Biological Anthropology Section
Central States Anthropological Society
Cosponsored - Oral Presentation Session
Nearly a century ago, Ludwig Fränkel, a leading gynecologist, concluded, “The only regularity of the menstrual cycle is its irregularity.” His assessment was supported by publications, as early as 1889, of self-recorded menstrual data. By 1939, Arey had amassed 20,000 calendar records from 1500 women that likewise verified the preponderance of cycle variability. Nonetheless, despite the accumulation of menstrual data during the decades since, the prevailing biomedical view is that healthy women should have “regular” (i.e., “normal” ) ovulatory cycles. Although some leniency in the duration of cyclicity is now allowed, variability in cycle length outside acceptable boundaries is widely dubbed “irregular” and potentially pathological. In addition, advancements in hormonal measurements have spawned new normative standards by which women’s reproductive functioning can be deemed irregular and needful of correction. Such medicalization and regulation of women’s bodies is neither new nor newly recognized. What is arguably less perceived and hence rarely questioned, is the infusion of these same misperceptions of female reproductive functioning into discourses on the proximate and evolutionary causes of variation in human fertility. This ethno-biocentrism permeates many cross-population comparisons of women’s reproductive functioning and even comparisons to other primates and our evolutionary ancestors. In this paper, I examine the tenacity of regularity as a biomedical ideal, consider the service and disservice that may arise from constraining conceptualizations of normality to be only that which fits the norm, and present empirical evidence of a dynamically responsive female reproductive system that is both variable and normal.