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.


  1. I just wanted to say that I loved this piece. I was super excited when I saw you blogging at Bitch, and had hoped more readers would be more receptive, - and same goes for the sad state of that Feministe article.

    I was at a midwifery conference over the weekend and loved one particular quote from midwife legend Ina May Gaskin, in which she basically says that you can't lie to men about how their parts work because everything is hanging outside, but since women's reproductive parts are inside, it's easier to lie. Not to dismiss the patriarchy and capitalism at all (and as someone who emphasized the need to understand history, I don't think she is either), but I that made me laugh.

  2. This is revolutionary. Thank you.

  3. I wish I had read this post before I took my sixteen year old daughter to the doctor because of her irregular periods. The doctor prescribed birth control pills and, during the third month of taking the pill, my daughter was hospitalized with blood clots in her brain. She has no other risk factors. Fortunately, she survived, but many young women do not. Since this happened, I've been reading everything I can find about birth control pills. I'm learning that the pill of today is different from the pill I took thirty years ago. I even saw a doctor on television (NBC did a story) acknowledge that today's birth control pills have a higher risk of blood clots, but they are much more effective treating acne. Acne. When I told my daughter she said, "No one ever died from a zit...". Indeed.

    I am amazed, as I comb through blogs and websites, at the comments from women who discuss myriad side effects yet continue taking the pill. Thank you for posting this important and enlightening piece.

  4. I just love this wonderful eye-opening piece you have written. It really made me think when you explained how the pill is sort of like plastic surgery, yet the same people who praise the pill shame plastic surgery. This really made me think about how some feminists say they are looking for equality for women, equal opportunity's to be in charge of their bodies, sexuality and life. Yet it turns out that what a lot of them are really doing is suppressing us as WOMEN, by trying to make us equal to men they are turning us into men! Trying to make us biologically and socially more like men. Why can't we instead realize that yes men and women are DIFFERENT biologically, physically, mentally, emotionally, but that doesn't make women weaker or unclean. Women and men have different strengths and weaknesses and we can both, we are unique and we can still be equal while being different. Having your period once a month and being emotional doesn't make you less of a human, have less rights to follow your dreams or less independent, it is natural and for centuries women's menstrual cycles were sacred and revered by many. I support the diaphragm and other forms of birth control such as the fertility awareness method, yes they may take a little more time but that is part of being a woman! Why do some feminists think that just because we must spend more intimate time with our body and bodily functions that it makes us somehow unable to be equal to men. Explore and get to know your body, be openly proud of being a well-informed motivated WOMAN! That is the true definition of feminism to me.

  5. I'm late finding this great piece of writing, but had to post, your piece raises so many good points, it's insightful.

    I'm 55 and have never taken the Pill, I might have if not for serious medical barriers in place in 1980. Mostly male doctors and women were "required" to have pap tests, pelvic and breast exams. I went off to the Medical Library and spoke to some members of Faculty and sure enough, these exams were not clinical requirements for anything and they were not evidence based, more likely to harm us. Cervical screening was a puzzle, I knew that informed consent was a legal and ethical requirement for all cancer screening, so how could it be a requirement for the Pill? In fact the only clinical requirements were a BP test and your medical history. It would be like saying men on Viagra must have a colonoscopy and a testicular exam.

    It taught me an early lesson, to stay alert and protect my healthy, symptom-free body from medical excess and coercion. The Pill was being used to force women into unnecessary exams that carried risk and mandating an "elective" screening test.

    After doing my research and with a low risk profile, I passed on pap tests. Most women my age have had around 18 tests and most have had a biopsy or "treatment". The lifetime risk of cc is 0.65% so I knew almost all of these referrals were false positives/over-treatment...later a study confirmed the lifetime risk of referral here thanks to over-screening was a huge 77%

    I recently declined breast screening as well, and once again, found official sources of information to be unreliable. I don't act on scare campaigns or hype, just the evidence and it was very concerning.
    About 50% of screen detected cancers are over-diagnosed, any benefit of screening is almost certainly wiped out by women who die from heart attacks and lung cancer after radiotherapy and chemo.
    The fall in the death rate is mostly about better treatments, not screening.
    Fortunately, the Nordic Cochrane Institute have produced an excellent summary of all of the evidence, it's at their website.
    I've never permitted routine pelvic or breast exams, neither exam has thankfully, been recommended for sometime now.
    I hate the way the symptom-free female body has been medicalized...and with no respect for individual women, our legal rights and proper ethical standards. Women are still "told" to screen and counted like sheep to achieve a govt-set target.
    I also, think powerful vested and political interests exist in women's healthcare.
    I don't think the Pill gave women more control, in some ways, it gave them less control of their bodies and health.
    I studied the Billings Method and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. I ended up with a deep understanding of my body. We should value and respect the asymptomatic female body, we're not pre-disease.
    It's great that more women are questioning of the way we're treated by the medical profession and by others.
    By the way, anyone interested in cervical screening should take a look at the new Dutch program, 5 hrHPV primary triage tests offered at 30,35,40,50 and 60 (or self-test with the Delphi Screener) and ONLY the roughly 5% who are HPV+ and at risk will be offered a 5 yearly pap test. This will save more lives and spare most women from a lifetime of unnecessary pap testing and the high risk of over-treatment.
    Aussie women can order the Screener from Delphi Bioscience Singapore. Most women having pap tests and treatments are not even at risk, they're HPV-
    Those women who test HPV- and confidently monogamous or no longer sexually active might choose to stop all further testing.
    A review of our program is underway, LONG overdue, but when excess and non-evidence-based testing has been the norm for decades, I fear we're unlikely to see real change.

    Kind Regards

  6. I'll echo what other posters have said: what a great piece of work this is. Deserves to be widely broadcast so other women can benefit from the information and knowing they are not crazy in what they experienced. Why do women have to be probed and examined for disease regularly as if it grows spontaneously in their bodies? Where does it come from, and why is HE not being called in and made to feel shame and worry.

    Yaz/Yasmin killed 23 Canadian girls and women CBC News this week. Suspected total much higher.

  7. Hi sorry about the 'old news' link. I'm not on FB or Twitter. Now connected to you through Feedburner. :) Also, have sent your link onto some media.