Sunday, October 03, 2004

Womanhood and Menses

From Amanda, at Mouse Words:

Manhood, regardless of whether you define it as machismo or maturity, you are still defining proper manhood as a function of will. Manhood is about choices, intelligence, even the soul.

Womanhood is a biological function that women have no control over.

Amanda is spot on. There is a tendency to infuse the menstrual period with all sorts of societal meanings of almost mythical proportions (e.g., the essence of womanhood, woman power, etc.). This is detrimental, especially when it comes to women making informed period-related health decisions. Why? Because, by definition, myths aren't to be explained; they're to be believed. This is a dangerous proposition when it comes to your health.

An often encountered myth about the period is that having periods "protects" a woman from becoming more like a man. Obviously, if you've been told ever since before you had your first period (menarche) that menstruating "makes you a woman", you might feel apprehensive about using hormonal birth control or menstrual management and no longer having a monthly period. This reluctance to use a potentially beneficial tool might negatively impact your lifestyle (for women who don't like having a monthly period), or your health (for women who suffer from period-related health problems). To make an informed decision you need facts, not beliefs. So, apropos of what makes a woman a woman, let's look at some facts.

A major difference between the sexes is their chromosomes. A chromosome is a unit of genetic material made up of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid); chromosomes define who we are as a species.

Humans have 46 chromosomes--22 identical pairs, and a pair of sex chromosomes (XX for women, XY for men).

Having or not having a monthly period has no effect on your genetic makeup. It doesn't change one of your Xs into a Y.

Another difference between women and men is their levels of "female" and "male" hormones--estrogen and testosterone. Both women and men produce estrogen and testosterone. However, reproductive-age women have more estrogen, while men have more testosterone, hence the "female"/"male" designation. Both these hormones contribute to the development and maintenance of secondary sexual characteristics: muscle mass and fat deposition, hair distribution, breast development, etc. Using period control to skip the monthly period has no effect on the balance of these two hormones. In other words, when you use menstrual management your testosterone level doesn't shoot up to equal a man's. (Actually, quite the opposite. If you use the Pill, it tends to lower your testosterone level.) Nor does your estrogen level plummet. Quite the opposite. Instead of the periodic low levels experienced by women with monthly periods, women using period control maintain a relatively constant estrogen level.

Finally, we can differentiate between women and men based on their reproductive organs. Women have ovaries, uteri, and vaginas. Men have testicles, prostates, and penises. At the risk of stating the obvious, having or not having a period doesn't cause your uterus to vanish, nor do your ovaries mutate into new organs.

On a related note, if you use menstrual management you don't become your grandmother (i.e., menopausal). When you use hormonal birth control you are not postmenopausal. While it's true that neither group of women have a period, postmenopausal women stop menstruating because their ovaries stop working and they have no more eggs. Women who use period control still have viable eggs and their ovaries function perfectly well; the eggs and the ovaries are simply on stand-by. Once the woman stops using hormonal birth control, the monthly cycles restart, as does the ability to have children. Here's an easy way to think about this:

It's relatively easy to restart the monthly bleeding in women after menopause. This is why postmenopausal women can, and have carried pregnancies and have given birth. (The oldest woman on record to give birth is a 63-year old Californian.) What's not possible (yet) is for these women to be fertile, to create a baby from their own eggs--they no longer* have any and have to use donor eggs.

Contrast the fertility situation in postmenopausal women with that in reproductive-age women who no longer have a period because they use hormonal birth control. Once these women stop using period control, they are fertile because they have functioning eggs. Not only that, but it appears that using the Pill actually improves fertility. A study of more than 8,000 women found that women who had used the Pill had an increased ability to become pregnant. Moreover, the longer the women used the Pill, the better their chances of conceiving within the first 6 months after stopping the Pill.

On another related note, pausing your monthly cycle--like when you use period control or when you're pregnant--does not hasten the onset of menopause.

Bottom line: The period is nothing more and nothing less than an ordinary body function. Having a menstrual period does not make women inferior, nor does it empower them to rule the world. And, at least biologically speaking, the menstrual period most certainly does not a woman make: managing your period won't make you become more like a man.

*Recently, researchers have found that, in mice, the ovary appears to produce eggs throughout the female's life. [If this finding is accurate, and if it holds true for humans, this would absolutely revolutionize the way we view human fertility and reproduction.]

(via Alas, a Blog)


At 2:34 AM, Anonymous TheTimidDancer'sRevolution said...

In other words, womanhood is also related to the power of will and making choices. We may refer to that as perhaps, umm, humanhood. All right.


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