The following essay is about the menstrual cycle, and what I have to say is just as much for men as it is for women.
I recently had the most frustrating visit with my OB/GYN. It’s probably not what you think. She listened to me carefully, treated me with respect, explained things thoroughly, and was interested and responsive when I told her how Marquette NFP works, even when I touched on the principle of double effect in medical care. She didn’t even poke me too hard; and my insurance covered everything.
The frustration came in when she had to repeatedly clarify that when I said “my cycle,” I didn’t mean “my menstrual period.” They are two different things. My menstrual period — the days when I am bleeding — are part of my cycle. But a cycle is, by definition, “a series of events that are regularly repeated in the same order.” In female biology, a cycle means the repeating pattern of four phases: menstrual bleeding, the follicular phase leading up to ovulation, ovulation, and luteal phase, ramping down from ovulation.
But this doctor regularly treats women who use “menstrual bleeding” and “cycle” interchangeably. This led to a frustrating conversation that went something like this:
OB/GYN: Wow, that is so long!
Me: No, I only bled for four days, but my cycle was 22 days. Then the next cycle was only 17 days . . .
OB/GYN: But you weren’t bleeding for 17 days?
Me: No, the cycle was 17 days, but my period lasted five days. Then the cycle after that was 26 days . . .
OB: Okay, just to clarify . . .
Because that really is what happens: women and girls are taught that it’s their problem to bear, and part of the burden is the obligation to make sure no one finds out what they’re dealing with. In very conservative circles, girls are often taught to think of their bodily processes as a humiliating, degrading stain on their personhood, evidence of their constitutional, inherent weakness inherited from Eve. In liberal circles, girls are often taught to think of their bodily processes as a hassle, or possibly a sign of oppression, something that, with modern technology, we will quash if we have any self resect or ambition.
A young woman I know went to see her doctor because she has very irregular cycles. She says sometimes she goes many months without a period. The doctor’s response?
“Is this really a problem? Lots of girls would be thrilled to go so long without dealing with bleeding! Can’t you just learn to enjoy getting a break?”
Not even a speck of curiosity as to why the young woman’s body wasn’t doing what her body is supposed to do. And this doctor was a young woman herself.
On my advice, the patient pushed for some basic blood tests, but when these came back negative, the doctor shrugged and gave up. Happily, the young woman was able to find a specialist who takes a more humane view, and didn’t try to wave her disfunction away.
I don’t assume that every woman who carelessly says “my cycle” when she really means “my period” is ignorant or oppressed or suffering from internalized shame of some kind. People have all different reasons for using imprecise language.
I’m not big on vulgar jokes about menstrual issues, and there are situations where it’s just courteous to be discreet. But if you do have a habit of always using euphemisms or imprecise language around your menstrual cycle, it’s not a bad idea to ask yourself why. What would happen if you got more specific? Are you protecting someone? Who, and why? Are you afraid something bad will happen if your speech is forthright?
10 thoughts on “Please stop saying “my cycle” when you mean “my period.” It matters.”
I’m late in the game here. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said, but was left wondering how the doctor approached such a SHORT cycle. That sounds terrible!
I literally can’t wait for menopause. After reading Julie’s comment, I’m wondering what “missing all of that lovely estrogen” means. Can’t you just take some or rub some on like cream–drink more wine (it’s a phyto estrogen??)
Anyway, kudos on not being afraid to go to the doctor. Da Carona gave me a legit reason to avoid what I already avoided. My good friend is going in to have fibroids sliced out. Her symptoms are similar to mine but in no way do I want a knife up in all that. Maybe they will just dry up and fall off on their own once the promised land of menopause finally gets here.
In German you say “I have my days” which I find hilarious for some reason.
Sometimes I think I live in an alternate universe when I read articles or see commercials discussing how women speak or don’t speak about their reproductive systems. Right now I feel like I’m from Andromeda. I’ve never heard anyone refer to her period as her cycle. I have heard lots of women talk about their cycles and noticeable markers in them: hunger, moods, breast tenderness, cleaning frenzies, cramps, bloating etc. And I’ve only ever had one person tell me that menstrual pain was the mark of Eve and she was a Democratic block captain from west Philadelphia, definitely not a conservative. I have heard lots of conservative woman view their periods as an inconvenience to be conquered though. Liberal women too. But mostly conservatives. But maybe you’re talking religiously liberal and conservative? I don’t know. I can’t tell. Like I said, I think I live in an alternate universe whenever I read articles about how women don’t discuss (or are embarrassed to discuss) menses and menopause. My experience has been that most of us women don’t shut up about either one.
Personally, I never add much to conversations about menses because until a few months ago my cycle was like clockwork but I definitely listen a lot. And now that I’m in perimenopause, I’m right in the middle of the conversation talking about hot flash triggers and personal lubricant products with the checkout lady at the grocery store and all the other women of a certain age who are in my circle.
I think that terminology can be somewhat regional. I grew up in The Midwest and live in Florida. In the Midwest it was always called a period and in the south women often say they started their cycle or they are on their cycle. Technically it’s not wrong when said those ways , but it’s definitely something I never heard up north except in reference to the 28 (or so) version. I would expect a doctor to say it correctly though.
I don’t mean to be pedantic, but it really is wrong. You can’t refer to menstrual bleeding as a cycle any more than you can refer to Sunday as a week. It’s the beginning of a week; it is not a week.
I feel there is an unexplored avenue for merch here. A T-shirt? sticker for my Nalgene? I would gladly support!!
“It’s not called a cycle. Period.”
“I started my cycle” can accurately refer to menstrual bleeding, as it often counted as the beginning of the cycle.
My mother, who was usually pretty informed and progressive, used to call her period “the curse.”
I’ve told several women friends that I miss menstruation now that I’m past menopause. No one seems to get why I would miss cramps, bloating, and dealing with pads and tampons. But aside from missing all that lovely estrogen I miss the cycle itself.
I’ve run across that term in older books.
Then there was the girl at work when I was in college who made some comment about “Aunt Flo” coming for a visit. To which another girl, trying to make conversation, said brightly “Oh, that’s nice! When does she get here?” Correct terminology: actually helping you *avoid* awkward conversations since always.