Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting wellness

I got the new issue of Bitch in the mail this week and inside was this brilliant article:

Eat, Pray, Spend

Now, I'm fully aware of the possibility that at this point everything I read might seem related to the birth control pill to me - the result of thinking too long on the same subject. However this piece discusses the idea of 'wellness' in such a way that I started making connections between Pill-taking, consumerism and self-improvement I had not previously considered.

I guess my last two posts have pondered on this thought that taking the Pill is a form of self-improvement, if we come from a place, and we all kind of do, in which femaleness is seen negatively. I have said that there's an underlying message to Pill pushing that women can be improved, made better by taking the Pill. I have also said that we could see taking the Pill as an effort to get beyond femaleness. I'm kind of getting more and more interested in what the Pill means in terms of gender construction. It's funny because right back when I started this blog I bought a book on Queer Theory, and at the time I wasn't sure why I thought it was relevant. Nine months later I understand how it fits, and have begun reading.

So, the article talks about 'priv-lit' by which the writer means the sort of books women authors produce about their journey to enlightenment, self-fulfillment, happiness - stuff like Eat, Pray, Love. These books are ostensibly about becoming a better person, or a more enlightened person through removing yourself from your normal life and heading to India, or a yoga retreat or a Thai beach or some other such place to realign your perception. The writer of this article questions what becoming 'better' means within this culture, or genre - and suggests at the bottom of all the talk of spirituality the adventures in self-improvement tend to be about the woman finding a man, looking more attractive and getting into a new-age, well-traveled glamorous lifestyle. The writer calls the journeys to enlightenment, or retreats, or other such plans 'wellness schemes' - and remarks on how the authors of such books have an 'obsession with wellness.' The word 'wellness' is interesting in that it implies that those who have not attained wellness are sick. 'Wellness' is deliberately vague, of course, and the book authors never really explain how they are hoping to change. All we get to see is the profits of their new found wellness - usually a new boyfriend, a tan, a yoga body.

The writer argues that these books promote materialism masked as empowerment. The road to wellness, as it is described, is expensive - the travel, the yoga gurus, the classes, the expensive cleansing foods, the time off work. Enlightenment more and more so involves a lot of spending. And if no one really knows what enlightenment is then the spending never need to end. Wellness is connected with the idea of 'wholeness' also. 'Wholeness' is again an interesting word as it suggests those who do not seek it are doomed to forever be missing something, to be broken. The writer states that the narrative of 'priv-lit' fits very well with mainstream misogyny. The overriding, shared story is that:

'Women are inherently and deeply flawed, in need of consistent improvement throughout their lives. Those who don't invest in addressing their flaws are ultimately doomed to make themselves, if not others, miserable.'

This is what got me coming up with Pill connections. The way the Pill is 'marketed' either directly with commercials, or through the press, or by medical authorities is as though taking the Pill, and shutting down the reproductive system as a result (particularly menstruation), is an action of self-improvement. Women are understood as intrinsically sick, faulty because of their reproductive systems. The natural elements of this system - monthly periods, changing emotional state - have been promoted as unhealthy and dangerous. The Pill is no longer just about birth control, it is about controlling femaleness. Women have come to accept that in being female they are flawed, therefore shutting down an essential indicator of femaleness must necessarily be improvement upon their bodies, their selves. We have seen in the marketing of Yasmin and Seasonique that women who take the Pill are understood as sexier, more attractive, glamorous even. In taking birth control pills women are made to believe they are achieving 'wellness' - both physically and socially, as with priv-lit.

The idea of improving on the female with the Pill is part of the wider consumer culture of constant self-improvement through consumption of things external to your self. The writer calls what the priv-lit authors attain as 'false wellness' - it is not empowered as they see it, because it is governed by the needs of the economy. The women are buying into a culture, not acting independently for their own needs - they are only responding to the needs created for them through the means consumerism provides. They are not rising above the society that makes them feel 'unwell' as women, but perpetuating assumptions that women are unwell and need to be made better. They are ingesting negative ideas of femaleness, and then acting against this in a way that only confirms the validity of the ideas.

The writer of the article points out that when priv-lit authors discuss becoming 'healthy' it is not as an end in itself - not to feel better, think clearer or improve their outlook - but as a means to an end - that is getting a man with their healthier looks. Therefore what they do to become 'healthy' - even if it is yoga and specially made juices - only has to make them look better, and could in fact make them feel less well - it doesn't matter. I had a conversation with a friend about the 'yoga body' and how basically it indicates wealth - it's a marker of an elite group who can afford to go to yoga class every day, in time and money. Tampons and sanitary towels used to be accessible, as I've mentioned before, to only rich women and so became regarded originally as signifiers of a glamorous, rich lifestyle. Yasmin is the most expensive birth control pill out, and has been advertised as a lifestyle drug for women leading 'Sex and the City' type lives. The Pill in general is a more expensive form of birth control, so it holds connections with manipulated ideas of aspirational living.

If we live in a consumer culture run through with messages of self-improvement, a culture that also has foundational negative beliefs about women, then how do we as women respond to that? By self-improving our selves out of our female-ness and towards 'maleness' or 'non-femaleness,' perhaps.

I hadn't thought before reading this article about how the Pill, and statins, medications - as I was discussing in my previous post - and the idea of improving on human biology, or making us less faulty, is one part of an entire culture that emphasises self-improvement through consumable additions to the self. Self-improvement is often linked to exterior indicators of improvement - attractiveness or just how you will be seen by others - which are made more important than improvements on health or quality of life. The writer also talks about how 'wellness' is shown to be achieved through sacrifice. Be that monetary, time or commitments - your self-fulfillment is ultimate. Taking the Pill is making a sacrifice in order to attain perceived perfection - physical and social.

In a way, we aren't any more primarily men or women, we are first and foremost consumers and it is most useful that what it is to be a man or a woman is separated from our experience of it, manipulated, repackaged and sold back to us. It is more useful that we do not know what it is to be a woman, that we do not 'own' this as such, but that we must buy into our womanhood. We must consume in order to be women. We must buy back our femaleness piece by piece.

We can talk about gender being a construct, how we only learn what it is to feel male or female socially, but the biggest constructors of gender are corporations wanting to sell us stuff. I wrote my dissertation back in college about how the idea of maleness and masculinity has changed over time - what it was to be a 'man' was different in the 1960s to what it was in the 1980s to what it is now - yet always the idea of some 'real' and 'original' essential masculinity has been manipulated in order to create new kinds of maleness. As the economy changed, the idea of maleness had to change - industrial to post-industrial and so on. I wrote about how the TV show Jackass reveals men trying to reclaim their male bodies through self-harm. Hurting themselves to feel the realness of their physicality. I should look that essay up and have a re-read. It suddenly feels very relevant.

A friend of mine who works with autistic young men was talking to me the other day about how autism can prevent people from being able to see and understand social constructs - such as how to behave when having dinner with a group of people or even the idea of what dinner is as opposed to just eating when and where you are hungry, how to buy something in a shop, or how to conduct your self in any social situation. This has to do with not being able to generalize, to see the similarity in situations and assume certain behaviour is necessary or required in that situation. Autistic people, she also said, often don't care about what other people think, because they have no way of understanding other people as, well, people I guess.

My friend pointed out that the bank, the school, the dinner party are social constructs but so is the idea of the 'self' - and she explained that autistic people don't have an idea of the 'self' as who they are as seen by other people. So, they don't care about how they need to present their selves in order to create a certain impact, or about creating a particular lifestyle that is a reflection of their self. They do what they want to do, not what they want to do in order to produce a 'self' and an effect as a result of that. I don't know whether autistic men display understanding of themselves as men as opposed to women, but I know my friend has mentioned that they don't often behave within a clear-cut sexuality boundaries. In fact I think she said that sometimes autistic people identify best as bisexual. I suppose if they don't care how people see them, or have a sense of 'self,' then why would they have a sense of gender?

If we see gender as a construct, we can also consider the self as a construct - within gender we act in ways and do things that are expressions of what we have learnt to be our 'self' - from others, from society. That 'self' fits in to as many boundaries as the overarching gender banner under which we perform - as 'male' or female.' The more consumed we become with self-presentation, the more distanced we become from our actual selves.

Priv-lit and its ideas of self-fulfillment displaces the 'self' from the reality of existing as a human being and how that actually feels. For this strand of consumer culture to be a success we must feel there is something missing and we must then go in search of becoming whole. We must feel incomplete, we must not feel like our true 'selves' - for this feeling to be created we must be separated from our self and have to buy that back bit by bit.

Taking the Pill is an effort in buying into an accepted form of femininity, of grasping and living in a socially understood concept of femaleness. It is consuming in order to achieve an identity that fits with the ideals we see presented. The Pill brings us closer to the perfect, closer to the image of female. The reality of female does not exist, the 'original' femininity is a manipulated construct. Discussion of how women are originally suggests biology rules and dictates, and as historically such thoughts have only justified the oppression of women, we have become happy to disregard biology and embrace concepts of femaleness that entirely deny not just biology, but humanity. Taking the Pill is also an act of conformism - showing a desire for similarity, sameness - for an unchanging, continuous, controlled state of being. It is an interior version of exterior conformism through body shape, hair color, appearance. It is homogenisation. Sounding a bit Baudrillard, it always seems to come back to him.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Taking ownership

'The Pill helped me to own my identity as a woman and be in control of my life, my body and my future.'

In the final chapter of Elaine Tyler May's book America and The Pill she quotes a few of the women who got in contact with her through an online call-out for birth control stories. This statement struck me in particular, although they are all pretty fascinating. The woman speaking sees complexities in her taking the Pill, it is not just about preventing pregnancy. She understands that the Pill has ties to her female-ness, her gender. If you think I'm looking too deeply, imagine someone saying something similar about, say, a painkiller that they have to take three times a week, or an asthma inhaler they use every day.

It's a very grand description for a pill that is promoted as inconsequential, a drug that is protected from criticism, doled out as casually as if it were no different to chewable vitamins for children. In fact, the health 'benefits' of the Pill are exaggerated to such an extent - recall the headlines a few months back which stated, completely falsely as well as absurdly, that women on the Pill were 'less likely to die' - that although this is a drug given to healthy women, it is generally believed - again, quite absurdly, if we think about it - that taking this drug makes women healthier, and does not have any detrimental effects on her well-being. Much like vitamin supplements. It is generally believed the Pill shuts down organs as inconsequential as the tonsils. So then why would a woman taking the Pill believe it had anything to do with her 'identity'? Another woman quoted in the chapter states:

'It's a non-issue - like brushing my teeth.'

Teeth-brushing though, even, is something we are taught to do before we even know why we should do it, why it has any good consequence in our life. It is a ritual before it is a conscious action. We brush our teeth before we want to brush our teeth. In the US, there's a whole industry around teeth brushing, and some of the products that are part of that industry - the peroxide whitening paste for example - are not only more than is necessary to get teeth clean, but additions to the ritual that probably do more harm than good. Then think about the fluoride that is put in the water system to keep people's teeth plaque free. Interesting. Anyway, so the first statement connects the Pill with a woman's identity. This reminded me of how science was seen to be helping housewives in the 1950s with the introduction of the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and so on.The economy, growing consumer-centric, was helping women whilst shaping what it was to be a woman. Not just responding to women's needs but suggesting their needs in order to satisfy them.

I mean, that's what consumerism is about, right? After people have what they need, then needs are created by the marketing from the makers of things to get people to feel like without having this or that item the invented need is not met. Washing machines made women's lives easier, but consumerism then created better washing machines, additions to washing machines, as well as generating an anxiety about cleanliness, the necessity for more and more outfits - so the machine made life easier in one way, but the industry around it, the concept around it almost, made life harder in a whole lot of other ways. The Pill was a new invention created for a need women expressed, but then the concept built around that invention produced other needs, anxieties that linked in and made sure that even when the original need was no longer as definite, the invention was still popular and wanted.

We create our identity, which is a concept of our self in a way, through buying stuff - what we wear, what music we own, what films we watch, what we eat, where we live, what car we own - this all feeds into the identity. At some point buying stuff was more so just buying stuff, before it became representative of who you are. We have got to a point where how we represent our selves is more important than who we are, it is who we are. We are expert self-marketers. We sell our 'selves' through Facebook. Our lives are more exterior than interior. Life has become performance. So it is understandable that a woman might describe the Pill as connected to her identity, using the language of the world we live in. And in the US this makes sense, as the Pill is advertised on television and in magazines and women buy it, and it is a big monthly purchase, so of course it would also be a part of consumer identity. In the UK women are given the Pill, for 'free,' and this holds a whole host of other issues.

The Pill let the woman 'own her identity as a woman' - without it therefore, we can assume, she wouldn't own her identity. Now, is this the socially created identity of 'woman' as a concept, or her identity as a woman as how she feels it is to be a woman? Perhaps this is indistinguishable. The Pill stops ovulation, stops menstruation, stops the hormonal cycle. By stopping these bodily events, the woman only then owns her identity. She takes possession of her body. She perhaps was, as many women are, alienated from her body. Frightened of it perhaps, suspicious, or at the least irritated, by its workings. If she doesn't own her body, then who does, before she takes the Pill?

Of course this has been talked about a lot - this idea that as teenage girls mature into women, they feel their bodies displaced by their realization of their physical attractiveness to men - as in Simon De Beauvoir's The Second Sex. When the Pill is prescribed to teenage girls it is like a drug for a personality disorder, a way of securing their body and mind, preventing the fracture. Yet it enables the fracture - it drives the problems in the 'right' direction, that is towards emphasis on the exterior, displaced sexuality and identity as performance. When you're a teenager and you take the Pill you stop getting heavy periods, your skin clears, your hair gets glossy and you feel 'grown up' - it's a short cut to the social concept of womanhood. I think the woman's statement also relates to my previous post regarding the idea of taking the Pill as getting beyond the female.

It could be said that the identity she speaks of is the social concept of female, an image she can only get close to by taking the Pill. All that I've said previously about how the Pill links up to long held ideas of what being a woman means, and how a woman should be - the sick, child-like woman glorified by the Victorians to the clean, quiet, ever-ready for sex woman celebrated in the present day - is part of the 'identity' of being a woman that is suggested by the statement. Taking ownership sounds rebellious, but it could easily mean committing fully to the identity that you are presented with daily, and that isn't rebellious at all. But if you don't really 'feel' the same as what you are told you are supposed to feel as a woman, or 'look' the same, or 'behave' the same even - then taking the Pill, and taking ownership as such, could be seen as a very active choice. The woman takes the Pill to fit, to make her independent way in society without distraction. As another woman says, quoted in the same chapter:

'I just couldn't picture a fully functioning society without the Pill, it's like asking what the impact of the telephone system is.'

This reads then that the Pill is both vital to upholding and indivisible from our present way of life. The Pill is necessary - society would not have continued without its existence. It is perhaps then, civilizing? It could be said that the implication of this statement is that women would not function without the Pill, and that would hold back the progression of society. The Pill is so important that to question its presence, its position would be anti-progressive. The telephone system was the original source, but the idea of the 'telephone' encompasses much more now than it did then. The Pill is vital to the system of our selves and vital to the system of the society in which we live. If it is this much more than a drug, it is easy to see why concerns about its impact on health and well-being are so blithely sidelined. It's not just the unwanted pregnancy rate that is at stake, it is everything as we know it. The Pill is said to be nothing because it is everything.

Elaine Tyler May noted that a significant percentage of the respondents to her request for Pill stories were not heterosexual, some were bisexual and many were homosexual - as they defined it. I am surprised this view wasn't raised when I was blogging for Bitch, I had not considered it before - that women who have relationships only with other women and are therefore not using the Pill for birth control, still use the Pill. Some of the bisexual woman, according to May, stated that they took the Pill even when seeing another woman and were irritated at having to justify this to their partner, who would sometimes assume it was because they were also sleeping with men. Why would a lesbian woman want to take the Pill? Well, it can be assumed, for all the reasons heterosexual women take the Pill - most of which don't have much to do with birth control.

May actually also highlights in one sentence that respondents often said they didn't use the Pill alone, but with condoms. Yet May's book barely otherwise acknowledges that the Pill is not taken only for birth control, it is not even necessarily the main reason, nor the most important reason women take it. Nearly all books about the Pill contextualize its creation, its acceptance, its popularity through discussion of the drug as purely birth control. Talking from this place is much simpler than talking within the reality of how the Pill is taken, why the Pill is taken.

I would be interested to know the transgender standpoint on the Pill, if a woman wants to be seen as man, and sees herself as a man, does she make the choice to take the Pill so that she doesn't have to have periods? This is an intriguing point. I recall reading a study in which a medication including the synthetic progesterone drospirenone which is part of Yasmin, but also used in drugs created for transgender women who want to suppress their testosterone production, was tested on a group of transgender volunteers for its impact on cognitive function.

Chris Bobel's book New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation talks very intelligently and fascinatingly about how the radical menstruation activist movement is made up of mostly non-heterosexual identifying people. She discusses their views on having, stopping and hiding periods. Some see stopping and hiding periods as the mark of corporate ownership of our bodies. Being open and honest about periods is part of their belief that people should assess their identity as independent and critical of the pressures of consumerism. They try to separate out what they want, feel and like from what they are encouraged to want, feel and like and to construct their selves outside of the boundaries of what fits.

May - who, by the way has some oddly old-fashioned opinions on sex that rise to the surface throughout her book - quotes one non-heterosexual identifying respondent as saying:

'The Pill became a form of abuse. I would take it straight through for months at a time so as to miss my period and be able to have sex like a man.'

A whole world of concepts in that couple of sentences.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Since my last post it's been the 50th anniversary of the Pill. This event produced many, many articles glowing in their regard, and packed with some amazing hyperbole. I'm a journalist, so I get that when there's a certain space to fill in a newspaper it is sometimes necessary to create a story, a tale and it doesn't necessarily have to be true, it just has to be easy to write, easy to wrap up and require only a little research. Most people I've met in journalism would rather be writing novels, or song lyrics or short stories, so it makes sense to me that the 'news' can often have more in common with creative writing than the facts of what happened when and how.

I don't particularly mind that either, because I know what's more interesting for me to write, and to read. I recently read an article in the Atlantic magazine about how news has become homogenised, with most reportage relating the same information from the same viewpoint with the same angle. The Atlantic writer argued that for print journalism to sustain itself people need to start getting more creative about how they think and write about events.

For the 50th anniversary of the Pill the same old narrative was rolled out, which of course suggested the Pill not only liberated women, but that everything that has ever changed for women in the last half century is down to the Pill, that the Pill is the safest drug around and the only issue to contend with now is that access needs to be expanded so that more women can take it. Without the Pill women would not have been able to work, have careers and so on - I find this particular way of framing the narrative interesting because there were and there are many women who don't take the Pill and the logical extension of this argument is that any woman not on the Pill is not emancipated, and is still living an oppressed life, job-less, career-less, with ten children. If women did and do have careers without being on the Pill, that seems to serve to undermine the point.

Well, I'm being a little pretend-naive - of course, I am sure what this is supposed to mean is the mere existence of the Pill changed the situation of women and thereby created all that progress. But still, some articles really did lay out the idea that if not for the Pill, women would be having babies all over the place. The articles that were more clear on their history and acknowledged certain changes were underway long before the Pill came out still concluded with the same old, hackneyed lines about how the Pill is just amazing and we mustn't ever forget that. It's like the Pill is considered the same as the democratic vote, in that women fought long and hard for the 'right' and anyone who doesn't vote/take the Pill is ungrateful and ignorant. Kind of similar too in the fact that even when you have a vote, we're always faced with the same old choices - in the UK the public school old boy, here in the US pro-war Hilary or Sarah Palin. You can't vote outside of the system.

Women not taking the Pill are, like any minority, being squeezed out. An article on the Salon site written by a woman who found the Pill knocked out her libido calls non-Pill takers, 'Pill refugees' - and I have to say I felt a lot like that last week when I discovered I can only buy spermicide at one Rite-Aid in town and that only had two boxes left. The article was one of only three, excluding my own in The Independent, that took a critical stand - although two of those three again concluded with celebration. It's a bit like how the American president can suggest his country might need to change how it uses oil or how it eats, but he must always, always finish every slightly negative speech with the repetition of some patriotic nonsense about the Founding Fathers and Lincoln and Freedom. As such he can never really make any real changes, because he has to keep going over old ground and old ideas. He can never say, look we need to start over here, we got it all wrong.

Why I hate the Pill - Salon

Why I'll never take the Pill again - The Independent

Seek alternatives to the Pill - The Washington Post

The repetition of the Pill narrative reflects the ritual of millions of women taking a Pill each morning for years. As women pop the Pill they are ingesting all that the Pill means, everything it represents about how women are viewed, how they view themselves, their place in society. As we repeat the Pill story over and over we are confirming to ourselves the assumptions of that story - we are taking in again and again that the Pill liberated women, who needed the Pill to have careers and so on. It's like telling a fairytale, and like any fairytale it perpetuates traditional ideas, compounds traditional roles - and by traditional I mean the ideas and roles most useful and acceptable to those who get to decide.

The Salon piece came out the same time as some 'new' research showing that the Pill does indeed effect libido. Not much of a surprise there. It seems common knowledge these day, knowledge that is easily, happily accepted by most. I once had it pointed out to me that research into potential mood changes from the Pill, what there is, never only look at mood, but always link the study up with libido changes. The Salon writer admitted her lack of sex drive was coupled with a change in her emotional state, but only in that she felt bad about how it was impacting on her relationship, and therefore her self-esteem. The research scientist behind the latest libido statistics, Dr Irwin Goldstein, argued that a lowered libido can affect a woman's 'emotional well-being'.

The Pill's effect on libido and it's effect on mood are intertwined in discussion, suggesting it is the libido problem that creates the emotional issues, and that the emotional issues are only a conscious reaction to the change in libido. So, if a woman isn't interested in sex she will become depressed because she wants to be interested in sex, or her partner wants her to be interested in sex, or she feels she ought to be interested in sex. It is rare that you'll hear the emotional change put before the libido change in discussion - it is not usually stated that the Pill makes a woman depressed and if she is feeling depressed she is less likely to want to have sex.

That the emotional side effects of the Pill are not considered separately from the libido side effects shows how women's desire for sex is still being equated with their mental state. Depression, anxiety - these problems used to get lumped together under the heading 'hysteria' - and hysteria was thought to stem from women's reproductive organs and was understood to be generally curable through sexual release. Doctors would use all kinds of instruments to draw women out of their hysteria.

Making libido and emotional changes inseparable in research on the Pill and discussion of the Pill's non-physical impact allows for women's mood and well-being to be detached from their selves. Whether or not they are happy is dependent on whether or not they want to have sex with a man, how they feel about sex, their sex-related feelings. Their unhappiness is linked to their relationships, to other people, to how other people see and experience them. Making mood side effects about libido suggests a woman's emotional life does not exist independently of other people, of specifically I think we can say, men. If a woman is unhappy then, it is because she is not 'relating' to a man. Therefore - women's emotions are controllable by other people, by men, as her mental state is entirely dependent on her relationships and not on anything intrinsic to her self. She has no inner life, I guess I could say. She only reacts to exterior forces.

I suppose perhaps research scientists think it's easier to measure libido changes - a woman will not have sex as much if she doesn't want to, and that is an accountable figure. But as I've said before here, that's very simplistic and based on the male-model of sex and relationships. A man has an exterior physical sign of 'wanting' to have sex - although I think it could be debated as to whether that's true, that is what is accepted - so it can not be understood that a woman might have sex when she doesn't 'want' to physically. Asking women to keep detailed diaries of their day to day emotions and the events of their lives would work well, but also would just trusting women to know when they feel sad because something sad happened, and when they feel sad because of the drug they're taking. I am still astonished at how dismissive people can be of women's own readings of their own feelings.

Perhaps because women are subordinate to men within society, they are thought to be the creation of men. If they are man's creation then they only exist under men's terms. Female only exists because male exists - this binary. Of course, women give birth and create men as such, but if men get to lay out the narrative by which women live, then they are characters within a man's production and have no inner life other than that directly related to men. Doctors will still say they don't want to put ideas in women's heads by telling them about the potential side effects of the Pill, but it seems like more than an assumption of susceptibility. Like in the movies, how women are nearly always just vehicles for the central male character to fulfill his fate. Libido is sex, not sexuality. The Pill, in shutting down the hormone cycle, impacts on the development of a woman's sexuality, not just how she feels about having sex. We still don't like to consider female sexuality as separate from men, as not directed toward men, but as something independent.

So much talk concentrates on how the Pill changed sex, how people approached sex, but there's very little said on how the Pill changed sexuality. I discussed this some in the last post, and I've been lately reading America and The Pill, a book by Elaine Tyler May, in which she discusses the issues surrounding the development of a male Pill. She notes how there has always been much anxiety over how such a drug would effect 'masculinity' which is not only libido, but ideas of power, ego, how it feels to be a 'man.' It is widely accepted that the Pill effects women's libido but not her 'femininity' or her 'femaleness' - and perhaps this is because the Pill is seen to produce an improvement on women - getting rid of periods, assumed 'unpredictablity' and over-emotional qualities - and making her cleaner, quieter. The male Pill is seen as taking something away from men, whereas the female Pill is an addition. When it comes to women, the external is the most important. As long as she looks female.

May also discusses in the book how Hugh Hefner and Playboy really got behind the Pill when it was first released. Hefner saw it as allowing for 'uninhibited' sex. He advocated in a few areas of women's rights, but his campaigning had the overriding message of making women more open to sex, more interested in sex and more openly sexy. The Pill was good for porn, basically. Hefner believed women who did not want to take the Pill to be 'neurotic, prudish and hostile to men' and said as much in the pages of Playboy. Women should tolerate any side effects, he argued, because of the benefits for their 'sexuality' - by which he meant their enjoyment of sex. If women could have more sex, then of course their 'sexuality' would improve, because the quantity of sex is the only marker. Women's sexuality is only understood in relation to sex, not as independent of sex - not as regarding her own relationship with her body, or her understanding of her femaleness.

I have previously considered how the release of the Pill helped progress the capitalist/consumer economy - making more single people to buy more stuff and so on -and interestingly May's book brings out how the population control motivation behind the enthusiasm for the Pill has its origins partly in a belief that prevention of too many births would stop civil unrest that could lead to a brewing of communist ideas. If lots of poor people were being born, and they grew dissatisfied with their unequal lot, they might start thinking of the capitalist system as unfair and injust and the reason for their suffering and therefore start considering alternatives, like communism. The Pill was therefore seen, as she explains, to be 'opening up' new markets for capitalism, and helping its growth.

Over the anniversary time some other research was released that stated use of hormonal contraceptives increases the risk of a woman contracting HIV, increases the development of the virus and speeds the progression of the disease. Joan Robinson, a researcher for the Population Research Institute said that mounting evidence for this has been ignored. It is often argued population control efforts in developing countries are beneficial to women, allowing them to have only wanted children and lead healthier, freer lives, and also allowing for the countries to develop economically. This can not be the case if the women, and then of course the men, have HIV and little access to treatment. This entirely discredits the standpoint of those pushing the Pill on population control grounds. It is just another story that's told over and over, like a fairytale, and in being told is made 'true' - and beyond the reach of criticism.

All of this goes towards establishing one endless hum of a message - there is no alternative. No alternative to the Pill, no alternative to the way things are.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Beyond female

During my time blogging for Bitch magazine I had the opportunity to untangle some of the issues surrounding any discussion of women and their bodies, and women's bodies. I suppose I considered these issues a little when I was at Mt Holyoke, meeting women who dressed like teenage boys and picked a different, man's name, to go by. What most fascinated me then was how they could know what being a man, as opposed to a woman, 'felt' like - and why it was necessary for them to go from 'woman' to 'man' and change their appearance - matching their outside to their inside. I guess even at that time, now I think about that as more than an interesting anecdote of my year at a private all-female college, I was thinking there wasn't really, truly anything in being male or female, and that for the most part this stuff was all constructed socially.

I wasn't sure I felt like a 'woman' - I just felt like me - and could relate to some women, and some men, and not others. I obviously didn't want to deal with the negative connotations of being a woman - and I figured that out through wondering why all the writers, filmmakers etc that I was interested in were men, and thinking about how my vicarious experience of life was through the eyes of men - how men were exciting not just because they were physically attractive, but because their position, their way of life, appeared more exciting to me.

I went to an all-girls school from the age of 11 to 17 too. At the time it certainly doesn't make you like being female. Men become fantasy figures - unreal - and, in a way, better for not being real. I was pretty scornful of the women at Mt Holyoke - there was a lot of underlying talk about how even the most rebellious, inventive students would end up married and working as accountants. When I'd left I got as frustrated with the idea of what it is to be a woman as any of us do.

I started this blog to raise awareness of what the Pill can do to women, how it can make them feel depressed, anxious and make them feel generally low and ill all the time. I wanted to write about this because it had taken me a long time and a lot of time to find out the Pill could do this and I didn't think it was fair that I hadn't known. That's still the reason I write this blog. However, in trying to work out why this stuff isn't talked about more widely I came to all kinds of conclusions and these conclusions have ended up expanding my understanding not just of the basics of female biology, or how completely not basic that biology is, but also this thing of being a woman and what that means.

So, yes, in talking about how the Pill effects women's bodies I have realised I am saying that biology is important, that female biology is important. I'm also highlighting that female bodies are different from male bodies. By suggesting a drug that changes female biology can negatively effect a woman's mood, I am arguing our experience of life is linked to our biology, even perhaps that who we are is linked to our biology. I am pointing out that the ovulatory cycle, a specifically female bodily system, isn't something that can be shut down and ignored without repercussion, because it is in itself vitally important to healthiness.

Now, little did I know when I began writing this blog that these statements would be so controversial - that even using the word 'female' would be so contentious. I'd been feeling like talking about women's bodies was considered risky, and that talking too loudly and illiciting too much attention could provide justification for arguments that women are weaker than men, less capable, more emotional and so on - and that would lead to no good. Women have long been trying to prove that their biology does not matter - because their biology is only seen socially, and historically, in the negative.

The Pill came out of socially acceptable ideas of the female body and perpetuates the negativity towards the female body - the suspicion, the fearfulness, the disgust. If we were as positive about the female body as we are about the male, we would not have the Pill - and we don't have a male Pill because it doesn't 'fit' into the line of history, and the progress of society, the way the female Pill does.

I recently read Chris Bobel's latest book, out in a couple of months, called New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and The Politics of Menstruation. Chris discusses 'smashing the binary' - that is getting rid of the concepts of man and woman - in relation to menstruation activism. Radical activists use the term 'menstruators' in place of 'women' - Chris looks at how such a move impacts on feminism. How useful is breaking down these boundaries she asks, when there is so much discrimination faced by women for being what is still understood as female? She considers whether it helps to say that male and female are social constructs, and work from there, or whether as we don't live in a post-gender world we would be making too much of a leap, and leaving a lot of people behind in doing this.

There's been quite a bit in the news lately about statins - these drugs that lower cholestrol - and they are being marketed as a drug everyone should take as a preventive action against heart problems. This is raising debate about whether healthy people should be on drugs long-term. To me, I need to talk about 'women' and 'femaleness' in talking about the Pill because it is integral to how the Pill came about, and why it came about, and why it's still taken by so many. But talking about the effect of the Pill is talking about human beings, people, quality of life and healthiness. I am not sure women should be pushed as they are into taking the Pill, but then I'm not an advocate for the creation of a male Pill either.

In Chris' book she points out that blaming biology for behaviour is 'classic' anti-feminist. So, in a way, that I write about how the Pill can change the way a woman feels, making her depressed by meddling with her biology 'reads' as anti-feminist. If I say the Pill made me feel terrible, I am saying my biology (my ovulatory cycle here) effects my behaviour, in that how I feel effects how I act. But Chris states that it is also anti-feminist to not take women at their word, and validate their experience. The blog Feministe criticised a Bitch post of mine with a piece that essentially said I should not be critical of the Pill because the religious Right is also critical of the Pill and I am only providing fodder for them. My experience was not valid because it does not fit with the 'feminist' agenda as Feministe sees it. I was seen as being 'anti-science' and science is understood to have liberated women. You can see more here:

Feministe response

I have to say when I was told I was ignorant for saying the Pill didn't 'regulate' periods I decided to stop arguing and let them just read this blog instead - as I have said before, for any new readers, the Pill does not regulate periods, it shuts down the ovulatory cycle, so you don't ovulate and you don't have periods. The bleeding that occurs is called a 'withdrawal bleed' and is not a period. Not every woman taking the Pill will have my experience, but they might have some part of it at some time in their lives - and every woman will not ovulate and this does, always, impact on the body. And the way things are arranged, most women don't get to know this.

I came across on the Bitch comments boards much that suggested the idea of 'overcoming' femaleness, the body. In taking the Pill some women argued they are taking control of their body, and that this action is empowering. They see their bodies, particularly their periods, as troublesome and irritating and are happy to have the ability to turn this part of their biology off. For some their periods are apparently very difficult, making them very uncomfortable every month. For others, periods were considered just a nuisance, an inconvenience. I was surprised to see many women repeat the statement otherwise used by dubious medical and pharmaceutical representatives, that it is not 'natural' for women to have as many periods as modern women do, because previously we would have been pregnant most of the time and not lived very long. It seems to me so clearly misogynistic, I couldn't quite believe Bitch readers could buy it. You can see all this here:

Reproductive Writes: Do We Need To Bleed?

I has never considered before that taking the Pill could be seen as getting 'beyond' femaleness - and as femaleness is understood mainly in the negative, escaping its confines could only be good and progressive. I am interested to see how many self-described feminists really seem to dislike being 'female' and having 'female' bodies - even without allowing that this is rooted in the fact that socially, and historically, female bodies have been seen as problematic and in need of male control, at best. I have spoken before of my own feelings about why I kept taking the Pill, even when I was aware it was making me feel unwell, and how I see that as bound up with my desire to control my body, which I found kind of scary - but only because I was on the Pill from 17 and never heard, saw, or experienced anything to do with my body that wasn't flooded with bad connotations.

After reading these comments at Bitch I talked with Elizabeth Kissling about the Seasonique adverts on television in which a group of women asks 'Who says you have to have twelve periods a year?' and the defiant statement 'Who says?' is repeated over and over. The authority that is being questioned is unclear - it could be other women, men, the pharmaceutical industry, feminists, or as Elizabeth said 'your mother' - the point is that the advert suggests these women are rebelling, by taking Seasonique, against authority. They are overcoming their biology, their femaleness - it is not just birth control, it is, as the Yaz tagline goes 'beyond birth control' - it is about being 'beyond female.' Female, in the way the advert suggests, which is rooted in the culture that suggests, female is not good, female is not something you want, female needs to be controlled, needs influencing and changing and directing and organizing into something neater, easier, less frightening.

The Pill when released was linked up with the idea of rebellion within the sexual revolution, the women's revolution. The Seasonique advert decades later splits this rebellion from any idea of the collective, into something individualistic - something that fits in with how the sexual revolution panned out, because never having periods is about, although this is not said, being 'available' for sex at all times.

When I finally saw this ad on television it made think of plastic surgery and how much criticism women who have plastic surgery come up against from other women, how negatively plastic surgery is considered. And plastic surgery is changing your body right? Controlling your body, being 'beyond' human in a sense, through changing your physicality, by not aging, not giving in to what your genes, your biology gave you. Does plastic surgery come under the banner of 'my body, my choice' - and if it does why is there so much talk about the psychological impact, the social impact of this choice? Why are people who have lots of plastic surgery a concern, but not people who take a drug to shut down their ovulatory cycle, stop their periods and 'perfect' their bodies from the inside out?

Science is equalised with progress and we are all for modifying and suppressing our bodily functions with 'science' as such to perfect our faulty bodies even when generally healthy and well and the notion of 'faulty' is spurious. Even if we are not ill, science - drugs - are making us better. Better humans. Better women. Statins might make us less faulty - less likely to have high cholestrol - but in what other ways will they make us ill and in what other ways can we deal with this faultiness that is not long-term drug use that impacts the whole body. The Pill is no longer about birth control, it is about being better, improved.

The commercial tagline for the brand Yasmin is 'Beyond birth control.' By moving the issue from birth control to menstruation suppression, or acne control, or mood control - pharmaceutical companies are betraying themselves. In medicalizing the healthy female body, and saying overtly it needs controlling, improving - they are betraying the very old-fashioned foundations of Pill promotion. Just as with the arguments on the Bitch comments board, the root of this talk is rotted. It's accepting that women's bodies are bad, and need to be made good. Capitalism is crafty, it will always find an avenue for assimilation. It's almost like the pharmaceutical companies have been listening at the door of late.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Development is the best contraceptive

I've spoken of my suspicions of the population control arguments put forward in support of increasing use of hormonal birth control methods before. In response to the question of the Pill's potential side effects, it is often said that preventing women in developing countries having too many children overrides such concerns. This motivation translates into the myopic view of contraception in the Western world that is backed by a dogged desire to prevent unwanted pregnancy above all else.

As Laura Wershler said in a recent interview I conducted with her, and posted on the Bitch magazine site - unwanted pregnancy is the only acknowledged sign of health in young women.

Not Just Another Choice: Interview with Laura Wershler

As long as a young woman avoids unintended pregnancy, all is well. Although I'd suspected, and read a little, about how poverty has very little to do with population and a whole lot more to do with distribution of resources - I'd not quite got my head around the topic. So when I came across Betsy Hartmann's book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics Of Population Control I was happy to see my unformed thoughts given some real substance.

She argues that it is not overpopulation that causes poverty, but a coupling of the subordination of women and the monopolization of too many resources by very few people. The belief that overpopulation is the source of the problem has what is described in this book as a 'boomerang' effect on developed countries attitude toward contraceptive research and distribution. The drive of reducing birth rates quickly and effectively dominates programs in developing countries, the US and across Europe. Health and safety concerns are swept aside in favour of high rates of success in preventing unwanted pregnancy. Hence the pushing of the Pill and now long-acting hormonal methods.

In developing countries women are oppressed - Hartmann thinks that if you reduce the system of patriachical power in a country, then you reduce the birth rate consequentially. If women are provided with support, opportunities to earn, independence and decision-making power then population can be stabilized. I've thought before how strange it was for feminists to bring out the population control argument in response to criticism of the Pill and whole-heartedly advocate the importance of preventing women in the Third World having children as it seemed to me to legitimise, or at least show an uncaring attitude toward, the unequal relationship between men and women in those countries. It seemed a bit to me like saying all American teenage girls should be put on the Pill because they might get raped by teenage boys, and preventing them having the resulting pregnancy is more important than dealing with the fact they're getting raped to such a degree that we need a blanket application of hormonal contraceptives.

If there is a high infant mortality rate then women will have more children with the knowledge that many of them may well die before they become adults. Women in poverty also need children to help them survive - to work, to take care of them as they grow older or if they become ill. I have never heard anyone suggest that these women may need, want or just plain have to have children and not want to use hormonal contraception to prevent this happening. Blaming their poverty and hunger on overpopulation allows for social injustice, allows for the oppression of women. So rattling out this argument, as many feminists did when I discussed this in terms of Depo Provera on my Bitch blog, is actually allowing for the oppression of women, and assuming their oppression in an inevitability.

The Rebranding of Birth Control

Hartmann calls population control a 'substitute' for social justice that holds back the emancipation of women. This is interesting to me, as I have said before the Pill could be seen as a substitute for real change in the Western world - changing women as it did, rather than changing society. The Pill only helped women to be assimilated into the male-created, masculinized social structure and allowed for the continued development of the consumer economy. It usefully blotted out long-held, and still held, concerns about women's bodies and reproductive abilities. It didn't address real issues between men and women, but compounded in a way their alienation from each other in order to progress a capitalistic society. I've wound around this all previously. It's like how sexual freedom is now used to show how free and independent women are, and is focussed on above all other areas of women's lives - as Ariel Levy talks about in Female Chauvanist Pigs or Natasha Walter in her new book Living Dolls - except without the Pill part of the discussion.

The Malthusian outlook that backs the population control argument denies that the rich play any part at all in keeping the poor, poor. Basically, it is just thought that the poor should stop being born. But there is no evidence to show population density causes a lack of resources and poverty. Hartmann points out that corporations that own much land in developing countries do push populations into unsuitable areas for farming and living in order to take advantage of better areas and make a profit. Plus governments in developing countries have different priorities to what they should, preventing change.

The emphasis on the most effective methods of contraception and not the safest or best for individual women that is produced by population control programs ensures that many women, once put on hormonal contraception, will experience side effects and soon stop taking the Pill or returning for their injection. If one woman has an adverse experience she will tell many more. Women in developing countries do not get told what to expect - then again, neither do most women in developed countries - and so when they experience problems they will just stop using that method. The inserts in Pill packets contain far less, and often no, information.

The linking argument here that is frequently used both for population control purposes and here in the US and Europe is that hormonal birth control is much less risky to a woman's health than pregnancy - an argument that has a lot of holes - but Hartmann suggests that the Pill and long-acting methods could cause far more health problems for women in the Third World. If a woman has low body weight, poor nutrition, poor sanitation and is not given any health screening prior to being put on the Pill she is far more likely to suffer side effects. In fact, considering how the Pill impacts on the metabolic system, preventing proper absorption of vitamins and promoting vitamin deficiency - this drug could actually be directly weakining women further and preventing them more so from having healthy children. Depo Provera, Hartmann notes, can cause continuous bleeding for some women - and women living in poverty cannot afford to loose the blood or the iron it contains.

In conclusion she argues that, as I have, the dominance of hormonal methods of contraception prevents the development of other methods and research into improvements or even new possibilities. Barrier methods are rarely improved upon and barely advertised in the US and Europe. I had much discussion at Bitch regarding negative attitudes towards condoms. Attitudes that could be turned around if the material used to make condoms was developed to produce a better feel and experience. I notice at my current cashiering day job people mostly buy novelty-type condoms with design additions supposed to improve the experience, so the market is there for a wholesale upgrade. Barrier methods are not considered for third world countries as a viable, effective option because it is understood that women would need the cooperation of men and with developing countries male/female relations as they are this would be difficult. Rather than addressing the root - that the oppression of women prevents the use of barrier methods - and therefore, importantly, increases the spread of HIV - it is thought better to push the Pill and injection on them.

Hartmann believes real reproductive choice relies on women having control over their lives and equal power to men.

I have just found out she is a professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a school right near Mt Holyoke, where I studied for a year. Mt Holyoke is an all-girls place, and very political. At the time I took a lot of fun in sending up and skewering the feminist-like activism that went on and wrote essays about the plight of the American male as seen in Michael Douglas movies and Jackass. I guess all that influence filtered through over time, or fermented, or something, and here I am now writing this.

Other voices

Enough of me - Julia De Laurentiis Johnson hails from Canada and is in her twenties. Here's her story of how she came to come off the Pill for good:

"After being on the Pill for a total of seven years, I was desperate to get off it. It made me feel bloated, stagnate and crazy. I now use a non-hormonal copper IUD and I will never use anything else if I can help it. I love it – it's zero-maintenance and hormone free – but the road to my contraceptive bliss was once helluva trial-by-fire.

In the roughly ten years I've been sexually active, I've used a number of different birth control methods. Being a 90's teenager, I was very well versed in sex education and responsibly used condoms and spermicide sponges when I first started having sex. When I got into my first serious relationship, I went on the Pill – in Canada they would start girls on Ortho Tri-Cyclen, an Estrogen and Progestin pill that was triphasic - three different 'phases' of pills in each pack - and each week the level of the Progestin hormone increased from 25 micrograms in the first week to 35 mcg by the third. I hated it and used it for just two months. After getting over the initial rush of feeling very grown up for being on the Pill, the side effects were too uncomfortable to ignore. I switched to Alesse, a monophastic single phase Pill with a lower hormone level and used it, without obvious incident, for five years.

A year after my steady boyfriend and I broke up, it dawned on me that I was a bit of a hypocrite. Generally, I tried to do good things for my body, like try to avoid processed foods, to use organic hygiene and cleaning products and to eliminate as many unnecessary chemicals from my life as possible - yet here I was systematically swallowing a drug every day, three weeks out of the month, all year long.

At the end of my five-year 'drug habit', I decided I really needed to get off the Pill and give my body a break. Soon after, I started dating someone new and sexual regularity was back in my life - I needed to seriously reconsider my contraception methods. I really didn't want to go back on the Pill and I really didn't want to go back to condoms. We weren't a terribly stable couple to begin with – and definitely not at the commitment level where an IUD or a quarterly Depo Provera hormonal shot would have been appropriate. If condoms are the undergrads of Contraception U and choosing to have an IUD sit in your cervix for years qualifies as a PhD, I felt I was at the stage in my sexual life where I was prepared to take on my Master's: a diaphragm.

I got fitted for my pastel pink latex diaphragm, which came in a pastel pink plastic carrying case, and seeing it peak out of my purse where I had shoved it under my sunglasses case to keep it discreet, I felt as if I had inadvertently become part of a terribly acted sex education video. That device did do the trick, though - i.e. kept me un-pregnant - but it was complicated: It removed a sense of spontaneity from sex, as I had to be excused in The Moment to fit myself with this domed sperm-net. It need to be filled with spermicide, took some manoeuvring to fit it up against my cervix and there it had to stay for an additional 6-10 hours after the act, just to be sure it'd done its job. My partner and I could both feel it, also a bit off-putting and it was still only 94% effective, 2% less then the Pill. But I appreciated that it was non-hormonal and figured that the inconvenience was worth it. When that relationship fizzled, so too did my diaphragm use.

By the time I entered into my current relationship, I'd let my ethics about non-hormonal contraception fall by the way side – I wanted an easy, reliable and totally convenient method of birth control. I was living in London at the time and studying for my Masters degree – I recognized that I didn't have the time or care to be fumbling around in the bathroom for the sake of contraception. So I put myself on a low-dose monophastic Pill called Loesterin and naively thought that it would negatively affect nothing, just as my first monophastic Pill hadn't, acting only as armour for my eggs.

Over the course of 18 months the negative effects of the Pill became obvious. Apart from constant bloat, I had developed bad psychological habits, including second-guessing myself, something that until then had not really been part of my personality. I would easily slide into emotional slumps, had a continuously running undercurrent of the 'blahs' and felt that I could never really focus, like there was a veil of mist across my brain. I'm not sure I had any suspicion that the Pill may be to blame, thinking instead that it was probably all my fault, really, and that I just wasn't trying hard enough to think clearly or positively – don't all women feel like this?

The real turning point came when my partner and I were to be apart for a few months and I decided to go off the Pill to give my body a break. Off the Pill I just felt so…alert. The bloat, discouraging thoughts and cloudy mind ebbed away; I felt like Dorothy discovering a colourful Oz. It made me certain that I was never going back to the Pill.

I read up on my contraceptive options and realized that a copper IUD was the obvious choice. This is why:

It's non-hormonal, which was my number one priority for my new birth control. The copper in the non-hormonal IUD interferes with how sperm is transported, diverting it from the egg. Science is cool.

Once inserted it can be practically forgotten. There's nothing to remember to take! Except for a yearly pap test to make sure everything's ticking along, there is no maintenance involved – sex can remain as spontaneous as it was while on the Pill. Ok I lied –this was my number one priority.

It's inexpensive, a one-time cost of $100-$200, often covered by health benefits and lasts for up to five years.

It's entirely reversible. If/when you want to get pregnant, just get it removed.

It's the greenest method of birth control. It doesn't just reduce physical waste (no pill packs or condoms to throw away) but hormonal waste as well. Not only has it been proven that Estrogen from Birth Control Pills flood the water system through sewage, disrupting fish sex organs but also that the hormone cannot be fully distilled out of our own drinking water and may adversely effect human male fertility. If I could do my part by not adding to the Estrogen-laden pee filling my community water filtration system, this counted as a plus.

Ok, here are the cons:

It takes a while to get set up. First, you need to book an information session with your gynaecologist. They run you through every possible pro and con to help make you certain it’s the right method for you. Then you get a pap test to determine everything in there is running fine, because it's about to get a long-term foreign roommate. Then you gotta wait a few weeks for the results.

It needs to be inserted by a medical practitioner. This means another appointment. They also give you pills to insert vaginally to numb the surrounding area a few hours before the procedure. These pills can make you cramp like a bitch.

Periods tend to be a bit heavier. If you already have heavy periods, this may not be for you.

The insertion: It's quick but it hurts like absolute hell. It isn't the actual insertion of the device that hurts, it's when they measure the depth of your cervix. It does only last a couple of minutes, and I did take extra strength pain pills beforehand, but it hurt, like the worst imaginable cramps and my body shook a bit from the shock. But then, as quickly as the pain comes, it dissipates. Soon afterward, you just feel a bit tender. Get yourself an ice cream.

If the idea of pain scares you, don't let it. Though, quite bizarrely, an estimated 2% of American women use the IUD it is intensely more popular around the world. If millions of women can do it, so can you.

I wish I could go back in time and tell that teenage contraceptive novice how much headache she could have saved herself."

Friday, February 5, 2010


Occasionally I like to take a look at how the lawsuits against Bayer Schering Pharma and their birth control pill Yaz are progressing. Today, when I made my usual Google trawl, I came across a piece regarding the enquiries the lawyers have been receiving from women who did not suffer from blood clots or their consequential strokes and heart problems, but experienced the anxiety and depression that I had for a good six months before I realized what was happening.

I had been wondering if the lawsuits would expand to take in the effect Yaz can have on mood, but figured that they might find it too difficult to present and defend. For a start a lawyer is going to have to defend the woman against attacks on her lifestyle, drinking habits, any family history of mental disorders. It would be a difficult fight, considering how there's almost always someone who will have had depression or something that can be labelled as a disorder and how everyone has a bunch of defamatory stories in their past.

The medical evidence for why Yaz causes such extreme changes in emotional state is there, but in order to use that evidence the case would likely have to include the argument that all birth control pills have the capacity to change a woman's mood dramatically and that although Yaz's particular make up does add a whole extra layer to the problem, the problem is still there potentially with all hormonal contraceptives. If Bayer Schering were to counter the case of a woman who has suffered mood changes by saying that all birth control pills have the capacity to do this, then they would be opening up the whole industry to a lot of questions. The woman cited in the piece, Sylvia, claims that Yaz caused her to have panic attacks, constant anxiety and difficulty controlling anger.

Of course she has to temper her complaint with the acknowledgement that her experience is not as 'serious' as a blood clot. This is understandable, but that level of anxiety can lose a person their relationship, their job and put much stress on their general health. The spectre of the Pill's ability to cause blood clots has long blotted out the other side effects. It is the one thing the doctor might have warned you about, and the source of the original concerns in the late 1960s about this newly released drug. When it comes to blood clots doctors and pharmaceutical company representatives can pull out all kinds of graphs to show how rarely they occur, how minimal the risk is and, most importantly, how improved the Pill is since its high estrogen ancestor Enovid. I assume they are having a little more of a struggle with this issue now that Yaz has upped the stakes. Also, I would think there's a possibility of more blood clot cases as more women in the US and Europe can be classed as overweight. But all in all, in comparison to the emotional side effects of the birth control pill, talking about blood clots must seem like a piece of cake.

To start talking about the emotional side effects of the Pill would not only reveal, in a court of law at least, the entrenched misogyny of the medical authorities understanding of women - bringing up all those ideas about how women are so suggestible and how they get depressed because their subconscious knows they can't have a baby when on the Pill or how women are just generally neurotic and hysterical and such is their natural state - but also shed a sharp light on how the pill actually works and the morality of shutting down women's reproductive systems and messing with their hormone cycles for a goal easily and safely met by other means.

The piece goes on to mention a woman who's daughter was put on Yaz and saw her 'entire personality' change. After taking the young woman to psychologists and counsellors she finally considered it might be the birth control pill. The mother says, 'We were told Yaz is the new 'miracle pill' - that it will make you lose weight, regulate your periods, clear up acne, you name it, it will fix it.' Bayer Schering made the mistake of advertising Yaz as a medication to treat anxiety, depression and tension, it marketed it as 'Beyond Birth Control' and as such made itself far more visible than other Pills on the market, far more popular and with much more to justify.

I am very glad that the horrible experiences of many women, including myself, on Yaz have caused this issue to be raised, but I am a little afraid that as Yaz has made itself stand out so far that young women will not think of it as the same as other birth control pills and will therefore not see that all birth control pills can impact badly on mood and well being. The problem with emphasizing the diuretic, potassium-sparing element of Yaz as the cause for the mood changes is that the only answer then given is to swap to another brand of Pill. Also the inevitable, and not completely false, emphasis on the Pill having a different effect on different women, allows the actual facts of the way it works to get brushed aside. All women should be aware that their emotional changes might be down to the Pill, not just those who take Yaz.

Since the blood clot cases came into the newspapers there is all kinds of talk on online forums about stopping Yaz, the withdrawal symptoms and how long these take to go away. Many of the women were completely seduced, as I was, by its skin-clearing, weight loss properties and struggle with the consequences of coming off it - often very painful acne and weight changes brought on by testosterone levels rising. It is worrying, although not surprising to someone who has felt just the same, to see women opting for clear skin and skinniness over emotional balance in their bids to stop taking Yaz. When you've been taught your female body needs medicating, and you can't help but find comfort in the control the Pill gives you over your body, it is hard, even when you feel like you're going crazy - or especially when you feel like you are going crazy - to know what is the best way forward for you.

We are, I think, often too keen to forgo our health. I guess we only think as much of ourselves as we told to, and the Pill is sanctified everywhere there is to look. It is also difficult in the current environment in which it is believed that we all suffer from stress and anxiety as part of modern life to distinguish whilst you are still on the Pill what is a normal reaction to life and what is a side effect. Once you come off the Pill you know for sure that there's a difference, but when you're on it, you constantly question every judgement as a consequence of feeling so detached from your self and the people, the world, around you. It is just as worrying that women get so little support from their doctors, who sadly seem to see the answer in more pills.

The Pill is not the appropriate way to deal with acne or heavy periods, it is not the moral or the compassionate way, but it is also not the appropriate way to approach birth control. It is a crude, primitive and aggressive medication that has absolutely no place in the lives of modern women. The Pill is not a cure-all, but it is also not just a way of preventing pregnancy. In doing that one task, it does a whole lot more to your body that is unhealthy and unwanted.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Missed Pills

Today I came across an article about a study conducted at the University Of Massachusetts that found that women who take in a good amount of vitamin D through foods, sunlight and supplements experience a 70% decrease in PMS symptoms. The study apparently focussed on women who felt their PMS interfered significantly with their lives. The research is part of a wider study into how vitamin D effects women's mental health as a whole.

This interested me as I have mentioned before how the birth control pill creates vitamin deficiencies through its impact on the metabolic system. When taking the Pill the body is unable to absorb the necessary vitamins, so although eating healthily is never a bad thing, it won't alleviate the effects of the Pill on your general health whilst you are still taking it. However, as I've also said before, getting a good lot of vitamins in general can help you overcome the withdrawal problems when coming off the Pill.

The emotional changes provoked by Pill taking can be traced back in part to deficiency in vitamin D. In flattening out the monthly rise and fall of hormone levels, the Pill could be understood as decreasing the possibility of PMS - which is effectively created by changes in these levels before menstruation. But, as many of us know, the Pill can make you feel as though you are experiencing PMS all the time. In fact, that is how my nightmare with Yaz began, starting out with what I saw as very bad PMS - anxiety, sensitivity, rage - around the time before my withdrawal bleed, and then spreading out over the entire month until I felt like that every day to a rapidly worsening level. And of course, because the feelings are not PMS as you know it, in that it is not predictably timed, nor is it moored to any kind of reality, it is frightening and debilitating.

Of course, there are other factors involved - the flattening of the hormone levels in itself, the lowering of testosterone levels - but vitamin deficiency plays a part in mood changes, along with increasing fatigue and generally feeling less than vital and well. Yaz in particular is mentioned in the article as a drug often prescribed to combat PMDD - essentially understood as a severe level of PMS. The piece points out that increasing intake of vitamin D is better than taking this Pill, as there are no side effects.

I have long wondered if the current sun-phobia that keeps everyone in the shade and under hats and on sunlight watch constantly due on fear of skin cancer has some part in the increase of depression and depressive problems. It sometimes seems like people have understood sunbathing with caution to mean never going out in the sun at all.

The article also raised some questions for me. First of all, obviously in its wording, and in the study's emphasis, the suggestion is that PMS not only exists as a 'disorder' or an 'illness' that needs treatment, but also that it is generally a negative experience that women do not want to have to undergo. Previously I have written about the invention of PMS as such, and how it came about at a useful time when it was necessary that women's abilities be undermined and women be sent into their homes to remain as homemakers and mothers, giving the post-world war two work back to the returning soldiers.

I have experienced what I would consider to be PMS I suppose, but rather than interfering with my life it appears to give me clarity on situations, and basically make me less tolerant of those situations that I feel are injust somehow. I just lose my patience with towing the line and keeping quiet and making compromises. I do get more angry than I normally would, and can see now into my fifth natural cycle off the Pill, that I get more intolerant of people around me. I can also see now that although my Yaz experience seemed like PMS spreading out over the whole month how I felt bear very little relation to real PMS which when it comes on, predictably, is actually pretty enlightening.

The issue here I guess is that there are women who experience extreme tension, anxiety and depression before their period - and I mean real period, not the fake Pill-induced kind - and they need to be acknowledged. There are also women who experience very painful periods who also need to be acknowledged. The Pill does not help with either of these problems however, but only masks the symptoms. It is therefore good to here that research is being done into possible treatments as alternatives to taking the Pill.

Increasing your vitamin D intake isn't going to hurt either way, and according to the study you'll still have 30% of your PMS to deal with. For ten years I was happily giving up my entire natural cycle and replacing it with the synthetic hormones of the Pill - now nearly five months off the Pill I have issues with even giving up the agitation and anger that comes just before my period. Despite my initial reservations, as I said my periods as a teenager were painful, heavy and pretty difficult, my cycle at 27 years old is a whole other experience.

As the study I cited found, young women's cycles take a few years to settle and regulate out. Prescribing the Pill to girls at fourteen is preventing them from finding this out, amongst of course a whole host of other things the Pill prevents. Perhaps if women were allowed to know more about their cycle and how their hormone levels change then PMS would be less intolerable in general, it would not be something happening to them, but something their body is doing that is natural, and possibly useful. I am not belittling any woman's experience, I am only championing the fact that the Pill really isn't the answer to horrid PMS or heavy periods and there are other options for dealing with this that should be tried out, or at least given a platform, rather than sunk beneath the promotion of the Pill as a cure-all.

I watched Diana Fabianova's documentary The Moon Inside You yesterday. It raised some subjects that I have not yet tackled here. I am always reluctant to come across as too hippy-ish when talking about women's natural cycles, periods and the like. Mostly because I am not at all hippy-ish and usually feel quite alienated by that sort of discussion. By which I mean the kind of discussion in which periods are celebrated and PMS is about female intuition and all women are connected to nature and we are special...And yes I completely acknowledge the reasons for why I may feel alienated by that talk, being that it is a sidelined perspective, likely deliberately undermined publicly and in fact called 'hippy-ish' in an effort to undermine its meaning. And yes it probably has a lot to do with how I see myself as a woman and how I understand being female, and how all that is certainly effected by living in a society that is hostile to femininity and female-ness. However, I also know that most twenty-something year old women feel the same and so I like to avoid going to far down that path.

That said, the documentary brought up how the social silence about periods - it was mostly about how women see their periods, and how society sees women menstruating - effectively isolates women from each other. We have all heard that anecdotal story about how women in the same college dorm, or the same shared house will eventually synchronize their cycles to have their periods at the same time. I have no idea if this is right, despite having attended an all girls' school for my whole teenage life, and a girls' college for one year, but even if it isn't there's something to be said for how the biological experience should make us feel some kind of unity. It is a shared experience, and it is something women do that men don't.

If we talked more openly about our experiences, rather than just placing them under banners such as PMS or using euphemisms, then we might find the natural cycle more interesting, feel more connected to our bodies and therefore our selves and our female-ness. Perhaps then we might feel more confident about being women and struggle less with the idea. But if this were to happen then it could be threatening to the status quo, and for it to happen we would need outside approval - like social acceptance. Or would we? Maybe women could come to the point without having to wait for society to decide that natural cycles are interesting, or even at least healthy, and that periods are not disgusting or dangerous. Perhaps women could do so by having a mass ditching of the Pill for good.

The documentary also pointed out that with each new cycle there's a possibility for reinvention inherent in the change. If you want to see it that way, you can, like the energy women can get after their period, which for some is a time of reflection, along with the PMS and its intolerance, could be seen as an opportunity for getting stuff done, and action and dynamism. It could be seen as a time to start afresh, with a changed perspective, or an altered perspective on what you want to do, need, and backed up the ability to make that happen. I can certainly relate to the change in energy, and the heightened level of concentration and clear thinking also.

This idea of change is the opposite of the status quo. By the status quo I mean the way things are in the world today - how society is structured, how women are treated, how women see themselves. The structure of how the world is necessitates for its perpetuation that we do not see the need for change, or at least the changes we see the need for are minimal (or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as I like to say). Politicians may talk about change and gear people up with excitement about it, but real change is hard to come by, and when it comes down to it, most of the changes are poor substitutes for the real potential that exists. If things get to stay as they are, the people who are rich get to stay rich, the people who are poor get to stay poor and so on.

Essentially we could see women's natural cycle and that sense of flow and change that comes with it as threatening to the way things are. And if women were to become properly aware of that sense of change it could be even more threatening. If all the women on the Pill came off it and started to find their cycle interesting then perhaps that would be seen as a problem.

Aside that is from all the other problems it would cause - like all the money the pharmaceutical industry would lose. Women not on the Pill would be released from the depressive impact on their mood and well being, firstly. Then they would experience their natural cycle and maybe talk about it and maybe like it, and then they could see their reproductive abilities differently and start questioning how women's role in society has been created and the skewing of the understanding of these abilities. If coming off the Pill can be life-changing, as one commenter wrote here, and as I would agree, what does that mean when lots of women decide to stop?

The documentary went on to discuss the idea of collective consciousness as related to women's natural cycles. Consumerism is helped by isolating people - that's pretty basic analysis, but it's true. Isolated people buy more stuff. The Pill shuts down a collective experience. Collective experiences, and the collecting together of people, is essential to any kind of rebellion or change - in order in a sense for anything to change.

One interviewee in the documentary used very un-hippy-ish language to talk about the promotion of the Pill. He stated that the Pill was effectively society's way (and I really don't see it as men's way, because I think the economy and the structure although dominated by men, is not their 'fault' as such) of reprogramming women to fit into its established structure. The natural cycle is a source of change, flow, collective experience - it is connected to the natural world, to women's power in reproduction - and so society did not want to incorporate it, instead it had to be shut down, cancelled out, forgotten, sunk.

The interviewee also said that it was implemented in order to make women 'more like men' - obviously not quite how it works as men still get to have all kinds of natural hormone changes - but I can see where the idea is going. The masculine was acceptable, whereas the feminine was only faulty masculinity, or a disease. Masculinity and the appropriated traits of this, were understood as foundational to society - although it could be argued that the structure is based on inhuman (not male or female) elements. Either way, it initially needed to keep men dominant over women. Natural cycles were a threat to this on all kinds of levels. The Pill helped women enter the male workplace, and be accepted into the male world, but in disconnecting women from themselves, their bodies and each other, the Pill helped perpetuate the male-dominated social structure, by preventing awareness of potential for change and other ways of living, as well as prevention of awareness between women of themselves as a race.

I came across an article in the San Jose State University publication, The Spartan Daily, entitled 'Skipping the Contraceptive Pill: Rebel With Michelle.' I like the way the title turns around all the paranoia about women missing pills in a month which is inspiring this drive to get those women on to long-acting hormonal methods like the hormonal IUD, injection and implant. And I like the way stopping taking the Pill is being discussed as 'rebellion' as that is what it is in that Pill-taking has become socially encouraged, with women seeing the Pill as their only option and the only sensible, responsible contraceptive method to use. There is a situation to rebel against, an oppressive force that in stopping the Pill women are fighting against.

So, the article is written by Michelle Gachet who claims that the Pill turned her into 'an emotional psycho' as a result of the 'hormonal game' the Pill was playing with her body. Her decision to come off the Pill was influenced by her reading about the development of the male Pill. She decided she didn't want to be the 'only one in the relationship with the wacky crying episodes.' Michelle got frustrated with the fact that she lives in a world in which men get to ask, 'did you remember to take your Pill today?' as though it were normal, natural, required.

I am unsure of her feelings only in that I would in no way encourage the development of a male Pill and have no desire for men to experience the side effects such a drug would certainly hold. In my last post I suggested the suppression of libido that would occur is interesting to consider on a philosophical level - in terms of what such an impact en masse might bring about - but I would not, even in my anger at how women are pushed the female Pill - want the male Pill to be released on to the market. I do encourage discussion of the development of the male Pill, only as it encourages reassessment and consideration of how the Pill works on women's bodies and why the way it works, and what it is, is acceptable.

Michelle discovered the potential side effects by searching the Internet. I guess when you live in a country that charges an uninsured person around $200 just to sit in the doctor's office, let alone the additions for actually asking questions, the Internet is a great place to exchange information. I do encourage anyone to look at the boards on the medications.com and askapatient.com sites for comments about Yaz - it is the most complained about drug on the internet, a fact that only goes to support my view that open discussion of the reality of Pill-taking is systematically suppressed.

Skipping The Pill: Rebel With Michelle

Friday, January 22, 2010


The BBC aired a documentary in the Horizon series entitled Pill Poppers last week. The entire thing is available here on YouTube:

Pill Poppers

Although it only briefly discussed the contraceptive pill, what was said about our relationship to pills in general and the changing motivations of the pill-making companies was very pertinent. The programme starts off with different people sitting down on a couch and presenting the medicines they take on the table in front of them. This was immediately interesting to me as I do think women have a complex relationship with the birth control pill, and to sort of personalize drugs in this way, and show what a significant role they play in people's lives really emphasizes that idea. The documentary went as far as to say that, 'Pills define who we are.' You might recall I wrote a post about the similarities between taking the birth control pill and being a smoker a while back. I said how women who take the birth control pill don't consider themselves pill-takers, not like someone who smokes might these days consider themselves a smoker, and that this shows a lack of awareness of the pill as a drug and a lack of seriousness in its prescription and usage.

One woman had her birth control pills in front of her on the table and began discussing why she took them and one of her comments was, 'I read the list of side effects in the leaflet and I had them all.' I guess, firstly, it was different to see the birth control pill discussed alongside painkillers, anti-depressants and drugs to stop you having a heart attack. Secondly, it was interesting to consider pills as part of a person's personality and lifestyle. I have been thinking a lot more about the pill and addiction lately, and I suppose one of the definitions of an addiction would be if the substance you couldn't stop taking was effecting you, your character, responses or outlook. If you were taking the substance for so long it became inextricably linked to who you are.

Now, the pill can actually change your personality in that it can cause severe mood changes, anxiety and depression, and change how you see other people, events, the world around you. So there's a definite link. But taking the pill, and accepting the pill, gives you a certain outlook on your body, self and your place in society. It does come to define who you are as a woman, as a young woman. It imposes the definitions of femininity on to you, as well as restricting your understanding of femininity. If you take the pill and happily shut down your ovaries and uterus, your natural monthly cycle you are as a by product of this action accepting certain ideas about women and their capabilities and their positioning. I've said before that taking the pill, if looked at in a historical context, appears like a rejection of femininity, or femaleness.

I dislike any suggestion that women are somehow masochistic, and I can see how that might seem part of an addiction theory, but just as with plastic surgery, or Botox, or waxing, women do things that hurt them all the time, not because they particularly want to, but not also because they are passive victims of other people's desires. It's more that we live in an environment that requires these things, and as living human beings we are responsive to that environment. Like a plant photosynthesising perhaps. It's socially constructed, but in the same way a bank is understood to be a bank and a school a school. It's ingrained. And because it is so entwined in history and culture, we feel a certain comfort in the ritual-like aspect. I suppose you could see taking the pill every day as ritualistic. Every time you pop one in your mouth it's reaffirming a whole mess of ideas about women which we have all internalised.

The documentary also talked briefly about the possibility of a male contraceptive pill. One of the doctors researching into this is interviewed and he explains how they need to 'put the testes to sleep' to stop sperm production. The narrator of the programme notes that this will be 'tinkering at the heart of what makes a man a man.'

Most interestingly, the doctor argues that people are wary of this, and that if the female birth control pill was developed and invented today from scratch, it would not be welcomed. Odd, in a way, considering, every day the pill is presented anew to young women and they keep taking it, in new and modern forms of reinvention - the present day pill is not the same as the one launched in 1960. Made me recall that statement a doctor made in the press about hormone replacement therapy, that it didn't have a place 'in modern medicine.' Also, the push is now for the not so much new as rebranded injection, implant and hormonal IUS and these are being presented to women as the latest thing in contraception.

I think the male pill still hasn't arrived because the pharmaceutical companies are not sure there's a market for it. They think men won't accept the side effects, which are likely to include lowered libido. There have been scare stories in the media about the pill - in the late 1960s when the high level of estrogen was causing blood clots and strokes, and now and then throughout the last few decades, and despite all this women keep taking it. Yes, most of these scare stories are underpinned with a statement that the pill is 'the most researched and safest medication on the market' - an assertion full of holes. The claim made by the doctor in the documentary does suggest that a big part of the pill's allure is in its cultural mythology and social integration.

The documentary narrator then goes on to say, 'A man without sperm. No more radical than what millions of women endure.' This is great to hear, and actually most of what is said previously about the potential male contraceptive pill is with this statement linked to what women undergo taking the female pill. Instead of emasculation, women are subject to de-feminisation. But whereas emasculation seems like such a potent word, full of implications, the opposite for women doesn't hold as much concern. One of the points made is that for a man to remain physically a man they would need to add sex hormones after they've taken away their production by the testes, in order for men to still look like men. Women on the pill of course still appear as women - in fact the effect of lowering testosterone levels arguably makes women closer to the social feminine ideal. That women still look womanly does play a part in the pushing of the pill. That they don't necessarily feel womanly, feminine, or sexual, is what we've been discussing here. That this side of the pill has not been considered in the last 60 years is illustrative of deliberate ignorance.

The doctor in the documentary suggests that if the male pill was released, and more importantly marketed well, it could bring about a second Sexual Revolution such as is understood to have happened in the 1960s. I have written before about how the supposed sexual revolution was not down to the pill alone, but a combination of economic and social factors. I had a man, David, comment on a previous post with his theory of what would happen if the male pill was released. Much of his comment was made up of disgustingly misogynistic remarks stating that the pill allowed women to use sex as a 'reward' and therefore manipulate men with this power (although I have to say, David may not have realized, this suggestion proposes that men are basically dogs, or toddler-like in their mentality, which makes me wonder about their supposed 'right' to rule over women). There is much wrong, in logic and moral terms, with David's statements - he believes rape victims get an easy time in court and are not required to have 'hard evidence' - he also believes the male sex drive to be 'a powerful force' which he doesn't seem to realise will be entirely quashed by the male pill (possibly the real source of this new 'freedom' for men David hankers after will be freedom from their tyrannical sex drive, if they so want it, and the ability to think about other subjects than sex, if they so want to) - but he is quite adamant about their being a revolution coming. Unfortunately for us David believes this revolution will bring about the subjugation of women 'as exploited work units with no rights' - a conclusion he puts down to, in part, the rising levels of unemployment for young men.

I had been hoping the male pill would bring about a reappraisal of the female pill and general enlightenment as to the inhumanity of having any person, male or female, shut down their hormone cycle. I was also hoping that a backlash against the pill would work out well for women, but have expressed concerns that with the headlines shouting that more women are in the workplace than ever before, we are heading for some kind of chastisement for all our power-hungry doings. David is hopefully representative of a minority, but he does show how there are forces that will always ensure women are understood to be bringing about the downfall of civilisation. He is the extreme but his ideas are present, in diluted form, in the mainstream. I think Freud wrote about how female sexuality had to be controlled for civilisation to develop. Whether it's the 'mad feminists' or poor Britney Spears, we don't win, and we do need to brace ourselves for something of a bumpy ride if we want to get society to reassess medicating millions of us.

The documentary ended talking about a drug that has been developed that can be given to men over 50 as a preventative to heart disease and heart attacks. Here the programme proposed the direction in which the pharmaceutical industry is working. The drive is to create drugs that don't treat illnesses, but treat risk factors. One of the doctor's interviewed expressed concerns about how 'A drug company's dream would be a pill not designed for sick people, but for everyone. A pill that's not good for you, but good for everybody, and you are a part of everybody.' Hmm. I don't think this is a recent development in the industry. The birth control pill does not treat an illness, it does in fact treat what is seen as a 'risk factor' - a woman's fertility is a risk factor to pregnancy it could be said, and menstruation is often reported as a risk factor to many health problems - the pill isn't good for an individual woman, it is promoted as being good for everybody - with no account of each woman's delicate natural system taken into account and complete emphasis on the pill's use for population control. And population control is supposed to be good for the health of all, so an individual woman is an easy sacrifice in the equation. The last scenes of the documentary were supposed to express a foreboding sense of the future, but we are already experiencing exactly what we are supposed to be fearing.