Distorted Body Image and My Period Explained
It is no shock to many people who menstruate that we experience a distorted body image during different stages of our period. We often discuss when we bloat or experience flares in our acne or changes in our mood and when speaking to friends and family who menstruate, we notice how normal these occurrences are. However, what I find is that the consistent inconsistency of our mood, how we perceive these changes and turbulence it causes in our day to day lives, can be so damaging but is not spoken about. Instead, we view it as normal and learn to deal with it so let’s talk about it for once.
Before I start discussing how and why we may develop a sensation of unrest and unease towards our body image during our menstrual cycle, it is important to state that when the subject of distorted body image arises I am not talking about Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD). Distorted body image (aka negative body image) is when one has an unrealistic view of how someone sees their body while BDD is a pathological disorder. However, I will be talking about elements of the symptoms that overlap with distorted body image. If you are distressed by any of the topics mentioned in this piece, or if you or someone you know is struggling with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, information and resources are available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/body-dysmorphic-disorder-bdd/about-bdd/
The menstrual cycle is a 28 day time period in which a variety of hormonal changes occur, allowing a follicle to develop into a mature ovum and preparing your uterine lining for the embedment of a fertilised ovum. The hormones that are most commonly known and are involved in this process are oestrogen and progesterone. As well as having this important role in the menstrual cycle, they have been shown to have effects on the brain during stages of the cycle. It has been shown that in a healthy menstruating person, the concentrations of these hormones vary during each week or stage where oestrogen usually peaks at days 11-12 and again, but less as much, at days 21-23, and progesterone at days 23-24. What this means is that approximately at the end of week 2 (around the time of ovulation) and beginning of week 4 (towards the end of the cycle and beginning of your period), we experience huge changes in our hormone concentrations.
So what does this mean for your mood and the way you perceive yourself? Studies have shown that the negative thoughts experienced are highest during the perimenstural phase (the final days before the period begins), where the concentrations of oestrogen in your body are higher than progesterone. During the rest of the cycle, it has been shown that there is stability in mood and perceptions towards one’s own body. This anxiety over appearance and the experience of distorted body image can be explained through these two main causes.
It has been shown that oestrogen and progesterone implicate cortical and subcortical regions of the brain, therefore having a negative impact on cognitive and emotional processing. Hormonal fluctuations caused by the menstrual cycle affect the regions of the brain that allow cognitive control over emotional processing, hence causing the overwhelming response to the surroundings — one being visible changes occurring to the body. If your mind is being influenced by hormones that are impairing its ability to cognitively control the way you feel and see yourself, it is understandable that your self esteem will vary as a result.
In addition, there has been a study that compared the negative views of menstruating people with the the changes that occur to the body due to fluctuating hormone levels, such as increase in water retention (causing bloating in the perimenstrual phase) and autonomic reaction (an increase in the fight or flight response). The study showed that this lack of control and consequences of the cycle can cause impaired concentration, negative affect and other psychological changes because of the transitions of the body that cannot be controlled.
It is understandable as people living in a society where body shaming (no matter what size you are) is already a staple in our daily lives, the changes that occur in the bodies of those who menstruate can have a huge impact on the way they perceive themselves. The normal changes that occur due to hormonal fluctuations need to be more widely known about and accepted otherwise we will always have this preconceived negative perception towards our own bodies. It’s exhausting having to uphold the unrealistic standards that society already sets for us to have a perfect way to look that is constantly changing and to coincide that with the way our body experiences a cyclical change every four weeks. The consistent inconsistency of the menstrual cycle partnered with a society that upholds beauty standards that are equally as inconsistent is certainly not easy.
By Parmis Vafapour