In the last maybe three years I’ve had this very strange and obvious-sounding realization: men and women have some very fundamental differences. It may seem crazy to be coming to this in your late 20’s, early 30’s but hear me out: I’ve been taught my whole life that I can do anything a boy can do. I’ve practiced that and used it as my mantra—even when I suck at something I will do it. Skateboarding, surfing, going drink for drink with a 6’3’’ dude, sleeping with strangers at weddings. Fuck you, I will not let my gender stop me from the adventures and the awesome things. I will not let my gender stop me from anything.
Spoiler: this is not about me changing my opinion on that.
But there is a problem here. Why do I associate everything fun with being a dude? Why is the standard of things we should be doing “anything a boy can do”?
It seems to me like the thing that happened when the tide turned in the Girl Power direction of my youth is similar to the thing that happened when everyone decided to be color-blind—those ’90s versions of the women’s and civil rights movements–instead of acknowledging the differences between genders and races and being like, “Look, we’re different! But we can all achieve great things!” everyone decided “equality” meant “being like the dominate group and never talking about how we aren’t.” This sucks on a lot of levels. First of all, not much changed on the surface for white men—they were still expected to be as white man-like as possible, cool and tough and in charge, and then the rest of us, the non-white people and the non-men people, were ALSO expected to be white man-like. At some point, acknowledging our differences became demeaning, as if pointing out that growing boobs changed your center of gravity equaled saying women shouldn’t participate in sports, or identifying the cute guy you were trying to point out to your friend as the “Indian guy” instead of “the guy with black hair” meant you were racist. I’m not saying there isn’t a reason for this stuff—there is! These differences between us and white men have been used throughout history as a basis for proving our inferiority. What I’m saying is that in this new world, in which we decided to try and treat people equally, we missed a really big point: being equal shouldn’t mean we are all like white men. White men aren’t even like white men! Being equal should mean we all have the same opportunities to do the awesome things, regardless of our vast and interesting differences.
Case in point: no one was ever honest with me about premenstrual syndrome. I think this is because acknowledging to young girls that PMS is an actual, real thing sounds like an admission of defeat. Because forever these “women’s problems” type things have been used as reasons why women can’t be trusted with power, why they are erratic and inherently crazy, why you wouldn’t want them near the nukes or Wall Street or surgery because who knows?! What if they’re PMS-ing?!! So our mothers, or my mother at least, avoided the subject entirely and in my mind it was relegated to the land of Cathy cartoons—that weak, pathetic female land that I wanted no part of. Because yes, I’m a girl but anything you can do I can do better! And yes, I like boys IN A SEXUAL WAY, but I’m not a cowering, shrinking baby at the mercy of hormones and brain waves demanding chocolate!
This means that for years I didn’t put two and two together. Every few months I would be absolutely overcome with sadness; the shape of the world would be different, the future an unconquerable mountain. I would cry. Something that had just the day before felt like an okay thing I could handle suddenly felt like a weight tied around my neck. It wasn’t debilitating usually, but sometimes it was. If one of these sad periods coincided with something in the outside world that was hard—say the person I was in love with ignoring me for even two minutes—I would lose it. I mean, I could still go to work but I couldn’t sleep. I would stay up all night, thinking. I would cry and cry and cry and I would walk around the city and up hills and down hills and wait until 8am so I could call him and try to get to the bottom of what was making me so sad. And there was never anything anyone could do for me. Then, in a day or a couple at most, it would be gone.
I don’t know when it was, but it must have been about three years ago when I suddenly made the connection. A friend of mine maybe finally brought up her PMS in a way I could understand, that wasn’t a joke, and the next time I got sad in that specific way, it was clear. For me, PMS isn’t just crying at commercials and laughing about it or wanting to eat ice cream really, really badly. Sometimes it is super sadness, everything connecting and seeming clear and tragic at once. Sometimes, it is a reckoning.
Here’s the thing: I’m not the only person who feels like this. Once I started talking about it, a lot of my friends came clean: the week or so before they get their periods can be intensely emotional for them too.
Now, for some women this is a diagnosed, psychiatric condition called “premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” but for many of us, it doesn’t require treatment or a pathology. It isn’t a thing that is “wrong” with us at all—it’s a thing that is different about us and men. And maybe it’s a good thing–a secret power, an opening portal to see the connections in the world around us and our lives, a flood of hormones that forces us to acknowledge things we were previously just letting slide by.
There was a time I begged my doctor for Xanax to take the four times a year that my PMS-related sadness felt like too much to handle. He was a hippie and told me to meditate and exercise and honestly I am very grateful to him because once I came to terms with the catalyst of my episodes of complete melancholy, I was able to see them with some distance. The first thing I could see was that the feelings I was feeling were that: feelings. Not truth and not insignificant, just feelings. You have to feel them, surf them like waves, instead of fighting them. If you do that, sometimes you can even learn things about yourself and the situations you are in. If you do that, sometimes you can learn the things without exploding everything around you or dragging people down into your bewildered sadness.
I don’t really know why once a month many women go through a heightened period of emotion. But I do think it’s time we start talking about it and stop thinking of it as a disability or a dirty secret (or saying it’s socially constructed hypochondria). It’s funny really that for so long the “emotional” nature of women has been considered a reason we are too dangerous and inconsistent to lead countries, businesses or households—funny because 90 PERCENT of murder is committed by men and murder is about the most dangerous and inconsistent thing a person can do. I think it’s possible that the real reason PMS has been used as a joke to make women seem stupid, weak and crazy is that men are scared of how close women can come to the emotional world. It’s gaslighting on a grand scale; if women are taught to feel that the way they experience the world is wrong and then are so ashamed of it they don’t mention it to each other, non-women people can more easily exert their power over the now-divided woman people, as individual bodies to control and as a group. If something that happens to a large percentage of women every month is turned into a joke or a lie or a disease, women will never think of it as a gift and explore its potential power, a power which is a terrifying prospect to our not-quite-benevolent patriarchy.
Look, this may sound like some way-far-out hippie-moon-cycle-flower-power bullshit but if it does, maybe we should think about why. Why does the idea of acknowledging women’s bodies as they function for adults have to be pushed over into the realm of the woo-woo touchy feelies of the world? 50% of us have these bodies. If we’re going to take erections seriously (anecdotal: WE TAKE ERECTIONS VERY SERIOUSLY–what is more important to a woman’s value than her ability to give a man a boner?), why not this? That’s a rhetorical question. We don’t take premenstrual syndrome seriously because it’s unknown and scary and internal. Unfortunately, none of those things mean it doesn’t exist.
I am a woman who loves men. I love them on a case-by-case basis, in a romantic way, but I also love the idea of being a dude–the magic of not caring if you fall at the skate park and the ability to wear t-shirts without your boobs getting in the way and the freedom to not have to put on make-up for a job interview. For me, maleness has always been enviable and my own complicated, tremulous and squishy body has been a bit of a bummer. It pulls me back sometimes when I want to drop into a wave and proceeds me always, trumpeting things about me to strangers before they even know my name. The other thing though, that I’ve basically been not noticing for my entire life, is that being a woman is powerful too. Maybe I am a little more cautious when I am surfing but I can stay out in the cold water longer. And if it wanted to, my body could house and feed another human being for 9 months and then PUSH IT OUT A TINY, TINY OPENING, which I’ve seen and I can tell you without a doubt is more bad-ass than any skate trick out there. And it does suck to get paid less than my male counter-parts and to be judged mainly on how sexually attractive I am, but it’s cool that I can figure out what people need from the tone of their voice and that no one calls the cops when I go to the zoo without a child escort and I never get judged for painting my nails or wearing flower-covered leggings to work. Though, to be clear, those things do not outweigh the pay difference or the constant judgement based on my ability to give some guy a boner.
I recently had a conversation with an old friend who happens to be a guy, in which he said something about how all the women he knows who are in their late 20’s and early 30’s seem like they are getting a little too jaded and that some of us (me) have a lot more barriers than we used to have. His suggestion was more openness to love, more putting ourselves “out there,” a more positive attitude. I think what he’s noticing is a bunch of women who spent their first 25 years being told they could do “anything a boy could do” coming up against the reality that they can’t. That their bodies are being judged in a different way, their choices measured differently, and it’s fucking depressing. I love that friend but a positive attitude isn’t what we need. What we need is for everyone to stop telling us how to be–for male people to stop being the lens through which we define ourselves. What we need is real conversations, real equality and honesty and respect–from ourselves and from each other.
And now, this: