Girls and Hormones – Making it OK to be female
As we wrap up our month-long coverage about girls, we thought we’d close with what it really means to let girls be girls. One variable seems to be responsible for the majority of conflicts waged between the sexes. That variable is hormones.
Hormones are chemical messengers that operate virtually every physiologic transaction happening in our bodies at any given moment. Many assume hormones are gender specific; that there are female hormones and male hormones, but actually men and women share all the same hormones.
Male and female bodies are more alike than different. In fact, during the first six weeks of pregnancy, there’s no real difference between boy and girl fetuses. As tissues differentiate into XX and XY chromosomes, most body systems develop identically and even reproductive systems have striking similarities (two ovaries, two testes, both operated by the endocrine system).
During puberty, hormones shift dramatically to change boys into men and girls into women, but throughout life, men and women continue to circulate “male and female” hormones (including testosterone, estrogen and follicle stimulation hormones). More than 50 other hormones direct every vital organ, metabolic function, chemical interaction and brain transaction in every body. Considering how similar we are, why do minor hormonal differences hold so much cultural power over how men and women are treated? It’s not because of nature. It’s because of culture nurturing.
Hormonal shifts in either gender can cause emotional wobbles, physical symptoms and disequilibrium, but do they render people insane or change their thought processes? No, not under normal circumstances, but societies propagate myths that reproductive hormones, especially in women, dramatically alter our faculties. Take for example this conversation overheard between a young man and woman: “I’m not listening to you when you’re on your period. Damn hormones make you crazy.” Or this comment made by a high school girl: “All guys think with their di**s. That’s just how guys are.” Hormones have become the scapegoat that makes allowances for intolerance, bad behavior and ignorance.
Despite advances in women’s rights, women are still bombarded with messaging telling them they’re not OK if they don’t look, feel, act, think and behave like men, especially if they’re on their periods, low on estrogen or experiencing other hormonal shifts. Despite comprising more than 50% of the population, the social stigma women face because of hormones is insidious, relentless and reinforces that women are “less than” men. A recent CNN news story quoted a suspicious study saying women’s ability to vote is affected by hormones. An advertisement for Jack-in-the-Box smoothies infers that menopausal women are hysterical. It’s everywhere.
When women respond differently to emotional and intellectual stimuli than men, their different responses are often considered faulty. From an early age, women are undermined for their intuition, ability to tune into subtle emotional cues, talent for emotional connection and intelligence. If a woman feels strongly, she’s told she’s too sensitive, defensive, over-reacting or lacking a sense of humor. Even women downgrade their own psychology by saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I’m just hormonal.”
Girls grow up believing that during 25% (approximately one week per month) of their reproductive years they should expect to feel intellectually and emotionally off-kilter; as if there’s something wrong with feeling sensitive, vulnerable, cranky or distracted. But do mood fluctuations really make women less functional or unstable than they are the other three weeks of the month? No.
Heather Weldon, MD, OB-GYN at PeaceHealth Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver says, “I am always challenging patients on their bitchiness and the behavior excuses they make because they’re ‘hormonal.’ Everybody’s hormonal whether they’re male or female. Take responsibility for behavior and give yourself forgiveness and patience when your fuses are short and you feel emotional.”
Jessica Zucker, PhD is a clinical psychologist specializing in women's, reproductive and maternal mental health. Zucker says, “In a culture where perfection is insidiously sequestered and expected in most everything girls and women undertake, it’s vital that girls learn at a young age that emotional shifts accompany bodily changes. Girls get inundated with complicating cultural messages at a tender age about beauty ideals and what it means to be a "good girl" long before they have a solid psychological compass. As puberty takes hold there’s a sea change in emotional expression, feeling states, self-image, and overall identity. Hormones play a central role. Sadly, culture quickly pins dreadful labels on girls and women as they navigate these physiologic shifts, deeming women "crazy", "overly sensitive", and "unpredictable." We owe it to young women to help them feel empowered during this transition so the rocky road of emerging into womanhood is normalized and supported, rather than shamed. Establishing hardy self-esteem may be more likely if girls feel their hormonal and emotional processes throughout puberty are expected and healthy.”
As the mother of many daughters and a registered nurse who’s worked in women’s health for decades, I’ve had “the talk” about hormones, menstruation, mood swings, energy levels and how hormones impact health and wellbeing more than most. Each time, I emphasize how perfect and healthy girls and women’s bodies and minds are, even when they’re having periods and hormonal changes. I stress that all the symptoms women may or may not have are absolutely normal. Hormones don’t make us crazy, stupid, or incapable. We’re not nuts, “hormonal,” or unstable. We’re normal. We’re women.
How do we raise our daughters and sons to honor and value their bodies?
- Check in with your own hormonal-emotional radar and notice how often you discount your feelings.
- Reinforce that emotions are normal and healthy, even sad, sensitive and angry ones.
- Help them develop coping skills to deal with their feelings.
- Encourage them to develop healthy outlets for their emotions.
- Teach them to respect that emotions are our guidance systems that help us navigate life.
Teach them that their generation will change the course of history, just as ours did. It will be their responsibility to establish cultural respect for the few things that make women different from men and the many things that make us the same. Because, hormonally speaking, we aren’t that different.
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