A couple of people have questioned me about my comments suggesting that PMS is a social construction. So I'm reposting this. I posted this on Feministing a few months ago, so if you're interested in the responses, check out the comments there.
I know from previous posts that this is a sensitive issue, so I want to clarify a couple of things right up front. To say that PMS is a social construction does not mean that women don’t experience it. It does not mean that “it’s all in your head.” It does not mean that your experience doesn’t exist, or is invalid in some way. Rather, the claim is that the explanatory framework surrounding this set of experiences is faulty, and that it would be more constructive to look for and attempt to address the true causes behind this phenomenon.
So, what does it mean to say that PMS is a social construction? A social construction is any contingent phenomenon that is created by a society. Social constructs exist only because the members of a society implicitly agree to behave as if they do. Generally speaking, there are conventions around social constructs that guide our behavior regarding them. The most common example used to illustrate this is paper money. Paper money would be worthless if it weren’t for our practices and conventions.
What evidence is there that PMS is a social construction? First, there’s a great deal of cultural mythology surrounding the concept of PMS that has no grounding in science. There is no identifiable hormonal cause for the symptoms of PMS. This is particularly significant when you consider how much research has been done. There is no consensus within the medical community on how to diagnose PMS, on which symptoms must be displayed, or on when in the menstrual cycle they should occur. Over 150 symptoms are attributed to PMS, many of which are experienced by men and post-menopausal women with the same frequency as menstruating women. In countries which don’t have a construct corresponding to the Western idea of PMS, women don’t report experiencing the symptoms in any pattern tied to menstruation.
Add to this the benefit a patriarchal culture derives from any mechanism which serves to marginalize women and explain away their behavior and cognition as merely the result of some bio-chemical event. When women voice legitimate complaints or concerns, it is common to suggest that they are “feeling hormonal.” This serves to delegitimize their claims and cast them as irrational, overemotional creatures. Further, PMS has historically been used as a mechanism to keep women out of the work force when jobs were scarce for men due to the Depression and the end of wars. Of course, in times when women were in demand in the workforce, research was used to demonstrate that PMS was not an issue and would not prevent women from being productive members of the workforce (for a fascinating history of this topic read Emily Martin, The woman in the body: A cultural analysis of reproduction ). In addition, the economic motives of the medical and pharmaceutical industries are solidly at play here. PMS and PMDD have been useful in allowing pharmaceutical companies to extend their patents and thus retain a monopoly on revenues. Although the underlying causes of the symptoms of PMS have not been identified, the pharmaceutical companies continue to offer remedies.
Finally, reports of PMS symptoms are far more severe in women who are in or have a history of abusive relationships , are experiencing high levels of stress, feel overwhelmed by their workload, or are unhappy with their lives in general. This correlation suggests that women who are unhappy with their lives subconsciously utilize the construct of PMS as a socially acceptable outlet for the suppressed frustration and rage they feel, since expression of these emotions is widely viewed as “unfeminine.”
All of these things suggest that PMS is a social construction. If PMS was a disease or a syndrome there would be some underlying bio-medical cause, as well as some consensus among women who are diagnosed as to what the symptoms are and when they are experienced in the menstrual cycle. But there isn’t. Retaining PMS as a medical and cultural fact does not benefit women. Researching PMS with an open mind regarding other possible causes and related phenomenon would benefit women far more than clinging to the notion that women are fundamentally flawed by the normal functions of their reproductive systems. Finally, simply prescribing antidepressants to help women deal with the hardships in their lives is one way to avoid addressing the more challenging and important issues regarding the societal causes of their depression and unhappiness.