Monday, October 12, 2009

Down and out

Do you want to take the pill?

I've asked this of a few women lately, their immediate answers revolved not around what they actively wanted, but what they actively did not want. They did not want to get pregnant, they did not want to worry about getting pregnant, they did not want to take the pill but...They were thrown by the question, as I still am now thinking about it.

My, and their response, comes from a feeling of not having a choice, of the matter of wanting to do this or not being unimportant. We think: taking the pill is sensible, responsible, irrefutable in its rationality - this is the most effective contraception method, I can take it and stop worrying about an unwanted pregnancy. Of course, I've suggested here that these assertions are far from irrefutable.

I've spoken to a fair few women who feel they are, or were, addicted to taking the pill. Their need to take it is pervasive enough to be rootless. We keep taking it even when we know it is making us unwell, because there's some higher purpose here, some matter we must be martyred to. Not getting pregnant, perhaps. But also, I think, control over our bodies - and getting pregnant would be the ultimate in losing that control.

Emily Martin's 'The Woman In The Body' has been helping me make sense of why the women's movement so enthusiastically backed the pill on its release, and still does for the most part. As I said before, women's studies books, women's issues sections of newspapers, women's magazines usually only speak about the pill as a glorious invention, untouchable in its intrinsic goodness. If criticisms are raised they are always tempered with this same sentiment. This, I am certain, has to do, in part, with the concern that women will be stop taking the pill and this will cause a huge increase in unwanted pregnancies. I doubt the truth behind such reasoning but surely if this shows anything it would be a lack of understanding amongst women about their bodies and how contraceptives work.

Before the release of the pill women were stuck in a world in which it was believed that women were unable to function outside of the home due on the feminine functions of their bodies. Their menstrual cycles were seen as weakening, causing irrational behaviour and debilitating them for a week of every month. That's simplifying, but basically those campaigning for a change in attitudes towards women needed to play down the role of the menstrual cycle in women's lives. They had to quash the thought that women were effected by their bodies, their hormones if they were to fight for equal footing in the workplace.

Considering this, it is understandable that the pill was joyously welcomed. What better way of escaping this trap than giving women a pill that would shut down the menstrual cycle and control hormones?

Emily Martin argues that society's view of women and menstruation was driven by the developing capitalist economy. People, men and women, were being seen in terms of productivity, and there was a need to make people as productive as possible in the workplace. Women were seen as less productive than men. Martin suggests that in playing down the impact of menstrual cycle the women's movement was effectively maneouvering to get women out of their homes and into factories, offices.

The pill, of course, put a stop to this playing down entirely, and enabled women to take on not just work, but careers. The pill made women more productive within a capitalist system. Martin takes the stance that it was never women that needed fixing to fit the system, but the system itself that should change. Although, she doesn't, as I keep saying, consider or discuss the role of the pill herself - I'm just filtering this in.

Now it's like we feel we can't admit our cycles and hormones are important to our well being. If we do we worry we'll get pushed back into that box.

When I asked women whether they wanted to take the pill what also came up was this sense of fear of their own bodies, a feeling that their body might betray them with a pregnancy if it wasn't kept under strict control. The problem here is, we are not constantly brimming over with fertility and in fact we are only definitely fertile a certain number of days a month - hence why we hear about couples trying for a baby working out when these days might be.

That said, there is the possibility of getting pregnant on days around that fertile time, especially if you don't have regular 28 day cycles. So, I'm no advocate of the rhythm method. I know most women would find it intolerably stressful. But I do think the pill's addictive quality is driven by this deep fear.

Yet, it is a chicken and egg conundrum because the earlier you start taking the pill, the longer you take it for, the less and less you understand about the workings of your female body. The less you understand, the more fearful you become. You are not feeling the natural monthly changes, there is no connection between your physicality, your mind and your emotions and so your body becomes disassociated from your sense of self.

Women often talk about periods, and births, as though they are things that happen to them, rather than things they themselves actually actively do. It can be the same with the pill, we feel it is something that is put upon us, rather than something we actively chose to take.

Simon De Beauvoir in 'The Second Sex' discusses women's feelings towards their bodies - 'Because her body is suspect to her, and because she views it with alarm, it seems to her to be sick, it is sick.'

What do we do when we feel sick? We take a pill.

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