Why It’s Unproductive to Frame PMS as a “Fight with the Flesh”

Why It’s Unproductive to Frame PMS as a “Fight with the Flesh” February 27, 2020

Oh boy do I have a treat for you! It’s an article on The Gospel Coalition titled PMS: The Monthly Fight with the Flesh. Oh yes! Author Rachel Jones writes as follows:

On Sunday, I snapped at my mother on the phone.

On Monday, I woke before my alarm and spent a lonely hour lying with my eyes closed and my mind whirring—anxious over decisions for the future and despairing about the direction of life altogether. That night I did it all again before going to sleep.

On Tuesday, at work, I simultaneously wanted to cry and punch someone.

Two days later, I started my period.

The hormones had won. Again.

If you’re a woman, you probably know how that feels. For reasons still largely unknown to science, at certain times in our monthly cycle our hormones conspire against us and inflict us with a range of symptoms—some physical, some emotional.

Mostly we call it “Pre-Menstrual Syndrome” or “PMS.” I think we should call it a fight with the flesh.

Okay, quick note. I don’t think I’ve ever had PMS-induced mood swings. I grew up believing that every woman had PMS. Growing up, if a woman of menstrual age was upset or emotional, she would be asked if she was PMSing. So I of course assumed that this was something that happened to every woman of menstrual age. But you know what? I was never able to ascertain any difference. And I did try.

In the end, the whole “are you PMSing” rigamarole looked like an excuse to dismiss women and women’s feelings. After coming upon Jones’ article, I turned to google, and you know what? It appears that I am not alone. I found the following information on the website of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research:

Culturally held beliefs about PMS seem to have influenced both women’s and researchers’ expectations of the premenstrual phase, but new research is debunking the existence of negative mood caused by PMS in the general female population. The evidence that we do have for PMS is limited, and psychosocial factors—such as physical health and social support—appear to be more strongly related to mood than any menstrual cycle phase. Research that challenges assumptions about biological links between the premenstrual phase and moodiness may eventually change how society views women’s moods and menstruation.

Now, that’s just one website, and others—such as Wikipedia but also seemingly legitimate medical information sites like Harvard Medical School—definitely seem to think PMSing a thing. It’s interesting to note, though, that at least some scientists aren’t so sure. It’s also worth noting the role that can be played by confirmation bias.

It’s like this: If a woman believes she has PMS and that it affects her moods, she’s likely to check the calendar if she’s feeling particularly moody. If it’s around when she’s “supposed” to have PMS symptoms, she’ll see this as confirmation of PMS-induced mood swings. If it’s not, though—if the time of the month isn’t right for PMS—she’s more likely to dismiss it than she is to question whether she actually experiences PMS-induced mood swings. This is particularly true if she believes that every woman has PMS-induced mood swings, as though it’s some sort of unchangeable scientific fact.

I say all this in part because I remember it. Growing up, if a man asked a woman who was being emotional if she was PMSing and the answer was no—as it sometimes was—this did not lead him to question whether PMSing was a thing. Look, people have many reasons for being emotional! They get stressed out, or are hurt by something that happened, or feel overwhelmed or lonely. The response a woman receives when she is being emotional should not be invalidation of her emotion, and yet that is exactly how I saw references to PMS-induced mood swings used over and over again.

Having said this, I am not a medical doctor or a medical researcher. It is not my intent to declare that PMS-induced mood swings do not exist. It is not my intent to invalidate others’ experiences. I only know, based on my own experience, that common cultural assumptions about PMS-induced mood swings do not reflect everyone’s experience (they certainly did not reflect mine), and also that these assumptions are frequently weaponized in sexist ways.

All this being said, let’s return to Jones:

I think we should call it a fight with the flesh.

This sounds … productive.

After all, for many women, PMS takes our battle with sin to the next level as we fight anger, irritability, despair, and self-pity. You break out in anger or burst into tears over something you know is trivial—and afterward experience not just remorse for the incident itself, but a peculiar resentment at the fact that your hormones made you do it.

For some of us, statements like that sound dangerously close to the unhelpful stereotypes of women as totally irrational and overly emotional that (rightly) belong in the past. But what if, rather than dismissing the realities of PMS as feminine histrionics, or resenting them, or ignoring them, we saw them as something more useful? Namely, a window into the spiritual realities that are true every day for every believer, male and female.

What? That doesn’t fix the problem!

If Jones wants to argue that she’s not playing into sexist stereotypes and that she’s instead using this as a “window” into spiritual realities that affect both men and women, she might want to take the time to mention that men, too, can have emotions, and that men, too, can get emotional. This would actually be a really good direction to go in, because not enough is said about the ways society leaves men without the tools they need to process or understand their emotions.

But no. That is no the direction we are going to go in at all. Jones gives a nod to sexist stereotypes and then goes full speed ahead. Her discussion turns to struggles with the flesh, but without first establishing that men face the same “fight with the flesh” that women do, we’re left with the suggestion that women are inherently prone to mood swings in a way that men are not. That’s exactly the sort of stereotype Jones claims to want consigned to the past.

In some senses, the way I think about my hormones ought to be the way I think about my flesh all month long. Paul says that there’s a war going on within us.

Well this is lovely.

As Katie Ruth points out on twitter—in a thread you absolutely must read—this view of the flesh isn’t great. Not great at all!

For Paul, the flesh is not merely our bodies, but our whole person as under the impulses of sin. Our bodies (including our hormones)—created good, but tainted by the fall—are neither distinct from the work of the flesh nor the sum total of it. They are the battleground on which the war is fought. Although what we really want is godliness, the desires of our flesh “keep [us] from doing the things [we] want to do” (Gal. 5:17). Hence the clash.

The trouble is, too often we don’t feel the heat of the battle because we’ve stopped fighting it. We’ve put down our swords and put up our feet, content to live with sin.

“My hormones made me do it!” is the cry of many a PMS-sufferer—and yet it’s also true that I did it. As such our hormones helpfully demonstrate how our sinful nature is part of us and yet not us: in Christ, the flesh does not define us, and it need not control us.

I … what.

I’ll finish with some excellent snippets from Katie’s tweet thread:

If your hormones are at certain levels, it is very likely that you will feel sad. This is a PHYSIOLOGICAL response, not a spiritual one. To pretend that someone should just white-knuckle their way through and pretend everything is ok is unhelpful.

Anger, sadness, joy, and every other emotion are all gifts to us. They are not to be discarded or shoved down inside. They are to be embraced and stewarded.

Might I suggest that on days when your body is feeling overwhelmed and on edge, that you try something revolutionary? Actually, be kind to your body? Maybe go to bed a little earlier, or spend some time reading a book?

If your PMS is affecting your life, maybe self care looks like going to a doctor to discuss your options. A trauma-informed perspective of our bodies understands that ignoring the messages our bodies are trying to give us only makes the problems worse, not better or fixed.

You are not wretched because you bleed. You are loved. May your PMS lead you into love, not self-hatred for the body you have been given.

Emotions aren’t wrong. Feeling stressed or overwhelmed isn’t wrong either—and it sure as heck isn’t sin. Just yesterday I told my younger child, while giving him Tylenol for pain, that pain isn’t bad, either. It’s the body communicating that there is a problem, and if we take medicine to make it go away, we need to be careful not to ignore that message and overdo it.

Turning everything into sin isn’t helpful. If you view your flesh as something you are in a war with—and note that Jones is eliding your flesh with your body—when can you just be?

I don’t know how much of our understanding of PMS-induced mood swings is based in a physical scientifically identifiable fact and how much is simply a social framework we have created for understanding experiences we have. I do know that viewing your hormones as your enemy sounds stressful. Viewing strong emotions or stress as an opening for sin to enter your life—rather than as something you should pay attention to and work to alleviate—also sounds stressful.

Look, I have two little kids, I get that it’s easier to snap and yell at them when I’m stressed out over something else. But when I realize I’m doing that my response is to find ways to alleviate (or mediate) my stress. Adding a healthy dose of victim blaming to that doesn’t sound like something that would help—especially if it also involves treating my body as the enemy. I talk through what I’m feeling with my kids, and you know what? My older child already does a far better job recognizing her own stress level and consciously self-regulating her own obligations than I did until very recently.

And she know show to self-soothe and what steps she can take to reduce her stress level, too. She listens to her body, and to its needs. I wish I had known how to do that far earlier.

This also isn’t a religion v. atheism thing. The Gospel Coalition, where Jones published her article, is very much on the conservative end of evangelicalism, and Katy Ruth, whose tweets I very much appreciate, writes from a religious perspective. It’s about divergent and contradictory views of the body—or as Jones would put it, of the flesh. 

Note: There are people who do experience their bodies, or aspects of their bodies, as something they fight or struggle against. For example, people who struggle with chronic pain, or others with serious health conditions—but again, here as elsewhere, there is no monolith. There is no one universal way that we experience our bodies. 

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