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? 
 
 

Do women need ascesis?

I recently interviewed the developer of Exodus90, a spiritual exercise aimed at Catholic men who want to find spiritual freedom through prayer, ascesis, and fraternity. One thing lots of people wanted to know: Why is this only for men? Why was there no companion program for women?

Although I have mixed feelings about the program in general, I was impressed by his answer to this question. He said that, while “there’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community,” the program had been written with men and fatherhood in mind, so he didn’t want to just — boop! — shift it over to women. But people kept pressing him to write up and market a version for women. He said:

“We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, ‘Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to?’

“Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women.”

I have my own theories for why this may be. Warning: I’ll be painting with a broad brush here, so please keep in mind that my words won’t apply to every last individual human. (I know you’re going to complain anyway, but at least you can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

In general, women are introduced at an early age to the inescapability of suffering, and to the ultimate helplessness of humans in the face of nature and before the will of God.

When women hit puberty . . . Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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Image: Portrait of a Young Woman As a Sibyl by Orazio Gentileschi (Wikimedia) / Public domain