Hysterical Women: Books About Menstrual Health & Wellbeing

Hysterical women: Books about menstrual health & wellbeing

Words by Ellen Desmond

Sex education, psychology, and healthcare have historically been very sexist and narrow-minded areas. This has been especially true for women and queer patients, in both psychiatric and general healthcare settings.

History has led not just to an erasure of the professional womxn—especially womxn of colour—who have made significant entrepreneurial and scientific contributions to psychology and medical healthcare, but it has also been an incredibly exploitative field. It’s led to a lack of education in laypeople when it comes to knowing how our female or queer bodies can interact with our mental health.

For me, this was especially true when it came to hormones. I had to educate myself about issues that affect me and my peers, such as PMDD, PME, PMS, endometriosis, and the interactions between the mind and contraceptives.

Here are just some of the books that helped me figure things out along the way:

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully by Karen Havelin

Please Read This Leaflet Carefully, the debut novel from Norwegian writer and translator Karen Havelin, is the story of a woman whose body has become her enemy.

The novel tracks backward, from 2016 until 1995, etching details of daily life into a gripping and darkly humorous bildungsroman, about the intricacies of love and life and chronic illness. Protagonist  Laura Fjellstad struggles with debilitating pain and endometriosis, an invisible chronic illness. This book is interesting in that it explores a very real issue through fiction, and is rare in how factually informative it manages to be. You can find out more in our interview with author Havelin here.

Dead Ink Books, 30/05/19

Period Power by Maisie Hill

Period Power is a profound but practical blueprint for aligning daily life with the menstrual cycle, to give those who menstruate a no-nonsense explanation of what happens to their hormones every month and how they can use each phase to its full advantage.

Despite the fact that ninety per cent of women experience symptoms of PMS, a syndrome which features a wide range of signs and symptoms, there’s an enduring lack of understanding about what it actually is, and a disappointingly meagre range of treatment options. Hill gives us the information we need to understand what is going on, respect our experiences, and be able to put our feelings into words.

Bloomsbury, 02/05/2019

This is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay

It’s always interesting to get another perspective and this one is written by a former obstetrician and gynaecologist. The main thing I took away from this book is how overworked NHS staff are, and how backward obs and gynae healthcare is—especially in contrast to other branches of medicine.

This is Going To Hurt is informative, funny, and important, but it’s definitely not a “lift me up”. We need books like this in order to change systems, and minds.

Picador, 07/09/2017

Animal: The Autobiography Of A Female Body by Sarah Pascoe

Sara Pascoe is a comedian who has long talked and joked about female sexuality, psychology, and the media’s portrayal of women on stage and screen. This all led her to believe she had a lot more to say.

In her first book, Animal, Pascoe combines autobiography and evolutionary history to entertain and inform readers about the female body. It’s not as serious as some of the other options listed here, and it’s not just well being-focused either. Animal is, however, an extremely interesting look into the history of female sexuality, as well as contemporary portrayals and how they influence how we feel.

Faber & Faber, 19/04/2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as “HeLa”. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells—taken without her knowledge during cancer treatment—became one of the most important tools in medicine. They were the first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, and they are still alive today, though she has been dead for more than sixty years.

“If you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons…HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping…Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.”

This book was eye-opening for me when showing the human consequences, especially for black women, in advancing healthcare as we know it. An important read, especially for practitioners and scientists, and those interested in justice.

Crown Publishing Group, 02/02/2010

gal-dem Magazine

gal-dem regularly features excellent and informative pieces about hormonal health and mental health, specifically aimed at women and non-binary people of colour. 

Two incredible articles are ‘Living With Endometriosis and PMDD’, a real-life experience piece by Lovelynn Ndlovu. And ‘The gal-dem Guide to Contraception’ by Annabel Sowemimo.  You can read both of these, and lots of other brilliant pieces, for free on gal-dem.com now.

These are just a few options, but there are countless other books that might help you feel solidarity or give you more information about how your body may interact with how you’re feeling in your head, or in the face of healthcare challenges.

Some other suggestions could be ‘This Is Your Brain On Birth Control’ by Sarah Hill, ‘Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era’ by Paul B. Preciado, or talk to a bookseller and ask for some ideas.

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