Thursday, October 22, 2009

Corsetry

I've been learning a lot from 'It's My Ovaries, Stupid!' - even if the title is so embarrassing I have to fold over the cover to conceal it when I take it out in public. I know I keep saying the birth control pill has a whole body effect but I guess I hadn't even quite gathered the true meaning of that until now. The list I made in an earlier post of all the bodily functions that are linked in to hormone fluctuations, well that made things slightly clearer, but yesterday I gave the rest of the chapters a proper read and the extent of those links, and the problems caused in breaking them are more serious than I'd even considered they could be.

Women's brains and bodies are designed to work within the cyclical pattern created by the monthly rise and fall of hormone levels. The pill creates lower levels of hormones in your body than what should be occurring naturally. So, you're not adding hormones, the action of the chemicals is to suppress the hormone fluctuations and create a continuously lower production. The pill stops the ovaries functioning as they are meant to and this affects all your bodily systems. The ovaries are inextricably involved with the entire endocrine, hormone controlling, system - that's the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, parathyroid, thyroid, adrenal gland and pancreas. Not only does any change in hormone balances effect this entire system - a system which controls and regulates metabolism, development, internal balances and mood - but every tissue in the body also has receptors, or docking sites for hormones.

Your estrogen levels are lowered when taking the pill - they have to be to stop your body ovulating. Low levels of estrogen, along with the very low levels of testosterone caused by the pill, produces memory loss, sleep disturbances and emotional imbalances. Low levels can also directly produce chronic fatigue, panic attacks and depression. Other problems can manifest in a worsening of allergies, increase in UTIs and irritable bowel issues as the changed hormone level impacts on your immune system. Your body is not working at its optimal rate, and if it doesn't get to reach this rate for years and years then the body is basically under constant stress.

This book does not outright condemn birth control pills - as I said before, it is more menopause focused, but when discussing the onset of what is called 'premature ovarian decline' one of the possible initiators is marked as long-term use of the pill. Dr Vliet talks frequently about 'endocrine disruptors' and does admit pills with high progestogen content are disruptive, but as far as I can understand, all birth control pills disrupt this system, they have to to shut down ovulation. Every woman's body is different, and their hormone levels and the changes are different, but it makes complete sense scientifically that the pill would impact on the immune system etc and if this impact is kept up over a decade it might not be so healthy. I don't think that's scaremongering, that's just common sense. Endocrine disruptors are described as duplicating normal hormones, blocking hormone function, interrupting signal systems and killing sex hormones, so that's the pill right?

Dr Vliet argues that women should be having their hormone levels checked by GPs rather than just being prescribed anti-depressants or being told to take hot baths and drink some wine and all that. She is very clear that ovaries are more than the 'egg factory' we have been persuaded to see them as. But, one thing she is adamant about is that we are not at the mercy of our hormones. The physiological is being confused with the psychological, the two are connected, but rather than women who are tired and down being given other pills, it would be more productive if it was considered that their hormone levels might be out of whack. Hormones effect how we respond to the external world, and how we respond effects our hormones.

Mood and anxiety problems can be traced back to a decline in estrogen and progesterone, matched with a higher level of progesterone (the pill gives a constant supply of progesterone, when naturally we only produce it after ovulation until our period); a deficiency in vitamins and minerals and metabolism - particularly abnormal glucose regulation and changes in sodium and potassium levels. If you look back to that list of bodily functions effected by hormonal fluctuations you will see I'm repeating here. The pill flattens out hormone fluctuations into one long, low line of constant estrogen and progesterone at constant low levels. Fluctuations trigger and provoke vital functions in the body, so if there are no fluctuations, these systems aren't working at the normal rate needed for optimum whole body health.

Of course there are women out there who don't experience anxiety or depression from the pill. That might be because the flattening out of their hormone levels, which may be naturally particularly extreme in fluctuations, appears to help their mood. Also, some women might not experiences any issues until one, five or ten years into using the pill. I think understanding that the pill impacts on all our bodily functions makes the reasons behind this clearer. Of course, some women will have been on the pill so long they won't know what it's like for their body or their moods to be any other way. And some women may start and stop the pill depending on whether they are seeing someone or not and so the build-up effect will be changed. What's important to get is that every body has a delicate system, and each person's is slightly different - the pill does not account for this, and as such is a rather crude, sledge hammer-like way of preventing pregnancy.

I've been reading Susan Faludi's 'Backlash' at the same time. I like reading the pill into all the places it is so absent. I guess it's something like re-reading books under 'queer theory' or 'post-colonial studies' - or like when you see patterns in the spaces between sentences on a page, and once you see them you can't stop seeing them. Talking about the representation of women in mass media and marketing, she says: "The 'feminine' woman is forever static and childlike...we see her silenced, infantalised, frozen."

The pill shuts down the big part of what makes women female, it stops the natural ever-moving ever-changing peaks and troughs of the cycle which is fundamental to the life of the body and the mind. On the pill you are essentially 'static' - it's a long, flat line of day-in-day-out sameness in there. Often it's just as we change from a child to an adult that we close it all down. If you only feel that nothingness, that who-cares feeling, your body is being pushed down and boxed in and that gets pretty frustrating after a while. Women believe they're neurotic, we've come to accept the promoted idea that we are overreactors, over-emotional, high strung. We kind of don't trust ourselves to react right to anything, and however we react we reel it back in under control with a bunch of pop psychology. It's perfectly normal to be sad or angry, but it's much better to feel anything if you know it's you and your situation that's making those feelings and not the chemicals you are putting into your body messing around with it. That makes you doubt yourself - your judgement, your insight and instincts - even more so until you feel entirely powerless. Which in turn stops us talking to each other and saying, "hang on, maybe..."

"It is important not only that she wear rib-crushing garments but that she lace them up herself."

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