P1: GCQ/GCY P2: GCQ/GCZ QC: GDX
Sex Roles [sers] pp503-sers-374489 June 7, 2002 15:55 Style ﬁle version June 3rd, 2002
Sex Roles, Vol. 46, Nos. 1/2, January 2002 (
Health and Sickness: The Meaning of Menstruation
and Premenstrual Syndrome in Women’s Lives
The experience of menstruation was examined through an analysis of women’s narratives
in order to understand perceptions of menstrual cycle changes. Research within a medical
anthropology perspective was conducted with 43 women who volunteered for a study on
the knowledge and understanding of menstruation and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) in
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, from 1997 to 1999. Although most women accepted the PMS
label and placed their cyclic changes within the realm of sickness, a small group of women were
identiﬁed who conceptualized their cyclic changes in an extremely positive way thus reframing
their experiences. More positive perceptions of menstrual changes may have a signiﬁcant
impact on the reevaluation of menstrual cycle ﬂuctuations as sickness without devaluing the
experiences of those women with severe changes.
KEY WORDS: health; sickness; menstruation; premenstrual syndrome; attitudes; perceptions; narratives.
Menstrual cycle changes consist of a variety of
bodily manifestations that are perceived in dramati-
cally different ways by women. In a Canadian study
conducted on women’s perceptions of menstruation
and PMS, some women
responded to a question
on the meaning of menstruation with the following
Mary: I love it. I just love it because I feel it’s
like a cleansing.
Shelby: I hate it, I hate it. It’s still embarrassing
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the June 2001
meeting of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research in Avon, CT.
This paper is based on a portion of the data from the author’s doc-
toral dissertation: A Study of the Knowledge and Understanding of
Menstruation and Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS) among Women
To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department
of Anthropology, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba,
Canada R3T 2N2; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
All names used in reference to the participants in the study are
Holly: Blood (laughter). Strength, health,
Jody: Pain, cramps, premenstrual tension, anx-
iety, and I can hardly wait for menopause.
Rosemarie: It’s very special to be able to have that
cycle ...it’s all part of fertility and what
it means to be a woman.
Claudia: I think of a really bad experience ...pain
would be one of the things that come
to mind ...I don’t ﬁnd it in the least bit
pleasant or in any way healthy. It’s just
sort of a big bad part of the month.
Differences in the perception of menstruation
are readily apparent in the discourse presented above.
Some of this variation concerns bodily changes per-
ceived as problematic and distressing, yet positive at-
titudes were also expressed. Nevertheless, the main
focus of menstrual cycle research continues to con-
cern changes that are commonly referred to as pre-
menstrual syndrome, better known by its acronym
The label was ﬁrst used by Greene and
Dalton (1953) to represent distressing somatic
and psychological changes prior to and during
2002 Plenum Publishing Corporation