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Treating Healthy Women as Malfunctioning Cogs
A world that can't accommodate periods will also squeeze out leisure
I’m continuing to share your responses to scientists who think periods should be suppressed by default, since a woman’s natural cycles make it hard to keep up in a world built for men.
On Monday, I shared some of your responses that were more critical of my initial post. You asked good questions, including, “How do we make a world that cares for the suffering we cannot relieve, but that also has real urgency about relieving what suffering we can?” and “How far are we from ‘natural’ cycles already, just due to shifts in the modern environment and lifestyle?”
Today, I’m sharing some of the responses that extended my argument into other domains. How do we build a humane economy when the frailties that come with being human are treated as a flaw to be fixed?
This forms part of a broader push that doesn't 'just' try to make women into better men, but which also tries to make all humans into better robots. This is medical but it is also philosophical, as our decisions and our behaviours are measured against the ideal 'rational' response.
In terms of 'What are the best accommodations or cultures you’ve experienced that leave slack for the interruptions of ordinary life?' my answer would be those cultures that integrate life and work. For me personally, that's been farming. *However* farming is also an example of why abolishing some of the barriers between work and life, which enable those accommodations, is dangerous. Without an amelioration of the worst commercial pressures, abolishing those barriers is an invitation for work as a totalising, life-destroying force, as is seen often in farming.
Vivien made a similar point:
I've just been doing a review session with my students on Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology." For Heidegger, when we view things through the lens of modern technology, we view them not as things in themselves but as resources for exploitation for some further purpose. So forests become "natural resources," and humans, "human resources." To the question of what cultural shift I would bring about if I could, it would be to expunge the idea of humans as "human resources" from our minds. It seems to me that seeing humans first and foremost as ends in and of themselves, and not as things to be used to achieve some further end (like, say, economic activity), would be a really productive first step in correcting our notions about what needs to be 'fixed' in people. Maybe people and their bodies and their frailties aren't the problem. Maybe the problem isn't the square peg, but the round hole.
And, as Vivien goes on to point out: men aren’t affected by period problems, but they are hurt in different ways by a culture of “human resources.”
My focus at Other Feminisms is usually on the way women are not welcome in the world as women. We are asked to find ways to better fit into a male mold. But the version of “normal” we’re being asked to fit doesn’t suit men well either. I think L.M. Sacasas writes very well on this front at his substack, The Convivial Society.
Marie offered a note of hope:
Not period-related, but around the time COVID-19 vaccines became available, I was working on a production team on a film shoot with an incredibly busy schedule (6-day weeks, 12- or 14-hr days). My team's leaders gave us days or half-days off for vaccine appointments and recovery from side effects if necessary. No paperwork, no formal requests—I just let them know which days I'd booked my doses, and they arranged our team's schedule so that we could easily cover for one another getting vaccinated. This kind of improvised accommodation made me feel supported by my team leaders and coworkers, far beyond the matter of vaccines. When other health issues came up on our team (migraines, allergic reactions, doctor's appointments), we were ready to step up for one another because our team leaders set a precedent for support.
This is a hope I have for what good we can take out of the pandemic. If we can’t count on everything running smoothly, what supports can we build for the rough spots? How do we create a business, a school, a church that anticipates that there will be many small crises alongside our shared large ones and must be prepared to stretch and flex to help people over those gaps?
Some of those gaps can be long, and it’s hard to ask to have a big need met. Mary sparked a conversation about whether women need first-trimester leave, not just post-partum leave, and Sara chimed in:
I agree that first trimester accommodations are needed for mothers who work outside the home and those who stay home with their kids. I've been a working mom and a stay at home mom during the first trimester and both scenarios are intensely difficult. I'm in the middle of my fifth first trimester now. My husband asked me what I needed. I said I need someone to show up and be me for about three months.
Maybe there would be better therapies and solutions for it if it was better researched. What's amazing to me is that so many women suffer in total silence because they don't want to announce their pregnancy until the 12-week mark. I need so much help in those first months that waiting until 6 weeks is a stretch.
I’ve had very flexible hours when pregnant with my daughters, and it made a big difference in navigating the ups and downs of the first trimester. (Not to mention making it to the frequent blood draws and ultrasounds that my higher risk pregnancies required).
But the need feels like too much to cop to! It’s impossible to make the case that women are interchangeable with male employees when pregnancy is so different for us. There’s a better case to be made that we are equal in dignity, and therefore a just society will find ways to treat men and women equitably, attentive to our distinct needs.
Finally, back to periods and the pressures to “keep up,” Kelli shared:
I see this week's conversation so clearly in my experience as an athlete, prompted perhaps by Sophia Yen's reference to cramps during "the SAT or swim meets." I ran Div. 1 cross country and track in college, and I spent well over 8 years of my life wishing not to have a period (and being jealous of the "simpler," faster bodies of my male teammates). Our training, racing, and academic schedules were already so demanding, and starting your cycle on the eve of a major workout or competition (or exam) felt more like a liability than a signal of strong, healthy womanhood. I remember celebrating when I skipped my cycle for a year, thinking that it said something about my fitness (which couldn't have been farther from the truth). Looking back—especially now that I'm a few years out—consistent cycles and a few "slower days" would have likely been beneficial for all of us. Maybe we would have had fewer injuries, fewer broken bones, fewer heartaches.
Female athletes (and thinking particularly about female distance runners) are often placed on an accelerated, shortened timeline: the idea that they will peak athletically in college, at 18, 19, 20, 21 years old (unsurprisingly, this is a timeline built around men—Lauren Fleshman's letter "Dear Younger Me" states this so beautifully). If you lose your period in the quest for (short-term) greatness, so what? This culture needs shifting—and there have been a lot of hopeful developments here, especially over the last five or so years. The victories of Kiera D'Amato (who recently set the American record in the marathon at 36), Sarah Hall, Shalane Flanagan, Sara Vaughn, and so many others have proven the value of cultivating a long-term approach to women's health and athleticism. Women's bodies are amazing—especially when we allow them to be women's bodies.
That last line is a pretty good motto for this substack.