Two Moody Bitches Discuss Moody Bitches
“As women, we learn from an early age that our moods are a problem,” writes psychiatrist Julie Holland in her new book, Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, the Sleep You’re Missing, the Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy. To succeed, we medicate ourselves into a static and unnatural state. Is that true? Are women actually more emotional than men? And would we better off if we just stopped trying to tamp it all down? We discuss.
Jessica Grose: “We are designed by nature to be dynamic, cyclical, and yes, moody. We are moody bitches, and that is a strength—not a weakness.” The overarching argument in Julie Holland’s book seems to be that, because of our hormonal fluctuations, women are hard-wired to be more emotional than men, and that we are medicating ourselves into submission instead of embracing and harnessing that powerful emotionality.
Unfortunately for me, that argument—which is an interesting argument!—is totally obscured and unsupported by a mess of contradictions, and a lot of unverified science alongside the much more established science. For example, Holland writes page after page about oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” and how magical it is: It makes you calm, generous, loving, attached, trusting, and even does your laundry. Too bad that the science around oxytocin is very young and that the real effects of the molecule are far, far more nuanced than Holland would have you believe. She also rages against the excessive advertising of anti-depressant medications, and then spends half the book recommending certain drugs over others and giving advice for usage.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I wonder if you were convinced by what I felt was the main argument: Do you believe women are naturally more emotional than men are? And if so, are we as a culture medicating that away? I would describe myself as semi-persuaded. I buy that, as a population but not on an individual level, women are more emotional than men. I’m not sure I buy that women are overmedicated.
I think it’s hard to gauge who “really” needs medication and who does not. Though researchers are working on a blood test to diagnose depression in adults that would help determine who would best be served by medication and who would best be served by therapy, at this point, doctors and patients can only go by observation and self-reports. But what do you think?
Hanna Rosin: I’m not a moody bitch. I’m a skinny bitch. Or a basic bitch. Or maybe I suffer from bitchy resting face. Or work at Bitch Media. Or … can we stop calling each other bitches? It’s making me depressed.
I am intrigued by one set of numbers in the book. One in 4 American women now takes psychiatric medication, compared with 1 in 7 men. And American women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety disorder as men are. That’s a big difference, and you have to wonder why that is. Holland’s explanation is that big pharma has penetrated our soft female brains with those commercials for drugs like Abilify, which run in between ads for tampons and yogurt. She describes how her patients used to come to her office and describe specific symptoms that hint at depression—I can’t feel joy, I can’t sleep—and now they come talking about the pros and cons of Prozac versus Celexa. The starting point for her patients, she says, has moved from “Should I?” to “Which one?”
But this seems too simple—and conspiratorial—an explanation. I can think of lots of reasons why women might take more meds than men. Maybe women have more pressure on them these days. For upper-class women to excel in every realm, and for single-mom working-class women to keep their families from falling apart. Maybe we all feel the darkness, but men have been socialized to ignore it. (And the darkness is no joke. One problem I have with this book is that Holland never stops to explain what real depression actually feels like, as opposed to emotional volatility or hormonal ups and downs. For that, you need Andrew Solomon, who is, by the way, a depressed man.) Maybe the American workplace has not yet gotten to the point where it can tolerate the idea that workers are human beings who cry and get moody sometimes, and women are making a reasonable decision not to take the risk. Hell, it barely accepts that workers procreate.
Theoretically, I love the idea of the monster PMS bitch raging her way through the board meeting. I love contemplating the possibility Holland throws out that most of the time I am an overly pliant, simpering, always-apologizing, pale version of the real me—the PMS-ing me—who, a few days each month, leans her big, vicious self ALL THE WAY IN. But I don’t know. Those days of the month I don’t feel powerful. I just feel irritable, and I am mean to my kids. Is that where true femininity lies? Isn’t the point of feeling more to have more fulfilling connections?
I will leave you to take up the question of whether women are more volatile than men. My guess is no, and Holland doesn’t offer any convincing evidence otherwise. All bodies are always in some kind of biochemical flux, and I bet men are just differently volatile, and have historically medicated with drinking and drugs. Also, a personal question, which you have to answer honestly: Did you recognize yourself in any of her generic descriptions?
Grose: I didn’t recognize myself, no. When I’m irritable before my period, I lash out in ways that are ugly and often unfair; I don’t think they necessarily reflect bigger problems in my life that I’m sweeping under the rug of happy hormones at the beginning of my cycle. Just because I can be brutally honest with my husband about how goddamn ugly his brown corduroys are in the second half of my cycle doesn’t mean it’s something I wouldn’t be better off suppressing.
And I don’t recognize myself in the women Holland describes who are muted by their antidepressant intake. I’ve been on SSRIs for more than a decade and experienced what I would describe as three major episodes of clinical depression. Holland discusses all the way in which anti-depressants can potentially blunt your emotions: They can prevent you from reaching orgasm, they can make it hard for you to feel empathy, they can make it harder for you to connect. You can’t speak to my ability to orgasm (it’s fine!), but knowing me IRL, as the kids say, would you say that I am unemotional now that I’m medicated? I’m guessing no.
As to the question of why more women are on anti-depressants than men are, I don’t find that statistic very surprising. Women just see doctors more, period. According to a 2010 survey from the Commonwealth Fund, three times as many men than women have not seen doctors in the past year. Four times more men commit suicide than women do—so maybe more men should be medicated. I don’t know. I don’t have answers to these questions, and I don’t think Holland does, either, though she purports to.
I’m drawn to the workplace culture explanation, the idea that “emotion interferes with the forward-moment agenda so prevalent in our society,” as Holland puts it (or the American workplace is not ready for a “monster PMS bitch” raging through the board room, as you put it). But I’m not sure it holds water. Antidepressant use all over the world—even in the wonderful Nordic countries with their subsidized child care and enviable work/life balance and commitment to leisure—has skyrocketed since 2000. A whopping 32 percent of French people are on psychoactive drugs, and I’ve always thought of the French as more accepting of darkness than Americans are. (These stats also poke holes in Holland’s thesis that we’re on drugs because of direct-to-consumer drug ads, because those are illegal everywhere but the U.S. and New Zealand.)
What do you make of the international data? Were we all—both men and women—always miserable and just medicating with absinthe/opium/moonshine in ye olden days before sweet, sweet Prozac?
Also, how do you say “beetcheeez” en francais?
Rosin: I must confess, being in my 40s, I skipped straight to the section on perimenopause and recognized some things and thankfully, not others—at least not yet. Holland and I are both trapped between teenage daughters (“moody little bitches,” she calls them) and aging moms (whom she refrains from calling “old bitches”). She writes about sluggishness, dry skin, sudden weight gain, low sex drive followed by an embarrassing cougar phase, hot flashes, and urinary continence— basically, a horror show in my near future. Holland’s aim is to warn us that perimenopause is a “natural transition” and we shouldn’t be afraid of it, that we shouldn’t need more than a few vitamins and herbs to take the edge off. But it also sounds really depressing. I can imagine that, looking back on my life, I will eventually notice that the hardest periods were the transitional ones—the teenage years, having a baby, and menopause. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean that you don’t need some help getting through it.
The third part of Holland’s book is the “Moody Bitches Survival Guide,” where a reader can pick up tips on how to ride these hormonal swings more graciously. It is made up of disappointingly familiar tips I could have picked up from Goop: Eat fewer carbs and less sugar, eat lots of leafy vegetables, avoid processed foods, sleep more, have more sex, and generally chill out—by smoking a lot more pot if necessary. (Holland also wrote The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis.) Also more vitamin D, maca, which is a “root cultivated in the Andes,” and chasteberry, which sounds like a food from Twilight. All these are sensible suggestions and I live by many of them, but they don’t prevent me from sometimes getting depressed.
I think over time I will forget many of the specifics, though, and just revel in Holland’s formulation (which Miranda Purves also points out in her Elle review) that “estrogen creates a veil of accommodation,” making women far too agreeable and prone to compromise. It’s only when the estrogen sloughs off that we can feel our true power. In this way, Holland creates a medical counterpart to Lean In. Being a “good girl,” she writes, will take its toll, by creating or exacerbating illness. “Suppressing emotions like anger or neediness negatively affects hormonal balance, immune status, GI functioning, and skin, to name just a few.” I’m not actually sure I believe that, but life will be more fun if I pretend that I do.
On Wikipedia, Gamergate Refuses to Die
As a media phenomenon, Gamergate may have died out a few months ago, but that doesn't mean the die-hard Gamergaters have gone away. Lauren Williams at ThinkProgress has written an in-depth investigation of how Gamergaters, who make up in doggedness what they lack in argumentative coherency, have managed to get five Wikipedia editors banned or restricted from editing Wikipedia—for tweaking the Wikipedia pages of feminist critics and developers to erase slander that anti-feminists were trying to pass off as factual information.
As is generally the case with Gamergate, piecing together the story of what really happened amid the cacophony of finger-pointing and recrimination is nearly impossible, but Williams does a great job of summarizing. It all began when some Gamergaters started to harass women like video game critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Zoe Quinn by editing their Wikipedia pages, usually to inject accusations of sluttiness or hypocrisy. "To get the situation under control, Wikipedia community members quickly asked for other editors to pitch in and help bring on the site’s notice board," Williams writes. Five editors, eventually nicknamed the Five Horsemen, took up the call, jumping in and trying to remove slanderous or irrelevant statements put up by Gamergaters.
Catholic Bishops Want to Deny Raped Migrant Girls Access to Health Care
ThinkProgress reports that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is demanding, in the name of religious freedom, the right to keep underage migrants who have been raped from accessing medical care to prevent them from becoming pregnant. In a letter sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the USCCB, which has received $22 million in federal funds to help set up group shelters to house refugees coming in over the southern border, protested a regulation requiring those who take this money to offer "unimpeded access to emergency medical treatment, crisis intervention services, emergency contraception, and sexually transmitted infections prophylaxis, in accordance with professionally accepted standards of care, where appropriate under medical or mental health professional standards." The USCCB wants to be able to impede access to this care out of fear that some rape victims who use it might try to avoid having a baby by their rapists.
Ellen Pao Trial Reveals the Subtle Sexism of Silicon Valley
Ellen Pao, now serving as the interim CEO of Reddit, is suing her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, of gender discrimination because they failed to promote her during her time there and fired her when she complained in 2012. The ongoing trial, as Mother Jones discovered, is a fountain of hilarious details about life in the upper echelons of the tech world: $300 board games about excelling in business, confusing corporate jargon that sounds ridiculous in a courtroom setting, discussions of the Playboy Mansion on private jets, and debates about the difference between "cocky" and "confident." At one point, the court reporter had to ask about the spelling of "Klout," a detail that will likely find its way into the third season of Silicon Valley.
But despite all the goofiness, the question at the heart of the trial is one that will resonate with plenty of women who aren't vying for offices in the "power corridor" of a VC firm: How do you determine what is and isn't gender discrimination in a world where you're competing with men on decidedly subjective terms? Pao is arguing that she didn't get promoted because a sexist, bro-y environment didn't make room for women. The defense, however, is arguing that it wasn't her gender but her inability to meet their standards on frustratingly vague measures such as "thought leadership."
Of course, men tend to get judged very differently than women on a lot of those subjective measurements. Nitasha Tiku at The Verge explains how this is playing out in court:
Two-Thirds of Unintended Births Are Paid For by the Government
As I wrote on Monday, unintended pregnancy is increasingly concentrated among lower income women. That suggests a lot of the costs for those pregnancies will be covered by public health care systems such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. But even knowing that, it's still surprising to read a recent report from the Guttmacher Institute that shows exactly how much the government has to step in to cover the costs of unintended childbirth. In 2010, over half of all births in the U.S. were covered by public health insurance. Unintended pregnancy was a huge driver of this phenomenon. "Public insurance programs paid for 68% of the 1.5 million unplanned births that year," the fact sheet from Guttmacher reads, "compared with 38% of planned births."
Pregnancy-related medical care isn't cheap. Total government expenditures on unintended pregnancy in 2010 totaled $21 billion, or approximately $336 for every woman aged 15-44 in the country. That's an important number to keep in mind when you hear Republicans touting their willingness to slash family planning funding or even just denying that there's a need to make contraception more affordable: For less than what we spend on the costs of unintended pregnancy, we could make sure every woman who wants reliable contraception can get it. In fact, as Guttmacher notes, "In the absence of the current U.S. publicly funded family planning effort, the public costs of unintended pregnancies in 2010 might have been 75% higher."
There Are More Men Named John Than Women Running Large Companies
More large companies in the United States are run by men named "John" than by women. Not by women named anything specific. Just, women. That's what the Upshot discovered after creating a cheeky analytical measure they call the Glass Ceiling Index, meant to figure out just marginal women really are when it comes to holding leadership positions in major institutions. Justin Wolfers explains:
Among chief executives of S.&P. 1500 firms, for each woman, there are four men named John, Robert, William or James. We’re calling this ratio the Glass Ceiling Index, and an index value above one means that Jims, Bobs, Jacks and Bills — combined — outnumber the total number of women, including every women’s name, from Abby to Zara. Thus we score chief executive officers of large firms as having an index score of 4.0.
Our Glass Ceiling Index is inspired by a recent Ernst & Young report, which computed analogous numbers for board directors. That report yielded an index score of 1.03 for directors, meaning that for every one woman, there were 1.03 Jameses, Roberts, Johns and Williams — combined — serving on the boards of S.&P. 1500 companies.
The findings are amusing, but there's a real story here that shouldn't be overlooked. As Wolfers notes, "most companies understand that an all-male board looks bad, and so most of them appoint at least one woman, although only a minority bother to appoint more than one." By sprinkling a few female faces in the mix, major corporations can deflect accusations of sexism. After all, if some women get through, then it can't be discrimination, right?
CPS Finds “Free Range” Parents Responsible for Unsubstantiated Child Neglect. Now What?
Remember the Maryland parents who let their two kids walk home from a park alone and then had to deal with police and child protective services? They heard from the state today. The couple was found responsible for “unsubstantiated” child neglect, a confusing charge that resolved nothing and left the couple possibly more nervous and paranoid than ever.
In December, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv let their 10-year-old son, Rafi, and his 6-year-old sister, Dvorah, walk 1 mile home through Silver Spring, Maryland, alone. The kids got picked up by the police, who then turned the case over to child protective services. The Meitivs, as it happens, are “free-range parents” who have a very coherent philosophy about giving children more independence. They had let their children walk home alone that day only after practicing and felt the kids were ready.
What they learned from the latest CPS decision, Danielle Meitiv wrote me, is that “teaching independence clearly IS a crime.” As she understands it, the charge means “something happened but kids were not at substantial risk.” Why then, she reasonably asks, “find us responsible for neglect?”
In the letter to the Meitivs, dated Feb. 20, CPS says that it has closed the investigation. But a charge of “unsubstantiated” is not quite as definitively closed as “ruled out.” (The third option is “indicated,” the equivalent of guilty.) Danielle told the Washington Post she felt numb when she first opened the letter and then told her husband, “Oh my God, they really believe we did something wrong.”
“I was kind of horrified,” she said to the Post. “You try as a parent to do what’s right. Parents try so hard. Even though I know they are wrong, it’s a painful judgment.”
CPS officials did not say they would keep an eye on the Meitivs. But now they have a charge of child neglect in their file, which puts them in a precarious position. They believe strongly that children should be able to roam the neighborhood unsupervised. But they no doubt believe even more strongly that they don’t want to be at any risk of having their children taken away from them for a second charge of neglect. Why on earth should the state have any right to put them in that predicament?
How Barbara Mikulski Transformed the Senate
Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski is retiring. Mikulski may stand less than five feet tall, but she casts a long shadow as the person who has probably done more than any other in Congress to redefine the role of women in the legislature. On top of holding the record as the longest-serving woman in Congress, Mikulski is, according to the Washington Post, the first woman elected to the Senate on her own and not on the legacy of a husband or male relative holding office before her. She was also the first woman to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, a position she lost when Republicans gained control of the Senate in 2014.
But Mikulski was not content to play the role of the token woman. Her time in office has been marked by her passion for putting more women in power. When Mikulski was first elected to the Senate in 1987, she was only one of two women there (the other was Nancy Kassebaum, who was the daughter of a former Kansas governor). Now there are 20, in no small part because of Mikulski's efforts at mentoring and championing her female colleagues.
Mikulski's interest in improving the lives of women wasn't limited to her coworkers. She's worked to increase research in women's health care, to protect reproductive rights, to secure equal pay, and to reduce sexual and domestic violence. One of best examples of Mikulski's feminism in action comes from Liza Mundy's recent piece on women in the Senate for Politico:
Why Do Poor Women Have More Abortions?
Richard Reeves and Joanna Ventor of the Brookings Institution have a new paper out examining the impact income level has on unintended childbearing among single women.* They found that women have about the same amount of sex regardless of class, but poorer women are five times as likely to have unintended births than more affluent women. A huge chunk of the reason, they conclude, is because of the gap in abortion and contraception access. From the study summary:
Using National Survey of Family Growth Data from the Centers for Disease Control, the authors calculate that women living at 100 percent or less of the federal poverty level (single households earning approximately $11,200 per year or less) who are not actively trying to conceive are twice as likely not to use contraception as their wealthier counterparts (those at 400 percent or above of the poverty level, or earning over $44,700 per year). Poor women not trying to conceive are also three times more likely to get pregnant than their higher income counterparts (9 percent compared to 3 percent), and ultimately at 5 times more likely to give birth. In addition, abortion rates among the poor are lower, with 32 percent in the highest income bracket having an abortion compared to 9 percent of low-income terminations.
Using economic modeling, they found that if poorer women had the same access to contraception as more well-off women, it would cut the birth rate for single women living in poverty in half. Doing the same for abortion would also have a dramatic impact, reducing the birth rate from 72 births per 1,000 women to 49. Of course, the real solution would be to make both contraception and abortion accessible to lower-income women, which would probably result in their unintended birth rate coming very close to what it is for higher-income women.
Todd Akin Is Thinking About Running for Senate. Legitimately.
After he published a book and did some disastrous press coverage to support it, it's no big surprise that Todd Akin is taking the next step in his attempted comeback: Floating the possibility of running for office. The Hill reports that Akin is considering another go at becoming a senator from Missouri, this time intending to challenge Republican Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016. Akin, you probably remember, was a congressman from Missouri on track to beat the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill in 2012, until he claimed that women cannot get pregnant from "legitimate rape," which cost him the election.
“I have not ruled anything out,” Akin told The Hill, which is standard politician-speak for "I am running" or "I am dying for attention even though I won't ultimately run." Why might Akin go for it? “I think there is a high level of dissatisfaction among conservatives, that they have to some degree been pushed out of the Republican Party,” he said. In reality, research by political scientists shows that the GOP has been drifting right-ward for decades now, and hardline conservatives have more control over the party now than they have had in more than 100 years.