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?