrong, I’m just being crazy because it’s my time of the month!”). This kind of invalidation of one’s feelings can lead to a plethora of psychological problems in its own right, and is a key process in broader emotional problems (Robertson, Kimbrel, & Nelson-Gray, 2013). For many women, these attitudes and misattributions may be the result of chronic exposure to societal messages that invalidate female emotional experiences and expressions by invoking the menstrual cycle.
Despite disconfirming evidence, cultural perpetuation of the idea of a normative premenstrual syndrome characterized by irritability and aggressiveness has become so widespread that most people accept it without question. It’s become a popular trope in TV series. Many men, perhaps out of fear of being inappropriate or offensive by asking, make it through most of their lives knowing nothing about the female reproductive cycle except what they see on TV, which is a horrifying notion if you’re paying attention. Many women attribute premenstrual irritability or anger immediately to their cycle rather than examining whether their emotion makes sense in the context of their situation.
I learned quickly that many people are strongly attached to PMS as an explanation for their own and their partners’ behavior. Generally when I (gently) question someone’s assertion that PMS has played a big role in their relationships or lives, I am drowned in a flood of anecdotes supporting their experiences of PMS. And I’m always careful to respond by agreeing that their anecdotes may in fact be manifestations of true PMS/PMDD. But actually, the odds are pretty low.
Celebrating a Diversity of Menstrual Narratives
As women, we have the right to narrate our own menstrual experiences, and to make those narratives public. I’ll go further–I think it’s important that we do so as a way to undermine social stigma and shame around the cycle. However, both physical and psychological experiences of menstruation vary widely, and no one woman has the right to define or narrate the experiences of others. Unfortunately, well-intentioned women often make this leap of overgeneralization in ways that contribute to the myth of pervasive premenstrual aggression, and, by extension, the invalidation of emotions in premenstrual women. It’s important to realize that, although Period Panties may be empowering to some women, they may serve as a reminder to another woman that her emotions are invalid and overblown during the premenstrual phase–even if they aren’t. In sum: claim what makes you feel powerful, but be careful not to assume it will empower someone else.
As a new generation of girls buy their first feminine hygiene products, let’s remember that they are listening to our narratives as they build their own menstrual perceptions. Let’s be thoughtful about making PMS jokes around them. Let’s be aware of how the men in their lives talk about the cycle. And where we have the chance, let’s practice affirmative action with regard to validating and legitimizing perimenstrual emotions. Let’s take extra steps to search for valid reasons for whatever emotion has arisen, both in ourselves and in other women. If you suspect that your hormones are playing a role, maybe they are– but don’t neglect to check in with your emotions as important sources of information anyway.
In closing: I have a great sense of humor, and period panties are hilarious. More importantly, it’s great if they have the power to reverse menstrual shame and be empowering for many women. On the other hand, I encourage sensitivity in the framing of these menstrual narratives. Through curiosity and open conversation, let’s celebrate a diversity of menstrual experiences.
Romans, S., Clarkson, R., Einstein, G., Petrovic, M., & Stewart, D. (2012). Mood and the Menstrual Cycle: A Review of Prospective Data Studies. Gender Medicine, 9(5), 361-384.
Schmidt, P. J., Nieman, L. K., Danaceau, M. A., Adams, L. F., & Rubinow, D. R. (1998). Differential behavioral effects of gonadal steroids in women with and in those without premenstrual syndrome. New England Journal of Medicine,338(4), 209-216.
Schwartz, D. H., Romans, S. E., Meiyappan, S., De Souza, M. J., & Einstein, G. (2012). The role of ovarian steroid hormones in mood. Hormones and behavior,62(4), 448-454.
When I was in graduate school, I took a human neuroanatomy class. It was both awesome and boring. Why boring? Because decades of people had mistreated their donated cadavers so that, by the time I came along, students weren’t allowed to dissect cadavers anymore if they were non-med school classes (and, yes, the worst part of that is not my lost opportunity to dissect but the mistreatment of people’s donated bodies). Why awesome? Because actually I only a little bit wanted to dissect a cadaver brain and really didn’t want to smell that smell (you know what I’m talking about, some people, zombies, and undertakers!). Though, to be honest, it was awesome when I dissected a sheep‘s brain in undergrad (FOR A CLASS), so maybe I did miss out. I DIGRESS. So, anyway, someone else had dissected the cadaver brains and we got to see them.
Here is a quick trip down halcyon memory lane. Remember that pia mater?! Wowzer! And how the grey matter was grey and the white matter white? Like, WHO KNEW?! Remember when you had to memorize those craniofacial nerves because people might bust into your faculty office one day and be like: QUICK! AND BY QUICK I MEAN IMMEDIATELY: WHICH OF THESE NERVES IS THE ABDUCENS AND WHAT DOES IT DO? I mean, easy peasy if we’re talking the glossopharyngeal nerve (glosso… something with the tongue or taste? near the tasty nerves???), but the abducens… um, abdomens?? Anyway, each time this has happened to me – i.e., each time someone busted into my faculty office being like IMMEDIATELY SAY ALL THE CRANIAL NERVES SO WE CAN DEFUSE THIS BOMB AND SAVE THE HUMANS – I have been lucky enough to be sitting with realneuroscientists who still remember all their cranial nerves so they can shout out IT’S THE SIXTH… THE SIXTH!!! Then, luckily, we prevent armageddon, save the humanity, and live happily ever after. All because someone (not me) really learned their cranial nerves rather than just memorize and immediately forget them due to never needing to know them again.
I, apparently, am not the only one who didn’t really learn the cranial nerves and instead just cast them to memory. Lots of people memorize them, it turns out. And how do they do so? With a mnifty mneumonic. Or mnot so mnifty, as the case may be. There are lots of mneumonics (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PRONOUNCE THE FIRST M EACH TIME BECAUSE THIS POST IS A LOT MORE FUN THAT WAY!). You can find them on wikipedia. Some of the mneumonics are ‘regular’.
Ooh, ooh, ooh to touch and feel very good velvet. Such heaven!
That stands for olfactory nerve, optic nerve, oculomotor nerve, trochlear nerve, and then the other nerves (I’m too lazy to type them out).
Some of the mneumonics are ‘dirty’. Not dirty like you fell into dirt. They aren’t even dirty like a good roll in the hay (either sexual or non-sexual works, I suppose, BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LOVE TO TO NON-METAPHORICALLY ROLL IN THE HAY?! Remember that slogan: Hay Is For Rolling?! Me neither). They’re not really dirty or rude – they’re mostly just crude – lots of vaginas and anuses (not that there’s anything wrong with vaginas and anuses. And, I know, feminists, I am TOTALLY outraged by the lack of vulvas too! WHERE ARE THE VULVAS IN THESE OFFENSIVE MNEUMONICS!?). And crude is by definition not funny.
When I was in my grad neuroanatomy class, I somehow missed the memo that there mneumonics for the craniofacial nerves (it would have been a mnemo, obviously. Or maybe a mnemno? I KILL ME!). I knew about mneumonics in general, and made them up myself, like: Love Ma Vest, which was lateral vestibular nucleus for visual processing, medial vestibular nucleus for auditory processing, and something-something for somatosensory processing. Are these right? Too bad there is nowhere for me to look it up and check. Back to the cranial nerves though (keep up!). Do you know what I learned about craniofacial nerves?
Scientific culture is messed up. That is what I learned. There are weird, rapey, disturbing mneumonics for cranial nerves. (LMGTFY.) (i.e., let me google that for you if you don’t believe me.) And people don’t think anything of them. Like, people don’t seem to think it weird to teach students, or relay to peers, mneumonics like
Oh oh oh to touch and feel young virgin girls’ vaginas and hymens.
Because, hey: doesn’t every adult want to touch a young girl’s virgin hymen?!?! Doesn’t every young virgin girl want her hymen touched? Shall we unpack that, as one says? Deconstruct it, so to speak? Well, it’s not very complicated, is it. It’s weird enough for adults to talk about touching girls genitals because girls are, by definition, not adult women. But, in case it wasn’t clear that the girl is a not-adult, apparently it was important to clarify that this was a young girl, not your run of the mill non-adult girl. And then! The best part! SHE’S A VIRGIN! Does it get any better?! Oh, also? Some of the mneumonics involve Hitler because young virgin girls’ vaginas are not enough for some people.
It’s like FOR FUCK’S SAKE! Could we just have ONE place where we don’t get all rapey? Could that place be, I don’t know, the fucking cranial nerves!? I know you’re like: could we just have one place where we don’t get all swear-y, and that place is a feminist science blog? (You have your answer to that one.) (It’s ‘no’.) And I know all the other people are like ‘Can’t we just have one place where we get to make weird rape jokes and that one place is the world?!’ And also, the neuroanatomy students are like: can’t we just get to be funny for once about rape and young girls and nonconsent and hymens because hahahaha pedophilia?!
Do I even need a concluding section here? I mean, there is weird rapey fetishization of young girls in my neuroanatomy, sir! I’d like to send it back and get what I ordered! Which was an understanding of the brain that didn’t rely on rape culture. What’s going on in that kitchen anyway?
Okay, not surprisingly, the answer to whether subjectivity is biased is ‘no’. LET’S GO HOME! Just kidding! Remember math tests? It wasn’t the answer at the end, but how you got there.
Ok, so science: you’ve got your objectivity and your subjectivity. We’re supposed to be all: objectivity is the best! subjectivity is the worst! But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Objectivity is like this (Fig. 1):
And by ‘this’, I obviously mean a one-eyed alien. Why? What else could objectivity be like? Also, let’s be clear: the alien is clearly British because, so far as I know, only Brits smile with both their top and bottom teeth showing. I have it on the good authority of something I once read somewhere. BACK TO OBJECTIVITY NOW! Objectivity is like when (a) you say what you see; (b) it doesn’t matter who sees what you’re seeing, all of you would see the same thing, and (c) it doesn’t matter what part of the thing you’re looking at – it doesn’t have parts so that whatever you see represents the whole thing. Donna Haraway calls this the “God Trick”, as in: there is an all-seeing eye and it doesn’t belong to anyone and it doesn’t matter where it is; the thing is seen. By whom?! That passive voice! Seriously, who is doing the seeing? God? OR A ONE-EYED BRITISH ALIEN???! Only Donna knows. (Editor’s note, which is me: I don’t actually know Donna Haraway well enough to just call her by her first name, which is what makes me doing that funny, but only if you know, hence this note.) You can read all about this inDonna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges. (um, note: it’s not for beginners if you ask me.)
Okay, so we’ve got objectivity (see Fig. 1). What about subjectivity? Subjectivity looks like this (Fig. 2):
Yes, that’s right. Subjectivity looks like a weird map of Texas! Ok, seriously. Subjectivity is like objectivity in some ways: with both, you say what you see. But, with subjectivity, who’s doing the seeing can matter, because where you’re looking literally changes what you see. And, it does matter what part of the thing you’re looking at; it has parts, so whatever you see doesn’t represent the whole thing. Where you are, who you are, matters to what you see. Maybe your life experiences help you see things someone else can’t see. Maybe your social location adds blinders such that there are things you can’t see but that others experience. Some of our lived experiences differ in ways that affect where we look, how we see, what we see, and whether we like milkshakes or not.
So where does bias come in? I guess it comes in a number of ways. One is that some people don’t really understand the idea of subjectivity; i.e., that a thing might differ to different people. A thing may not have only one version of thingness. What? For example: I study sexual desire, among other things. Most research on sexual desire (including a lot of my own past work) assumes that sexual desire is one thing, experienced in the same one way by all people, varying perhaps only by a matter of degree. But what if sexual desire is experienced in different ways? What if I ask you how strong your desire is and you answer thinking desire is X (e.g., desire to experience orgasm), while someone else answers thinking desire is Y (desire to touch someone). You might put the same answers (e.g., high desire), but these ‘same’ answers don’t mean the same thing! Uh oh. My objective question isn’t so objective, is it! Who’s wrong? Me! For thinking that everyone means what I mean when I say sexual desire and also for thinking there’s only one way to experience sexual desire before I empirically demonstrate that. And also me because where’s my milkshake?! It is objectively wrong to not have a milkshake; at least that is something we can all agree on. Basically, why people think subjectivity is biased: some people think that they see for everyone, so they view any disagreement as bias.
Where else does bias come in? Bias comes in, obviously, in not reporting what you see. That could be true for objectivity or subjectivity. But people tend to think of both subjectivity and bias as the opposite of objectivity. So it’s one of those the enemy of my enemy is my friend sort of transitive logic things (I THINK) whereby both opposites of objectivity (bias and subjectivity) become Paris Hilton BFFs forever. But that’s not true! Bias could map onto objectivity! You could be biased not only for reporting things you don’t see, but for saying that what you see represents the whole of the thing you’re looking at when, in reality, you’re only looking at part of it:
You could also have biased subjectivity, where someone doesn’t really critically engage with what they see, and they just report some who-knows-what with a lot of pointy parts. Yes, a defining feature of biased subjectivity is its pointy parts AND YOU CAN TAKE THAT TO THE BANK. (not really.) (why not?! give it a try and let me know how it goes at the bank.)
Let’s sum up: you’ve got your objectivity, you’ve got your subjectivity, and you’ve got your bias. Bias can intersect with objectivity, and bias can intersect with subjectivity. Lots of folks argue that bias is more likely to intersect with objectivity than subjectivity, because assuming you’re objective can blind you to your bias! That’s why Sandra Harding proposed ‘strong objectivity’ (see here for Harding’s article); i.e., a science that involves being as objective as you can be, and then supersizing that objectivity by adding in some subjectivity (thinking about your own social location) to reduce bias. So, some of us think the most scientific way of doing science is objectivity + subjectivity. DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?! Maybe objectivity and subjectivity aren’t opposites, or orthogonal, or antagonistic, but complementary. Maybe the only way to do unbiased science is to check your own biases, not ignore them or pretend you don’t have any. So, really, what I want to say is: subjectivity + objectivity = the true Paris Hilton BFFs.
So, in case you just skipped to the end of your math problems in high school, and STILL DO: the answer to whether subjectivity is biased is ‘no.’
True story: when I was a graduate student, I supervised a sort of mini-lab of undergraduates. For reasons that are completely opaque to me know but I’m sure made a lot of sense then, one of these students told me and my partner how his father would be like (and please read the following in a hilarious dad voice, which is how the student said it to us): How do you know what you know!? Of course this turned into a classic line for us and, not infrequently, my partner or I would turn to the other and demand (in all an all-caps voice): HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW! We dropped the question mark because, really, it obviously was intended to be a claim, or maybe an interrogation. Anyway, one day, I mentioned the line back to the student who was like: Huh? and also: That never happened and my dad never said that.But my partner and I have distinct memories of him telling us this. How do WE know what HE doesn’t know! Could he have unknown what he knew? Could we know something that isn’t? Were we in some secret dastardly psychology experiment about memory and truth given that we were, after all, in a psychology department at the time? How did WE know what we knew?! Anyway, the story above is useful in three ways. (1) It gives us the awesome question-slash-interrogation:
How do you know what you know?!
(2) It also gives us an example of competing knowledge claims. We knew he told us his dad said it, but he “knew” his dad didn’t and that he never told us he did. I put irony marks around his ‘knew’ because it’s important to cast doubt on other people’s authority in competing knowledge claims, and I learned that in the book of rules.
And (3) it’s also a good anecdote to lead to what all the cool kids are talking about: epistemologies of ignorance. And also awkward surpluses. Trust me, this is going to give you words for things.
So, let’s be honest, I could have also started with Donald Rumsfeld because that’s where all feminist philosophy of science starts AMIRIGHT!? More because he said this in 2002 (which I personally recall and Wikipedia also says is true):
Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know. (fuscia mine ALL MINE!)
Everyone laughed then, but they should have been careful because isn’t he the one who shoots his friends on camping trips? I, personally, recommend caution around friend-shooters. For example, instead of laughing like this HAHAHAHAHA, try ha ha; just saying. (OK, I know it was Dick Cheney who did that but allow me some fictional leeway here.) Actually, what he said was actually really interesting (I pass my proclamation). Good old Rummy was like: there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Let’s finish that 2×2 and include unknown knowns. Am I just throwing words together? NO. Here’s why:
Known Knowns = How we know what we know? = epistemology
Epistemology is about different ways of authoritative knowing, like how knowledge comes to be accepted as knowledge, and how different ways of getting knowledge get slotted into different disciplines. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW! SO FAR SO GOOD!
Unknown Unknowns= How don’t we know what we don’t know? = epistemology of ignorance
The exact opposite of known knowns is unknown unknowns. I mean, really, there are like a million things you don’t know; why? Maybe some things are just unknowable, like why milkshakes are so boss. But some things? It seems like we could know them. Like, hey, in France they don’t collect statistics on race/ethnicity, so no one can really measure state-wide discrimination by minority ethnic/racial status. BUT THEY COULD. They don’t know about rates of ethnic/racial discrimination because they don’t collect the stats. That’s how they don’t know what they don’t know. I just happen to like that factoid (I hope it’s still a true one) and I’m not picking on France because j’adore les baguettes.
Do you want to read more about feminist epistemology of ignorance? WHO DOESN’T? (That’s kind of a pun!) Try these great articles by Nancy Tuana (on topics near and dear to my sex researcher heart):
Known Unknowns = How do we know what we don’t know? = epistemology of ignorance
This is kind of another opposite of known knowns, and another way to think about epistemologies of ignorance. Like: think about the France example (with melted brie soooo goooood). I was a bit tricky up there because the rates of ethnic/racial discrimination are unknown in France, but are they known to be unknown? Or unknown to be unknown? Obviously, for us to discuss an unknown, someone’s gotta have an idea about it. But is it an unknown to the majority of people for whom it would be relevant? You could argue that the lack of French stats on ethnic/racial discrimination might be a known unknown to those who are discriminated against (they certainly know there is a lack of information that could be important and useful about their experiences) and an unknown unknown to the people in power who just happen to not see these things are worth knowing (like, one could not even have the idea in one’s head about it, so it’s not a debate about whether to measure these stats, it’s just a not-there issue). Anyway, the known unknowns are basically things we might want to know (or not) but don’t. They are gaps in knowledge we know exist, unlike gaps the majority of us don’t see. Known unknowns are like discomfort with the knowledge status quo, whereas unknown unknowns are like status quo is all we need.
Unknown Knowns = How don’t we know what we know? = awkward surplus
I like unknown knowns a lot because I see a lot of academic work that exists in this space. You know that paper that shows that thing that kind of calls into question what everyone’s doing? And you know how everyone knows about that paper but ignores it? That’s because that paper exists in the land of awkward surplus (not quite as delicious as the land of Dairy Queen (R), to be honest). Awkward surplus is like that weird fourth cousin thrice removed who you just wish would disappear at your family event. It’s like the one bad book your favorite author wrote. It’s like when I was in grade 2 and realized that people could see, from behind, everyone’s bums wiggle when they walked, which was definitely Really Embarrassing! and Not Okay! such that I decided I had to drop that knowledge immediately from my mind in order to live. It’s like you have a little box to put papers and books and pieces of knowledge in when you don’t want to pay attention to them. You close that box and put it far away, in the corner of your attic and let spiders spin cobwebs around it and maybe cast a curse on the box too, while you’re at it, but that part is optional. You don’t deny the knowledge. You don’t debate it. You don’t even disbelieve it. You just ignore it. It’s so awkward! It’s wearing plaid pants! Can’t it just go away if you close your eyes and go lalalala?!
Do you want to read more about awkward surpluses? You’d rather not know? Ha ha, another pun. Anyway, I highly recommend this great piece by Joan Fujimura, again about some topics I love (Love All The Topics!):
Bonus! Unknown Knowns = How do we come to unknow what we once knew? = epistemology of ignorance
I think there are two ways to have unknown knowns. One is the above (awkward surpluses) which is more about how we don’t know things we know now. But we could also think about how we don’t know things we once knew. Like, you know those things you learn randomly, like, say, people used to pickle watermelon rinds?! WHO KNEW THAT! I mean, people who pickled watermelon rinds, OBVIOUSLY, but um, since then, like now, who knew?! Or, people used to know that it was good for women to move around during labor but medical science largely is like: staying still is the bestest way to have a baby since pickled watermelons. And, now, everyone’s like: wait! Remember the moving?! That was better apparently! And when I say ‘everyone’ I mean mostly ‘midwives’, but without the irony quotes because midwives are awesome (full disclosure: I’m not a midwife but one of them helped a baby out of my vagina) (full disclosure: I will mention that I have a vagina in this post) (full disclosure: that disclosure was too late). Why are there pieces of knowledge we now think to be true and thought were true originally, but somehow got erased in between? How do pieces of knowledge that have truth to them become fully out of the scope of what most knowers know now? Good thing there is epistemology of ignorance! Otherwise we’d never know. Another pun!
I like this article by Londa Schiebinger about the topic (and, full disclosure, I don’t think it’s a difficult read intellectually, but I found it difficult emotionally because it covers some gruesome but important colonial medical history among slaveholder treatment of various slave groups):
Join us October 10 – 11 as we consider how to uncover and reverse gender bias in biology
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Brown University
Sari van Anders, University of Michigan
Caroline VanSickle, Wittig Postdoctoral Fellow in Feminist Biology, University of Wisconsin—Madison
Open to faculty from all disciplines, researchers, and graduate students!
The Center for Research on Gender and Women at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pleased to announce the Wisconsin Symposium on Feminist Biology to deliberately examine creating new research, new topics, new methods, new theories that remove the gender bias in biological research.