This year has been a bumper year for publications that shine another light upon the patriarchal grip of medicine, and wider culture: Lynn Enright’s Vagina: A Re-education, Abby Norman’s Ask Me About My Uterus, Jennifer Lock’s Below The Waist and Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women to name only a few. Eleanor Morgan’s Hormonal is a valuable addition to this ever-urgent canon, inviting women to re-think their experiences of their bodily fluctuations in more nuanced, less pathologizing and more compassionate terms. I hope it encourages men to re-consider their (probably ill-informed) ideas about the female body similarly.
Morgan guides us through her own personal experiences of distressing menstrual symptoms, and a crippling anxiety that seem to be worsened by them. Deservedly seeking to alleviate her physical and mental pain, she discovers a woeful lack of understanding of how hormones affect our mental health – of no surprise to me as a therapist specialising in pregnancy loss. A golden thread throughout her well-researched – and amusing – musings is that of a persistent mythology that ‘has surrounded women’s bodies since time immemorial, positioning our natural processes like menstruation as dirty and dangerous’. While we may no longer be ‘hysterical’ as Freud may have described, we are now pejoratively dismissed as ‘hormonal’ when our moods, behaviours, or thoughts are deemed ‘excessive’.
Such ‘othering’ discourse runs the risk of pitting women against their own bodies and can encourage us to seek ‘fixes’ – with synthetic hormones, anti-depressant medicines (and although she doesn’t mention this, in the USA there is a terrifying excess of unnecessary hysterectomies). While sympathetic to any woman’s attempt to alleviate her distress, and acknowledging the potentially powerful use of knowing that certain times of the month are linked to increased upset, Morgan also wants us to broaden our view: so rather than just feeling ‘hormonal’, maybe it’s kinder, and more accurate to think of our hormonal fluctuations as pre-disposing us to appropriate distress.
Hormonal makes for a compelling read, bursting with ideas and reflections upon women’s mental and physical health. She discusses published research, meets with pioneering doctors and weaves personal anecdotes, ending on an invigorating idea that was new to me: could it be that pre-menstrual tension is a subconscious means to vocalise a historical oppression? Could it be the means by which women can give voice to a rage that is legitimised for one week of every month? While I’ll have to think about that one, I do know that rage against reproductive injustice is what we need right now.