Please stop saying “my cycle” when you mean “my period.” It matters.

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:

Me: So, my period started on this day. That cycle was 22 days long. . .
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 . . .
 
And so on, throughout the whole visit. 
 
It wasn’t her fault. She needed to make sure we both knew what we were talking about (and she had no way of knowing I literally wrote a book about this stuff).
 
Part of the reason this situation exists is just linguistic sloppiness. Most of the time, women only have reason to refer to their cycles when they are bleeding, so the shorthand is close enough.
 
The other reason is cultural squeamishness, or even shame, around women’s biology. “Menstrual bleeding” or even “my period” sounds too graphic and bloody, and it’s more socially acceptable to say “my cycle.” It makes it more abstract, like part of a machine, or something on a pie chart.
 
I hate that this feels necessary to so many women — that they feel the need to make their bodies seem abstract or mechanical. Men aren’t ashamed to talk about their involuntary bodily functions. Many men even seem proud of them, for reasons that remain obscure to me. But women, who suffer through a huge amount of tumult and pain that allows them to keep the human race in existence still feel shame about their menstrual cycles.
 
This is a larger problem than a linguistic one. I don’t think it’s necessary to run around free bleeding, but I grow more and more disgusted with the idea that women should be at pains to shield the world from knowing anything about menses. 
 

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.

If mainstream doctors are so flippantly ignorant about what is and isn’t normal, it’s no wonder women, young and otherwise, have only a vague understanding of what it means to have a cycle. Because of this willful systemic ignorance, serious health problems will go undiagnosed, causing women to routinely endure overmedication, undermedication, and a whole host of physical and psychological problems that may be unnecessary. The fact that women are discouraged from even talking about it in plain language? This is telling, and it is intolerable. 
 

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.

But I do think women would do the world (not just each other) a service by making a point of being more precise in this one area. When I realized, “There is no reason to use vague language when talking about my menses,” I was astonished at how many little knots in my perception of myself started to come undone. Almost as if the thing that goes on literally in the middle of my body affects my psyche.
 
Strangely enough, it was my husband who led me to be less squirrelly about how I talk and think about menstrual issues. He made it clear to me, over and over again, that he’s not going to throw up or lose his mind if I talk about my period. He’s not a “It’s our nausea” kind of guy, but he doesn’t feel like he has some kind of masculine right to be protected from knowing about something that affects my life (and our relationship) so intensely and so often. He loves me, and doesn’t want me to be ashamed about something that’s not shameful. 
 

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?

And if something bad will happen, whose fault is that, and why shouldn’t they be pressed to be better? 
 
 

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10 thoughts on “Please stop saying “my cycle” when you mean “my period.” It matters.”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. I feel there is an unexplored avenue for merch here. A T-shirt? sticker for my Nalgene? I would gladly support!!

      2. “I started my cycle” can accurately refer to menstrual bleeding, as it often counted as the beginning of the cycle.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

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