"To bleed every month - what could be a greater sign of frailty?"
After winding my head around worries of emphasising the importance of women's biology and how that emphasis could be misinterpreted in my last post I handily realised I'd picked up a book called The Frailty Myth by Colette Dowling a couple of months back. Turns out it was just what I needed to do some more figuring.
I haven't been feeling too great lately, certain feelings have really reminded me of my experience with Yasmin. Vulnerability I think is the best word for it - this sense that I am standing on a tiny ledge and any movement might throw me off the edge. I was having trouble understanding why my mood had turned so abruptly and was putting it down to some kind of homesickness or the changing seasons until I talked to a friend who came off the pill a year ago after having similar problems to me. How she explained her mood during the post-pill taking months was very familiar. She described it as having the strong pull of "intuition, but intuition gone wrong" and this meant paranoia building into a constant hum of dread.
I felt, as she had, that I should be wary and suspicious of all that had before brought comfort and happiness. It's like getting physical messages of danger that are telling you to hide or run, but nothing really has changed since last week. A doomed feeling, like how you feel if something bad really does happen and you go to sleep and in those moments of waking up you forget the details of what happened but just know to the point of physical feeling that something is not right. My friend said at the time she felt she was "losing herself" and had no moorings, no foundations for knowing how she should normally be feeling.
I know here I've talked a lot about how the pill can effect your mood when you are taking it, but when coming off it's like stopping any drug you've been on forever - your body gets thrown off and takes time to readjust. Except with this drug your emotional state has been supported by chemicals for so long, you have to battle both with the new natural emotions and the withdrawal symptoms. It's enough to make you want to start taking it again to at least have that crutch. Even your returning libido can feel very odd at first, especially if you started the pill as a teenager and realise you had no clue how that actually felt. It's almost like you don't know how to deal with this new, distracting intruder on your thoughts.
I have got a number of messages from women recently with a similar undercurrent - they thought their depression or anxiety was down to the pill but could think of other outside reasons - a relationship, a job - that might also be a source of worry. This is completely right, the pill can be with us for over a decade of our life and in life stuff happens to make you sad and angry. Even these last weeks I didn't immediately think the issue lied with the pill, I looked elsewere - and that's good, but it's also good to know now that it might not just be me. I often visualise a ship tied to a dock when thinking about the difference between my moods on the pill and my moods naturally - on and off the pill the sea can be rough and choppy, but on the pill that anchor is no longer there. Off the pill however rough it gets there's still that mooring, that solid land.
Anyway, back to that starting quote. Colette Dowling discusses in her book the ideas around women being weaker than men due on their biology, their reproductive system specifically. In the last post I acknowledged that talking about women's biology had these negative connotations because of how we culturally view women's bodies. In talking about the importance of the ovaries, the hormones, I didn't want to suggest women were slaves to this system as I understood historically that idea was used to undermine women's potential and abilities. The Frailty Myth argues it's title - that the assumption that women are weaker and less physically able than men is wrong and if women believed this themselves they could harness their strength and feel more trust in their bodies.
The myth of women's inherent weakness has been used to rationalise their inferiority in the eyes of society. The inequality between the sexes was explained away in one way or another by the fact that women are different - that their bodies prevent them from doing everything men do with equal success. Colette Dowling argues that each time in history women have demanded more rights, more power their attempts have been undermined by purportedly scientific understandings of the restrictions of the female body. She believes these scientific understandings to be false, only myths believed for so long they are taken as truth despite the lack of evidence in support and the mounting evidence to the contrary.
She argues that confidence in your body is essential to good mental health, well being and self-fulfillment. I've talked before about not trusting my body, seeing it as suspicious and out to betray me with periods or pregnancy, so this really struck a chord. Colette Dowling is very much for women's sports, and developing your body through exercise which I totally understand but even if you are not that sport-orientated shall we say, this idea of having confidence in your body still makes sense. She sees exercise and sports training as a way of taking pleasure in the capacity of your body to do anything you decide to accomplish. Rather than being about losing weight and keeping thin, it's about being healthy and strong.
The frailty myth is in her words "the emotional and cognitive equivalent of having our whole bodies bound." It's interesting to consider how the pill can lead to women feeling weaker and fatigued because of its effect on nutrient metabolism and testosterone levels (amongst other problems). Also interesting is how we've come a long way from thinking of having a monthly period as a sign of good health. If you're not on the pill and you don't have periods it's assumed something is up. The routine of the pill and the one week off for every three was originally a marketing device as it was thought women would be unhappy with the idea of never having a period.
Victorian women were encouraged to behave as though they were sick and then they did so convincingly that they got sick. They were not allowed to do anything, to exercise, engage their minds and this made them ill. We still live with these floating theories that we need to protect out fertility through inactivity and that menstruation is disabiling. The pill of course stops menstruation and is often said to 'protect' our fertility by decreasing the risks of ovarian and uterine cancer development. We have come to believe we are meant to not only be emotionally unstable but also weak and passive. So if we don't feel good on the pill, we don't recognise this because its effect reinforces how we think we are supposed to be.
If we remove the negative assumptions and myths surrounding women's bodies then we can talk freely about the relation of the hormone cycle to moods and well being. I read something by Maureen Dowd yesterday - women might be 'hormonal' once a month, as in PMS, but men appear to have hormones raging all day every day and their resulting moods are seen far more positively. Not just about difference then, but also similarity when we stop seeing hormones as exclusively a women's problem and instead see the body's cycles as crucial to being a living human being.