Friday, November 13, 2009

Not so fast

I've written before about how the release of the birth control pill was, in my view, as much an economic and social necessity existing to push forward the status quo as it was a radical shift in support of women's progress. Now, after reading The Beauty Myth - and I'm aware I am very late coming to this one - I am starting to wonder if the mood side effects of the pill that I'm discussing here are actually just as useful and necessary for the continuation of life as we know it too, and that this might be part of the reason why the whole word seems so nonchalant about doling such a drug out.

Perhaps I'm beginning to sound a little paranoid, but I think that's actually natural considering the complete lack of criticism out there, and rather aggressive supportiveness of the medicating of millions of women on very faulty logic. Naomi Wolf does mention the pill in her book, she says that when society needed sexually available women for the economy to grow and expand - as I talked about with Susan Faludi's Backlash - the pill was marketed as a drug to keep women young, beautiful and sexy. Young, because they were in biological stasis I suppose, beautiful because they were no longer doing that messy, unattractive menstruating and sexy because they were always available with none of the worries of pregnancy.

She also says, in discussing the ideals of attractiveness and the hamster wheel of keeping up your appearance, that "passivity, anxiety and emotionality" are needed for the economy and the culture that supports it to thrive. Women need to be both "sexually available and sexually insecure" to be good consumers. The more worried, self doubting, unconfident and fearful you feel - the more you will buy - as buying stuff is comforting, soothing with all its promises of making you, and your life, better. Funny then, that the pill makes women sexually available, in that they are assumed always ready for sex, and it makes many women feel insecure. If they can leave the house without having a panic attack, then, yes, they are probably buying clothes, make up, anything to feel a little better for a moment. I know that's what I felt like doing when I was low, so I doubt I am the only one.

Wolf doesn't talk about the pill further than stating the original marketing techniques - which are, of course, exactly the same as those used for the latest birth control pill, Yasmin. But, much of what she discusses, particularly about the plastic surgery industry is applicable and enlightening. She argues that society does not care about women's health or appearance, however much it might appear too, the only concern is that women keep being happy to be told what they can and can not do. Women's ovaries had long been battled over by the medical world before the pill came about, but once it did, women's whole reproductive system was made collective property. Women might 'choose' to take the pill, although as you know I think the popularity of the pill is destructive to that choice, but essentially they have handed over their reproductive organs to the control of the doctors, the pharmaceutical companies.

There's much said about how the pill 'protects' a woman's fertility by basically stopping the site of fertility functioning, thus preventing any problems arising - in the way that if you never drove a car it wouldn't need new brakes, new tires. The pill can actually mask many problems a woman might have, which then would only reveal themselves when in her thirties she decides to try to have a baby. Also, it can take a long time for a woman's natural state of fertility to return, holding the woman ransom to her bodies ability to process the chemicals it's been taking in for years. But, the falsity of that assumption aside, the idea of 'protecting' a woman's fertility is in itself controlling. It used to be that doctors thought women were intrinsically mentally ill and morally weak and that the repurcussions of this would effect her ability to have children, which led to doctors dictating what women could and could not do with their lives.

The pill perpetuates the fear and mystery surrounding women's reproduction ability and sexuality. The existence of the pill does not suggest society has come to accept women's bodies, or just plain women, nor does it suggest that society understands women's bodies. The pill is a rejection of women. It is a rejection of femaleness. The pill helped bring women into the man's world, and make them acceptable to work alongside men, but it did so at its high price. Women had to make a sacrifice to have some power. Society would not change for them by changing its structure to include child care, parental leave, felixible hours or even change its culture to be more compassionate, caring, human. Instead women had to change and fast.

John Galbraith is quoted in Wolf's book: "Behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into social virtue." Women who don't want to take the pill are treated as odd, abnormal, by doctors who often see the pill as the only choice for contraception. Women are thought ungrateful if they do not want the pill - here's this wonderous, liberating drug that was fought so hard for, how can we turn it down? The idea of the pill is still saturated with that radical spirit, even though it is now taken so casually. Wolf points out that women are indeed, at least in the western world, able to live much healthier lives - there are less threats from sex and pregnancy than there were before, but because the progress of medicine and hygiene has allowed us to be free of this vulnerability, it has been made certain that we are unable to experience our wellness. She was talking about the oppression of the beauty myth, but the statement could equally apply to the pushing of the pill.

I found a book in the library, Elizabeth Draper's Birth Control In The Modern World, published in the mid-1960s. In it, she argues that the pill should not be considered the pinnacle of contraceptive reseach achievement, that science should keep searching for a better method. She discusses previous attempts at creating oral contraceptives that would not intervene with the physicality of sex - drinking water used to wash dead people, eating honeycomb containing dead bees. One statement stuck out for me:

"It is one thing to use on a short term basis and in urgent therepeutic need drugs whose long term effects maybe in doubt, and quite another to use a drug for a purpose still imbued with an aura of questionable self-indulgence and for which alternatives exist. The oral contraceptive is a drug, a drug on the poison list, and one only available under medical prescription."

This related to something I found interesting in The Beauty Myth's chapters on plastic surgery. The Hippocratic Oath forbids experimentation without therepeutic purpose. Barbara Seaman, women's health agitator, was fond of calling the birth control pill a massive experiment on women.

Two and a half months into coming off the pill and I'm feeling brighter, but still disorientated. It's like having to relearn how to react, and feel, naturally. Natural feelings in their depth and intensity can be overwhelming. The flatness, if not the episodes of feeling insane, provided by the pill is a real contrast to the fullness of feeling that's slowing coming through the haze of chemicals. Talking to Jane Bennett earlier this week I discovered the liver processes all the pill's chemicals and so when you stop taking it, the liver is still working hard to clear the chemicals and get back to working normally and healthily. If your liver is clogged up then that can make you feel tired, down and quick to anger. A lack of patience or tolerance is often associated with a sluggish liver. It's like a pill-taking hangover.

1 comment:

  1. Please do keep us updated with how you get along. I stopped taking the pill about a month ago (unfortunately didn't note the date so my period is gonna surprise me!)

    Regarding being seen as "abnormal" by other women - I told my friends this weekend I had stopped taking it. Their reaction was great! One said it was good to feel like a proper woman and to experience different moods.

    Two things I have noticed that you haven't mentioned - my boobs have shrunk (not that bothered about it) and I have definitely got drunker on nights out. But hey, if I can learn to control my moods, I can control that.