Why society loves to criticize our brilliant, complex hormones
JUNE 1, 2021
Our hormones are incredible. Why is it then that being ‘hormonal’ is still viewed as an insult? Read on as we explore why it’s time to reclaim the term and finally give our hormones the respect they deserve.
To this day, the language around our hormones ‘others’ us and implies the way we and our bodies behave is not the default.
These attitudes are a shameful nod to some of the outdated practices our ancestors faced, with ‘hysteria’ only abolished as a medical term in the 1980s.
It’s time to shake up the way we think, speak, and write about hormones—they are incredible, powerful things that make each of us, us.
“Time of the month, is it?”
Hands up if you’ve faced that classic put-down before?
We don’t know about you, but few lines get our backs up more.
It’s everyday sexism at its finest. It belittles us, blaming any change in our behavior or mood on the ‘mere’ fact we’re women.
It’s not just that line. We’re also talking about turns of phrase that use ‘hormonal’ as an insult. Language like this mocks our emotions, suggesting that fluctuations in temperaments are irrational and should be avoided at all costs.
This outdated attitude and the pressure to strive towards the neutral are also damaging our mental health. Society makes us believe that whenever we deviate from the ‘normal’, there’s something wrong with us. Note: “oh my ex, she’s just crazy!” A sweeping statement that in one breath offends the person it’s referring to, as well as all people who experience mental health issues.
This deep-rooted, harmful perspective can cause us to be uncompassionate to ourselves, when these hormonal fluctuations are, in fact, perfectly normal.
So, where does this criticism come from? Why does society love to criticize us and our hormones?
It’s historical (so it must be right… yeah?)
You don’t have to glimpse far into the history books to see anti-hormone views lingering on the pages. ‘Hysteria’, for example, was a common medical diagnosis used to describe ‘emotional excess’ in women. Its roots go back 4,000 years to the Ancient Egyptians,(1) with the condition finally removed from medical texts as late as 1980 (yes, staggering I know)(2). Common ‘symptoms’ of this dreaded condition included a swollen abdomen, tears and laughter, anxiety, irritability, and sexual forwardness(2). Heaven forbid!
The French physician, François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix, who was around in the 18th century, believed hysteria was akin to emotional instability, or a condition that meant the sufferer was “subject to sudden changes with the great sensibility of the soul”(3). He patted himself on the back, agreeing this must be primarily a female affliction, after all, “men are only rarely hysterical”(3). Sure, François.
Widely believed to be caused by a “wandering womb”(1), we were painted as figures of emotional excess—and were vilified, even tortured for it. Way back in the 2nd century AD, Claudius Galen (a Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher) introduced so-called treatments including purges, administrations of herbs, oh—and repressing stimuli that could “excite” a young woman (perish the thought)(1).
In the 13th century onwards, the situation got considerably darker. ‘Hysterical’ women were subjected to exorcism, with the cause of their ‘problem’ attributed to a demonic presence. Initially, this extreme point of view was apparently a cure rather than a punishment, but in the late Middle Ages the narrative shifted and hysteria was confused with sorcery(1). One of the most infamous examples of ‘mass hysteria’ and women led to the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century, where 19 people were executed for the crime of ‘witchcraft.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, women were even forced to wear the scold’s bridle—an iron mask and form of torture designed to humiliate “erring and unruly women” and literally gag them from speaking(4).
And even up until the 1920s, physicians used vibrators as a medical treatment for ‘hysterical’ women (they’d also prescribe marriage, heterosexual sex, pregnancy, and sweet-smelling oils to get us back on the straight and narrow)(5). If a woman showed increased libido or a desire for sex, she was deemed hysterical. Anything about us that was considered unstable, or difficult to manage or categorize, was used to suppress us.
It seems shocking today, but when we dismiss women and people with cycles for being “hormonal”, I’d argue it’s a diluted yet harmful legacy of some of the stuff our ancestors had to deal with. It ‘others’ us and suggests the way we and our bodies behave is not the default.
The truth is, those of us with menstrual cycles are built with different stuff to those without.
We’re different and it’s led to stigma, sexism, and persecution. Our hormones fluctuate dramatically at different times of the month, often changing how we feel. Each of us has a different pattern and a totally unique experience, but take a look below to see just how much our hormone levels can change throughout our cycles.
Hormones in people without cycles fluctuate too but in a completely different way. Their testosterone levels change throughout the day, but throughout a month, they remain largely stable. Quite simply, we’re (very) different.
The brilliance of our hormones has been their downfall.
Their complexity means science often hasn’t taken them into account. And until 1993, researchers banned women from taking part in early clinical trials as they believed our hormone fluctuations polluted medical data(6).
Instead of recognizing the fundamental role hormones play in our health, research has been conducted mostly by men, with men, and for men—creating treatments and procedures that affect all of us, but don’t take our hormones into account.
To this day, most medications, including those for pain relief, depression and sleeping aids, have not been tested on women(7).
It’s led to a lack of understanding around women’s hormones and how they impact our overall health and wellbeing. Just as one example, a recent survey of 2,000 American women found that nearly half of them were experiencing symptoms of hormone imbalance(8).
It’s something we’re working hard to fix. We’ve created a formidable team of doctors, scientists, and engineers from Imperial College London, UCL, and Stanford Medical Centre, and we’re backed by many of the world’s strongest scientific institutions such as The Crick Institute, UCL, and Cambridge University.
Together, we help you understand how your hormones are affecting your body and impacting the way you feel. We’re working to finally drag our hormones out from the shadows and give them the attention and the respect they so sorely deserve. Our work will change the future of medicine forever and ensure every person with cycles has the right to feel their best (it’s about time).
“Time of the month, is it?”
We’re building a world where every single day is.
Tasca C, Rapetti M, Carta MG, Fadda B. Women And Hysteria In The History Of Mental Health. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health CP EMH. 2012 Oct 19;8:110–9.
Facebook, Twitter. Understanding Hysteria in the Past and Present [Internet]. Verywell Mind. [cited 2021 May 10]. Available from: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-hysteria-2795232
Female hysteria: The history of a controversial “condition” [Internet]. [cited 2021 May 10]. Available from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/the-controversy-of-female-hysteria#Female-hysteria-in-the-18th-century
A woman wearing a scold’s bridle, 1655 [Internet]. The British Library. The British Library; [cited 2021 May 10]. Available from: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-woman-wearing-a-scolds-bridle-1655
Medical Vibrators for Treatment of Female Hysteria | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia [Internet]. [cited 2021 May 10]. Available from: https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/medical-vibrators-treatment-female-hysteria
Liu KA, Mager NAD. Women’s involvement in clinical trials: historical perspective and future implications. Pharm Pract [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2021 May 10];14(1). Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4800017/
Zucker I, Prendergast BJ. Sex differences in pharmacokinetics predict adverse drug reactions in women. Biol Sex Differ. 2020 Jun 5;11(1):32.
Nearly half of women have been affected by a hormonal imbalance [Internet]. [cited 2021 May 10]. Available from: https://nypost.com/2019/02/22/nearly-half-of-women-have-been-affected-by-a-hormonal-imbalance/
Hermione Wright (she/her)
An NCTJ-qualified journalist, Hermione writes for national and local publications in addition to creating thought leadership for brands with a purpose. Passionate about telling the stories that matter, she helps our community make their own clued-up choices about their healthcare.
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Alejandra Elder Ontiveros, MD, PHD (she/her)
Ale is a PhysicianScientist with a doctoral degree in Development Biology and Embryology and is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at UCSF. Ale believes that the union of academia and business can lead to transformative discoveries for women’s health.
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