Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall
“Less stressed, thinner and more interested in sex.” – but not buying magazines.
In a recent issue of the UK’s Stylist magazine — a weekly women’s glossy that is available for free at tube stations and selected clothing stores — there was an article headlined ‘What does 10 Years On The Pill Do To You?‘ As a result of my on-going blog, Sweetening the Pill, which documents my experience of coming off the contraceptive pill, I was contacted by the writer to provide some quotes for this piece. Unfortunately, I was edited out. As a journalist myself, I understood this situation has little to do with the writer’s choice of content and more to do with the magazine editor’s final say on what was most fitting for the feature. Yet the title question is the very crux of my blog: having taken the Pill for 10 years, stopping as a result of discovering the answer to this very question.
According to the Stylist piece the answer is that the Pill changes your memory skills, lowers your libido, makes you attracted to the wrong kinds of men for you, changes weight distribution, prevents you building muscles, make you retain water, make you depressed and jealous…and how can you tell if this all is just you or the Pill? You can’t and you shouldn’t try to find out, is the message here. We are advised to not take a break from the Pill, not even for a week, and if you are concerned, just ask for a different brand from your doctor. There is no discussion of non-hormonal alternatives. There is also no discussion of the benefits of not taking the Pill, of allowing your body to ovulate once a month.
My answer to this question was: “The Pill has a whole body impact. Taking the Pill shuts down a woman’s hormone cycle — and the ovulation and menstruation that is an essential part of this cycle — and replaces it with a low stream of synthetic hormones. This has an affect on every organ in the body — the impact is wide-reaching and crudely administered. The peaks, troughs, and plateaus of a woman’s ‘natural’ cycle are wiped out. The monthly hormone cycle is integral to many of the body’s central functions, including the metabolic, immune, and endocrine systems. This changes everything — from your sense of smell to your libido to your ability to absorb vitamins from your food.
Many women have said to me that coming off the Pill was ‘life-changing’ and, as someone now two years off the Pill after ten years on, I have to agree with the description. The life-threatening potential effects of the Pill get publicity — the blood clots and strokes — but the quality of life-threatening and the emotional and mental effects are barely discussed. Fatigue, muscle loss, urinary tract infections, bleeding gums, stomach disorders, flu-like symptoms, hair loss — relatively minor physical issues caused by the Pill that together can make life very hard. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, rage, paranoia — all issues brought on by the Pill, due to a combination of switching off the hormone cycle and vitamin B deficiency. I experienced the whole package and when I wasn’t bordering on nervous breakdown I was flatlining, barely able to feel anything at all.”
The whole body impact, although alluded to in the Stylist piece, is not considered head-on. What does it mean to take such a powerful drug every day for years when you are not sick? And when there are as effective alternatives for pregnancy prevention? On a second, and third reading of the piece I cannot see mentioned an unequivocal benefit of taking the Pill other than pregnancy prevention until we reach the last refuge of the worried magazine editor — the box-out — in which ‘the benefits of taking the Pill’ are listed. These include pregnancy prevention (of course), protecting women from the already very rare ovarian cancer in a very minimal way, and cutting the risk of iron deficiency anemia. Then cited is that bizarre piece of research that surfaced last year which claimed women on the Pill are 12% less likely to die, of any cause. As though Pill-taking were a key to eternal life. To a studied reader, it’s a paltry gathering of research – even I, as anti-Pill as I am, could come up with a better list. And so why this pushiness in the feature itself when it comes to keeping women on the Pill?
Women’s magazines are happy to provide endless advice regarding all elements of women’s lives — from what we should eat to what we should wear to how we should have sex — but when it comes down to the Pill, which at least in the UK the majority of their readers will be on, they are uniformly nervous about passing judgment. We are bombarded with the supposed best and the only and the top ten ways to make every element of our lives better, happier, sexier and more fulfilling, but when it comes to the Pill any tentative dip into the potential negative effects is quickly qualified by a zealous idolatry. This despite the fact that most of the magazines’ preoccupation with improving their readers sex lives would suggest they would be very much against women being sexually dissatisfied and having low libido, as the research cited claims of those who take the Pill. If 50% of women, and so therefore their readers, do experience negative mood changes as a result of the Pill, as is also mentioned here, why not dedicate some time to what these might be and how to notice them? Even better, why not interview some real women about this? Considering the magazines are otherwise full of personal experiences of cancer, domestic abuse, drug addiction, and infidelity, this would seem a natural choice.
In the US this jumpiness could be put down to the proliferation of advertising for birth control Pills that pay for the features to be published. But in the UK, direct-to-consumer advertising for drugs is against the law. The one exception I noticed of a brand being discussed encouragingly in a British magazine was on the release of Yaz. It’s skin-clearing and weight loss promises were too much to ignore. In this piece two brands are mentioned and only to reference their relative cheapness in comparison to other Pills and as a consequence their promotion by NHS doctors in the UK. Although I have to say, when I was on the Pill the most expensive one out there was all the rage in doctor’s surgeries – Yaz – which suggests someone somewhere was benefiting monetarily from this.
Dr. Erika Schwatz is quoted as saying in response to the question of who a woman would be if she hadn’t taken the Pill for a decade, that “She’d probably be less stressed, thinner and more interested in sex.”
A woman who is less stressed, thinner and more interested in sex is, I would guess, less likely to buy a magazine. I buy magazines to make myself feel better, because in my feelings of deficiency I expect a magazine to hold the answers I need to be happier. When you’re stressed and depressed you buy more stuff – because you think that stuff will improve your life. That’s why we call it ‘retail therapy.’ The answer to many questions posed in magazines is to buy more stuff. I doubt this is a conscious understanding by magazine editors, although they do know they only exist because of product advertising. Yet the Pill is part of the agenda of women’s magazines whether they are aware of it or not.