Just How Real Is PMS Clumsiness?
It's either a thing or leftover from the days when science tried to justify treating women like freaks for menstruating.
I am not an especially talented drummer at the best of times, but when I'm on my period I am a fucking terrible one. My arms feel weaker and I struggle to lock into any kind of a rhythm. I am decidedly less co-ordinated. I am perennially worried I am going to drop or hit myself in the face with one of my drumsticks. I am wildly out of sync with the rest of the band, or at least think so. Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether I'm actually being clumsy and discordant or just telling myself I am. The last gig I played, I was convinced I'd repeatedly messed up – speeding up and slowing down, flailing around like an absolute idiot – but the rest of my band assured me I wasn't.
You don't have to look far to find someone who assumes female-identifying musicians are less capable by virtue of our gender. "Girl" or equivalent is a repeatedly invoked as needless preface – girl band, female-fronted, lady drummer – the epithet cruelly reductive and signifying the presumed anomaly of a woman playing music. Similarly, menstruation and PMS are quickly corralled as reason for anything from making a mistake to having an opinion, our fundamental ineptitude usually being the punchline. And yet, when I am menstruating, I absolutely feel a struggle to play drums, or to do a lot of otherwise ordinary things, like walking across a room without stubbing my toe, doing the washing up with dropping a bowl, literally just getting out of bed without tripping over. So how come nobody talks about it? Do other musicians with periods experience a similar transient clumsiness? Is there some science to back up what I experience as the regular loss of my ability to play an instrument with the usual ease? Keen to find out, I started asking around.
"For me, about a week before I'm due on, I have a day or two when I'm mousey from the minute I wake up," Sophie Galpin, drummer for Manchester-based band PINS, tells me. "I feel like my emotions are heightened and close to the surface, and as a general rule everything is really annoying." For Sophie, it is more of a case of premenstrual angst that levels out once her period starts. She describes a combination of low-level cramps, weakness and a lack of coordination as opposed to outright clumsiness, but it does, she admits, interfere with her drumming.
"I've done some rubbish drumming from time to time," she tells me. "I had a (personally!) terrible show recently. We'd had a few busy days beforehand with long drives and little sleep, and I was on my period as well. My hand-eye coordination was awful. I kept missing the drum pads and I felt totally zapped of energy for the whole set. I don't think it was bad enough that anyone in the crowd would particularly notice, but I knew myself that it wasn't my best gig."
The National Association for Premenstrual Syndrome describes PMS as a "chronic condition experienced by menstruating women", with over 100 symptoms described. Clumsiness is often listed as a symptom (including on the NHS website) and a lot of people report experiences of poor coordination when menstruating.
Seleena Laverne Daye, drummer for the Clueless-inspired band Whatevers can attest to this. "Ordinarily I'm like the opposite of a clumsy person; super-coordinated and careful," she says. "When I get my period, I've noticed I start tripping over and dropping things. It wasn't until I smashed a glass jar I was cleaning at work by actually just letting go of it that I realised this new clumsiness only happens once a month."
This, combined with achy, tired legs when on her period, Selena says, makes drumming much harder work and affects how much time she can spend practising. What does she do to manage it, then? "I think once I figured out why I suddenly started being clumsy I was like, 'OK so don't do too much during that time; it's OK to rest and not to try carrying a million things at once.'"
It is thought that clumsiness is triggered by the high estrogen levels your body experiences during PMS, which prompts your liver to produce hormones that affect the kidneys, causing fluid retention. Fluids are retained potentially in your body and your brain, which might make it hard for you to keep your balance. Jackie Howe is the CEO of the National Association of Premenstrual Syndrome, a charity involved in raising awareness of and research into PMS. It is the only charity of its kind. I ask Howe if she hears clumsiness and poor coordination being described as symptoms of PMS. "I can tell you it occurs, but I can't tell you why," she says. "For a lot of people, accidents occur when they wouldn't ordinarily occur. It's certainly a feature of PMS."
When I get my period I've noticed I start tripping over and dropping things. It wasn't until I smashed a glass jar I was cleaning at work by actually just letting go of it that I realised this new clumsiness only happens once a month — Seleena Laverne Daye, drummer for Whatevers
Howe recommends people struggling with PMS read the Association's guidebook for tips on managing or getting help for symptoms. Some people experience debilitating PMS, she says, and it can be hard to get help. Alternately, it is argued PMS may well be a cultural construct; a manifestation of a period-fearing society that doesn't exist, biologically, at all. Joan Chrisler, a feminist psychologist who's been studying the menstrual cycle since the 1970s, refutes the notion that a women's clumsiness is associated with any part of the menstrual cycle, if they experience periods.
"I wonder if it goes back to the discredited work by Katharina Dalton in the 1960s and 1970s," Chrisler tells me. "Dalton invented the term 'premenstrual syndrome'." A podiatrist-turned-medic, Dalton argued PMS symptoms were brought on by deficiencies of the hormone progesterone, and was an advocate of hormone replacement therapy. She studied children, the mothers of abused children and incarcerated women as part of her research, believing the timing of PMS in women was associated with higher rates of suicide attempts, alcohol abuse and violent crimes. Chrisler, however, sees her methodology as problematic and her claims as roundly farfetched.
"A common practice for researchers without expertise in the menstrual cycle," Chrisler argues, "is to just ask women when they had their last accident and when it was in relation to their menstrual period. If women think clumsiness is a symptom of PMS they will 'remember' the accident as having occurred then, but they could very well be wrong. Women have won Olympic medals and run marathons successfully on their periods. Ballerinas of the Royal Ballet perform gracefully and athletically every day!"
There is certainly something appealing about this hypothesis; PMS is so often used as a misogynist stick to beat women with, and it has a history entrenched in sexism. And yet, I can't get away from the feeling that once a month, I do struggle with physical tasks, that drumming is a lot harder for me. Women absolutely run marathons and win medals – equally, swimmer Fu Yuanhui spoke about an impaired performance on account of her period at the Olympics last year.
When speaking with Jackie Howe, there's something reassuring and legitimising about being heard. She asks me to describe my experiences of PMS, expressing sympathy as I tell her about low moods, poor coordination and lack of energy. She asks what instrument I play and I say the drums; she asks if I struggle when experiencing PMS and I tell her I do. "I'm sure you do!" she says, giggling. Honestly, there still isn't a clear answer on this, and it really depends on how much each person feels affected by their period, because we're all different. But whether you side with Howe, and the NHS line on PMS and coordination, or take a side-long glance at what might be pseudo-science as Chrisler does, one thing's for sure: I've got to keep a tighter grip on my damn drumsticks every few weeks.
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(Lead image via Twitter)