Harriet Walker: Women get the worst of stereotyping

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I was worried that ruthless spending cuts across the globe might mean that studies telling us stuff we already knew would become a thing of the past, but in Taiwan they clearly still value their Department of "Well, duh..." Neuroscientists there have discovered period pains can change the sufferer's brain, reports the September issue of PAIN magazine. (No, I didn't know it existed either; their editorial meetings must be excruciating.)

Anyway, what? Period pains turn women's brains into those of hair-clawing harpies with no sense of humour and even lower tolerance levels where messiness, flakiness, punctuality and punctuation are concerned? (Guffaw.) Clearly science has the effect on men of making them come up with verbose assertions of the bleeding obvious, if you pardon the gory pun. Stereotyping aside, the new research has found that period pains actually change the shape of women's brains. There are abnormal decreases of grey matter in areas that deal with pain transmission, and marked increases in the zones that moderate pain. This roughly equates to saying, "Your brain reacts to pain and tries to make whatever hurts not hurt any more." Too right it does: wimmin are complex beasts.

It is a subject cloaked in quite some social mystery. We might not have to sit in red tents any more (thanks), and we're allowed into churches during the offending days (I haven't taken them up on this kind invitation, but there's time). But there's still a cult of distaste, wariness and, of course, sexism surrounding the, er, Crimson Wave.

Everyone loves gender pigeon-holing – men are slobs! women are mad! – but thanks to the clandestine, near-mythic qualities of periods, women seem to get a harder time of it. Some beery bloke feels you up in a bar and he's just a guy who can't distinguish between appropriate and unacceptable because, on the inside, he's drowning in a pool of his own testosterone. "Men", we shrug, "they can't help it." It has become affectionate, this exasperation, as the archetype is pushed upon us by self-help books and rom coms.

By contrast, if a woman argues, cries, gets jealous or bloaty, she's tarred with the "neurotic" brush and dismissed as unreasonable, highly strung and most likely "on the blob". It is much harder to get away with being a worked-up woman than it is to be a macho man. One amiable-but-barbed response in domestic arguments, office disagreements, and urban catcalling is to ask if a woman has got her period – which if you haven't, is irksome enough to make you act like you have, and if you have, is liable to see you going down for GBH.

None of us need be martyrs to our sex any more; men and women alike are allowed to show weakness now, but with that comes a certain pernicious tendency – like the vogue for infantilising men – to turn women into hysterical, hormonal shrews. It'll end in romper suits and porn in M&S, and the wholesale reintroduction of the scold's bridle.

"Hysteria" derives from the Greek word for womb and has always been an inherently female characteristic. Hippocrates' theory was that women were destabilised by the fact that their uterus moved around their bodies; King Lear explains his womanly scattiness in imagery that references his "wandering womb". But oh! How Hippocrates, Galen and Shakespeare will have to eat their words after this lovely new study!

Our wombs might not be travelling the length and breadth of our irascible frames, as ascertained in the more lenient 19th-century when they simply shoved women into the attic or the asylum, but our brains are actually changing shape. Imagine how men would react to that. Consider how they cope with flu or multi-tasking, multiply that by 2,000, and subtract the presence of a woman to help them out.

h.walker@independent.co.uk

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