On a recent episode of “Armchair Expert,” her husband Dax Shepard’s podcast, actress Kristen Bell said that if she didn’t “self-regulate” her emotions while she’s having her period, she would no longer be married.
“The reason I don’t go bananas on my period is because I have been brought up with socialization that has told me, ‘You will feel bananas a couple of days before your period. Don’t scream at everyone, even if you want to,’” she said.
Bell, who declined to be interviewed, also argued that if women can curb PMS-induced impulses, men should be able to restrain themselves from testosterone-induced violence: “I don’t think it’s terrible to ask guys to self-regulate themselves,” she said.
The actress isn’t alone in feeling that she has to temper her emotions or apologize for bleeding. According to interviews with nearly 20 people who menstruate, many said they regularly apologize for or hide their periods.
Sheenie Ambardar, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist, said that if you’re having your period, it’s likely you’ll feel off. But society’s expectation that women “be ‘on’ and productive at all times” feeds the apology cycle, she said.
Some 85 percent of women reported period pain and 77 percent reported psychological distress as menstrual symptoms, according to a 2019 survey of nearly 43,000 women published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Of course, men have “off” days too. But they’re less likely to occur every 28 days, for up to a week at a time, Ambardar said. And when they do occur, she added, men are generally less likely to apologize for them.
The idea of women explaining their emotions — even apologizing for them — while on their periods is a common one, according to Maja Jovanovic, a professor of sociology. Apologies are common in many aspect of women’s lives, including their periods, she said.
“I think we need to unpack why women across the globe feel the need to constantly have this performance of niceness and emotional regulation,” she said.
Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, lawyer, co-founder of Period Equity and author of “Periods Gone Public: Taking a Stand for Menstrual Equity,” said that despite writing a book on period advocacy, she still sometimes feels awkward discussing menstruation in certain company: “So I suppose that puts me in the apologizer camp, even a little bit.”
Weiss-Wolf said that if she’s mingling at a party and someone introduces her as the writer of a book, she braces herself for the inevitable question: “What’s your book about?”
She’s immediately “mindful that I might make somebody uncomfortable,” she said. “Or it might be embarrassing, or it might be weird if I just jump in and start talking about things that I’ll gladly talk about in certain audiences.”
Davielle Jackson, chief executive of Femi Secrets, a disposable-period-panty company, said she never discloses when she’s on her period.
It’s not because she’s embarrassed, she said — she built her brand on normalizing period talk and destigmatizing menstrual shame — but she always worries her leadership will be questioned, particularly by men.
“So to me, it's always ‘Oh, I have to keep it a secret,’ although I'm in pain, although I’m cramping,” she said.
Sometimes Jackson’s period pain is so bad she’ll have to take time off work, she said: “But I can never disclose that. I’ve just got to say, ‘Hey, I was out today.’ But really, it’s like, ‘Sorry, I’m on my period.’”
Jen Gunter, an OB/GYN and author of “The Menopause Manifesto,” said that she hears period apologies all the time in her office. “I mean, almost always, if somebody is on their period, when they come in for an exam, they apologize and say, ‘I’m sorry I’m on my period,’” Gunter said. “Of all the spaces to apologize!”
Many say that chief among the reasons for menstrual apologies and shame is not wanting to embarrass — or be embarrassed in front of — men.
“When it's just women, it is no big deal,” said Lexi Cederholm, a 23-year-old digital marketing assistant in Chicago.
Gena Gephart, a stand-up comic and fellow Chicagoan, agreed that it’s been a journey to grow comfortable discussing her period with men.
“When I was 16 with my first ever boyfriend, I felt so deeply embarrassed I couldn’t even bring myself to tell him, so instead, I stuffed the tampon string all the way inside and just hoped he wouldn’t notice when we were fooling around,” she said.
Gephart hid or apologized for her period throughout her early 20s because she thought men “would find it gross to have sex with me while I was menstruating,” she added. Now 29, her attitude has evolved: “I couldn’t care less about telling someone I’m on my period.”
Not talking to men about periods and hormones may only perpetuate apology culture, experts say.
Bell argued on “Armchair Expert” that men have to start discussing their hormones, too. “There’s no threat of survival with PMS, but there is a threat of survival around a lot of male rage,” she said.
The core of the issue, experts say, is stigma and a lack of conversation around these issues. The first step? Recognition, according to Michael Baggs, a neuroscientist. Men, due to social stigma, can be more “unaware of their internal states” than women, he said.
Although women have been socialized to recognize how their hormones affect their moods and actions, “you’d never hear a man apologize for being unable to focus while trying to read work emails because his head is swimming with oxytocin from having sex twice that morning,” Baggs said. “They’d be more likely to blame it on having too much coffee.”
The solution — addressing it and talking about it — could help destigmatize periods for trans and nonbinary folks as well. “A lot of cis people seem to think that when you declare you’re trans, your period simply shrivels up and dies, which … I wish that’s how it worked,” said trans and nonbinary writer Henry Giardina.
Explaining to nosy co-workers his need for extra bathroom breaks when menstruating — or why he wants to borrow ibuprofen for PMS-induced headaches — is exhausting, he said.
Awkward encounters make Giardina realize “how much people just … have no idea what being a trans guy actually means or what it looks like.”
But conversations like the one Bell and Shepard had on a popular podcast are a start, advocates say.
If we can “make all this room to talk with people about postpartum depression,” Gunter said, “why can’t we make that same space to talk about PMS?”