One of my brothers (who is in his early twenties) wakes up looking like he is dying every morning. His “man flu” symptoms are all either self-caused or in his head: he has late nights and he eats junk food all the time – of course he feels sick when he wakes up in the morning. Every morning. I feel a bit resentful that my brother will never have to experience menstrual cramps, but I also feel superior: “My brother thinks he knows what it’s like to be sick?” I think smugly to myself, “He has no idea!” I wear my self-pinned “Menstrual Cramp Sufferer” badge proudly, and enjoy teasing my hypochondriac brother about his “man flu”. He takes my teasing well, and on one occasion even acknowledged his gratitude for the fact that he will never have to deal with menstrual cramps.
However I’ve started to wonder recently whether “Man flu” can be worse than I think it is. Perhaps it can be as bad as menstrual cramps (and other menstrual issues). Perhaps it can be worse. Perhaps men suffering from “man-flu” deserve every ounce of sympathy they get, and more besides. My dad is a very stoic man & he never complains about his primary strand of “man-flu” (hay-fever) but I know that he sometimes suffers a lot from it, and I feel very fortunate that I don’t suffer from hay-fever myself.
Below I will explore some of the similarities & differences between “man-flu” and menstrual periods. I will use hay-fever as my example of “man flu” because that is the main strand of man-flu that the men in my house seem to get. However I wish to acknowledge that (a) many women also suffer from hay-fever; and (b) there are many other types of “man-flu” (including hangovers & monday-morning-itis… I suppose women get those too!) I will compare the symptoms of hay-fever to the symptoms I experience with my menstrual periods (ie. no PMS symptoms but painful cramps). however I also wish to acknowledge that each woman experiences periods differently, and some women may not experience any negative physical symptoms at all.
Similarities between “man-flu” and menstrual periods:
- Negative physical symptoms: When my dad gets hay-fever he consumes a lot of medication and feels groggy and horrible, with a blocked runny nose & sneezing all the time. When I get my period I consume some pain-killers and feel crampy and uncomfortable for the first couple of days.
- Symptoms last for a few days: The symptoms of both hay-fever and menstrual cramps usually last a few days, and then we all start feeling fine again.
- Not contagious: Neither hay-fever nor menstrual cramps are contagious.
- Bodily fluids are excreted: There is an excretion of bodily fluids with both periods & hay-fever. People suffering from hay-fever have snotty/running noses, and watery eyes, and frequent sneezes. Women who have their periods are bleeding out of their bodies.
- Recurring a number of times each year: My dad and brothers seem to get hay-fever about every month or so. Much like a period.
- Not possible to predict when it will occur: Hay-fever is more likely to occur around the summer months (when there is pollen in the air) however it can occur any time of the year. Similarly, periods tend to come around about every 28 days or so – but there is significant variability in that. I can never predict when my period will occur, so I usually have about 5 days of anticipating/dreading it before it actually shows up! At other times my period comes earlier than expected & I am not prepared for it.
- Symptoms can vary in severity: Sometimes my dad gets very mild hay-fever. He pops a few pills then gets back to work. At other times my dad gets a really bad dose of hay-fever and is pretty much bed-ridden, and can’t do his work. Similarly, sometimes my period cramps are super-mild or non-existent. At other times they can be excruciating & I have to go home from work early. I can’t predict how bad my symptoms will be each time, and likewise, my dad can’t really predict how severe his symptoms will be each time.
Differences between “man-flu”and menstrual periods:
- Visibility: When my dad gets hay-fever his symptoms are very visible to everyone. When I get my period my symptoms are hidden and usually no-one in my family will know that I have my period. If they do notice (e.g. they see my feminine hygiene product wrappers in the bathroom bin) they won’t mention it to me!
- Sympathy: When my dad has hay-fever people treat him differently – they treat him a bit more gently/kindly, help him out a bit, express their sympathy, and ask him how he is feeling. My dad has an excuse to cancel appointments etc if he is not feeling up to it. When I have my period nobody knows that I have menstrual cramps or that I’m not feeling well. Everyone expects me to on with my life as usual (e.g. not cancel my appointments or stay home from work). When I get my period nobody treats me any differently at all.
- Embarrassment and Secrecy: There is no secrecy around hay-fever. If someone asks my dad, “How are you?” he feels no shame in telling them, “Not great, I have hay-fever.” He doesn’t have to hide his runny nose or discretely dispose of his used tissues. In comparison, when I have my period I feel the need to hide my symptoms so that people don’t know. When my brothers see me walking around with a hot water bottle I’ll speak in general terms, e.g. “I’m feeling cold”, or “I have a sore stomach”. I don’t think that my brothers are stupid or completely unaware of what’s going on for me – they might suspect that I have menstrual cramps – but they won’t mention it, and neither will I. My sister is 11 years old & hasn’t had her first period, so I try not to complain about menstrual cramps to her when I’m experiencing them – I don’t want to scare her. The only family member that I’ll speak openly with is my mother. If she asks me how my day at work was (and there are no brothers/siblings around), I’ll say, “it was okay, but I had my period & I had cramps all day.” When I am at work I am too embarrassed to use a hot water bottle (“people will guess I have my period!”), and I smuggle sanitary products into the bathroom by hiding them in my boots or in a bag.
- The bodily fluids are treated differently: Both hay-fever and menstruation involve the excretion of bodily fluids. Hay-fever involves runny noses, watery eyes, and sneezing. Menstruation involves the excretion of menstrual fluid through the vagina. Both lots of bodily fluids have to be managed (tissues/handerchiefs for the hay-fever people; and tampons etc for the menstruation-people). However, our societal rules dictate that menstrual fluid is embarrassing and secret and should not be seen by anyone expect the menstruating person. Runny noses can be seen by anyone.
- “Normal” vs. “Sick” labels: Menstruation (including menstrual cramps and all other negative symptoms) is seen as normal and a part of life. Consequently women with menstrual cramps are expected to “(wo)man up” and get on with it. Because menstrual cramps are seen as normal women may choose not to seek medical help for them. In comparison, hay-fever is clearly seen as something that is abnormal, problematic, and as a sign of ill-health/sickness. Therefore menwhen suffering from hay-fever are encouraged to seek medical treatment for it to help alleviate their symptoms.
- Isolation : Hay-fever has an external cause (pollen in the air), so when my dad and brothers get hay-fever they all get it at the same time – they have company in their misery. Women get their periods according to their own individual schedules – women’s periods do not synchronize together. Therefore when I get my period I don’t have anyone keeping me company in it! My mother’s now post-menopause, and my sister’s too young to get periods, and in my office I never know whether any of the other women are menstruating because it is kept a secret – therefore I am isolated in my experience when I am at work also.
Which is worse: Menstrual Periods or “Man Flu”? The jury is out However sometimes I wish that menstruation was more visible & open for discussion. I’d like to get a little bit of sympathy from the men-folk in my life each time I have my “woman flu”, in the same way I show them sympathy (sometimes!) when they are suffering from their various “man flu’s”. I’d also like to be able to use my menstrual cramps as a trump card with my brothers, “I have menstrual cramps & I’m in pain, GIVE ME THE TV REMOTE!”