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.

1 comment:

  1. Honestly, I really wouldn't mind having no periods at all, being fertile only when I wanted and not experiencing the mood swings of the menstrual cycle if - only if this could be achieved safely, without affecting other organs, mood and thinking.

    There are lots of people who see their own bodies as machines, machines that could be upgraded somehow to function better or to reflect "who they are" whatever that means. Why is it a bad thing to become disconnected from your body (some people seem to love it, just look at all the online games for example), to manipulate your body, to control its functions? Why should we learn to accept our bodies as they are if we can change them to make our quality of life better somehow? Does it make you happier when you learn to love the natural ways of your body, or accept them, or tolerate at least?
    We only live once.

    There are men saving for vasectomies, childless women who choose sterilisation - clearly they would like to control their fertility and be 100% sure they won't bring another human being into this world. People would really love to have a magic button turning the fertility on/off, both men and women. Just ask them. I would like to have such a button myself... unfortunately the Pill is rather like thousands of linked buttons - you push one of them to get what you want and the others automatically switch on making you crazy/bloated/robotic/depressed/hairless/bleeding, causing blood clots and more. That's why I stay away from it, not because I like my periods and menstrual cycle... none of my friends likes their periods anyway, I asked them once.

    The Pill is just not selective at all, taking it is like uploading a new program controlling your body, not just fertility. Such a hardcore program was simply bad for me - my mind, thinking, perception and mood. It lowered my quality of life, so I stopped taking it. Simple as that.
    This program works for other women though, with minimal negative effects - good for them.