My research has veered a little lately - I've been reading Karen Houppert's 'The Curse: Confronting The Last Unmentionable Taboo: Menstruation' - well, I say veered, but actually it seems like discussing how women, and society as a whole, responds to menstruation is kind of crucial in explaining the trajectory of the birth control pill.
A few posts back I was wondering about my own feelings towards taking the pill and how they were wrapped up in what I felt about my body and being a woman. Houppert discusses this very intelligently in relation to how women feel about having periods. I remember feeling annoyed, angry and upset about getting my first period. I imagine that's a pretty common experience. Houppert argues that these negative feelings about menstruation stem from long upheld myths, but are also constantly stirred up and confirmed by the 'feminine hygiene' industry - the people who make tampons and pads and want you to buy them.
Obviously tampons and pads are very useful and convenient - although there are alternatives out there now, moon cups etc - so we think we buy them out of complete necessity. But for the market to be propelled, for new products to be accepted, and for lots of money to be made a certain level of compliance has been ensured through advertising that basically repeats over and over that periods are bad, disgusting, gross and having periods is shameful, unbearable, depressing. Their products are then not only used on the days of a woman's period, but even on just-in-case days and other days to ensure constant cleanliness - this is true, there's tons of women doing this.
How does this link in to the pill? Well, there are now pills available which allow you to have just four breaks a year, pills you can take continuously for years and years and never experience a period (or the not-really period you have on the pill). Women are often encouraged to run pill packets together three at a time, anyway. Seasonique is one of the continuous pills, I discovered it's been advertised heavily on the men's channel Spike TV and in the men's magazine Maxim. Why? Men don't like periods, women don't like periods, they talk and no one likes periods and so you take Seasonique.
Not all women take the pill for contraception, many take it to regulate their periods - make them lighter, more regular, less painful - especially teenage girls. I've been off the pill for around two weeks now and already started noticing bodily stuff that hasn't been going on in the last decade - stuff that makes me think - oh yeah, human body functioning. From when women are young they are taught that bodily secretions of any kind - snot, urine, sweat, period blood - are not ladylike or nice. Our bodies feel alien enough to us anyway, growing and changing at a faster rate than we can keep up with, and then we are told we must stay in control if we want to be attractive. A prescription for the pill can shortcut this requirement, making your body immediately more manageable.
And of course, menstruation is all bound up in our minds with developing sexuality, so when we suppress periods, socially we are also suppressing sexuality. Part of the pill's success has been convincing women they need to be on it always, even if they're not having sex, to control their cycle, and getting women on the pill from their early teens so they're so used to the non-periods created by the pill that real periods are even more disgusting to them than the 'feminine hygiene' industry would have them believe, they're completely alien. If women don't ever get to know what having a mature woman's body really feels like then they will never know how it shouldn't feel, or how it feels when something is wrong or unhealthy.
"If it isn't broke, fix it anyway."
Sign on the reception wall of the Tambrands (Tampax) factory in Rutland, Vermont
Next, the invention of PMS.