The Curious Case of Period Panties: Is the Stereotype of Premenstrual Aggression Empowering or Invalidating of Female Emotion?

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.)

(editor's note: This is a period. I was going to draw panties too, but then I got lazy.)

(editor’s note: This is a period. I was going to draw panties too, but then I got lazy.)

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.

CITED:

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.

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