Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Essentialism and experience

August 26th, 2013 by Holly Grigg-Spall

My forthcoming book ‘Sweetening the Pill or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control’ began to take shape on the pages of this blog and much of the process of its development was spurred on by the work of members of SMCR. As such, it seems only fitting, with the release date of September 7th soon here, to share for my post this month an excerpt and to say thank you for the support of this community. I hope to have added something of interest and value to this on-going conversation.


Women often discuss menstruation and birth as happening to them, rather than as part of them and their experience. Emily Martin remarks in ‘The Woman in the Body’ that women often see their self as separate to their body. Women’s central image is that “your body is something your self has to adjust to or cope with” and therefore, Martin concludes,“your body needs to be controlled by your self.”

Martin explores the idea that women did not fit into the structure of the jobs that were open to them in industrialized society. These jobs most often required monotony, routine and repetition. Although in reality no more suited to men than they were women, it was women that were judged as innately unable to succeed in such positions due on the constantly changing and supposedly unpredictable nature of their physical state.

As Martin states, “Women were perceived as malfunctioning and their hormones out of balance,” especially when experiencing PMS and menstruation, “rather than the organization of society and work perceived as in need of transformation to demand less constant discipline and productivity.”

The rigidity of society was forcefully imposed on women as it was on men. For all, both men and women, it is inhumane but it was women that were required to adapt in a more dramatic and overt way. Men are viewed as naturally given to the industrious and disciplined way of life demanded of them and the structure of society is built on these assumed capabilities.

If we admit that women do change through the month, that we do menstruate, experience PMS, have differing moods week to week, we fear that this admission will be used as justification for negative judgment.

Martin counters the feminist refrain of “biology is not destiny”; “I think the way out of this bind is to focus on women’s experiential statements – that they function differently during certain days. We could then perhaps hear these statements not as warnings of the flaws inside women that need to be fixed, but as insights into flaws in society that need to be addressed.”

The idea that men are otherwise unchanging is falsified. Men also experience hormonal changes with studies suggesting they experience a cycle daily that is equivalent to the monthly cycle of women as well as changes in hormone levels across their lifetimes.

Women’s “experiential statements” as Martin describes them are often silenced in the discourse surrounding hormonal contraceptives. It is a betrayal of the feminist cause to speak out with openness about the side effects of the pill.

When Yaz and Yasmin were released the marketing strategy co-opted the idea of word of mouth. In a commercial women were seen passing along the “secret” of these new drugs with their host of beneficial yet superficial side effects. Receiving messages of increased physical attractiveness as the result of a drug that many women were using anyway, only a different brand, increased the transference of this experience from one woman to the next.

In the face of such powerful manipulation, what place does a skillfully worded informational insert have in women’s decision making process? The time of the Nelson Pill Hearings was a very different to today.

Naomi Wolf mentions the pill briefly in ‘The Beauty Myth.’ She remarks that it was originally marketed as a drug to keep women “young, beautiful and sexy,” concepts parallel to those promoted by Bayer through its contemporary advertising. Wolf quotes, in the context of the beauty industry, John Galbraith, “Behavior that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into social virtue.”

Women who do not want to take the pill are treated as difficult and irresponsible. If they do not accept the pill they are ungrateful of the work of women in history and of the privilege afforded them.

Today the initial decision to take the pill is often made for teenage girls. Many of them do not reassess the decision independently until they are well into their twenties by which time their relationship to the drug and to their bodies is so complex as to potentially prevent them successfully coming off the pill. The choice to take the pill is fiercely protected and yet that choice is rarely autonomous and informed.

4 responses to “Essentialism and experience”

  1. Lisa Leger says:

    wow Holly – thanks for tackling such a fraught subject so thoughtfully.
    I notice how the term “choice” is co-opted in marketing all sorts of consumer products like razors and make up that are supposed necessities for women to choose between. The menu of birth control options are spread out like “oh ah, look at all the choices women have”, when in fact most of them are hormonal drugs in various packagings.
    Plus men are left out of the conversation even tho a boyfriend’s preference often has a huge impact on the choices women make.

  2. Yes, I believe Elizabeth Kissling mentioned to me once that it’s like bottled water brands – they’re all the same (as in all pills have the same effectiveness) so they have to differentiate themselves on the market. It makes it even more amazing to consider how one brand gets so popular – like Yaz – through the power of advertising, both overt and covert.

    Along these lines of the idea of consumer choice, what I’m hearing a lot right now is that we don’t need more knowledge of and access to non-hormonal options for birth control, we need “better” hormonal birth control. Like, new and improved! Of course Yaz WAS “better” birth control.

    I have taken to saying that’s a bit like Shell telling us they’re going to start providing “clean coal.”

  3. Lisa Leger says:

    Another “better” was supposed to be the implants, the seasonals, and injectables,which of course are the same old hormones with a diff delivery system.
    ah well, we press on. Taught another woman to chart yesterday, who has never been on the pill. so today I have hope.

  4. Dana says:

    Great article on certain points. I agree Yaz/Yasmin was terrible, and it actually was the advertising that scared me away at first. It looked too good to be true, and a quick online search revealed the problems in it’s clinical trials.

    However, I find that there’s nothing wrong with the pill in general. As long as you work with your doctor and talk openly about symptoms, it’ll be fine. As well, not all pills are the same. The doses and types of the hormones vary and they can effect each woman differently. I’m also not against women who don’t choose to use the pill because it’s their choice for their body.

    I researched hormonal birth control for six years before starting it, and when the time came I consulted my boyfriend to see if this was the route we wanted to go. When he agreed, I spoke to my doctor who recommended one based on my medical history. I found the best pill for me on the second try. Now, before someone says I’m conforming to something whether it be ‘feminism’ or ‘patriarchal advertising’, I had three logical reasons why I chose hormonal birth control.

    1. I wanted the utmost protection from pregnancy. I’m way too young for children, so a 99.99% chance of protection(as long as you never miss a pill) was great. It was also very cheap since my family’s medical plan covers it.

    2. I had terrible periods. I would never get my period every month. Once every two months. Then again a week after that. Then none for six months. It was horrible being sexually active and not getting a period! Whenever I did get one though, I was in so much pain I was bed ridden. I also bled really heavily for 10 to 12 days. The pill promised regulated periods with a lighter flow.

    3. Condoms, while boasting a 95% pregnancy protection rate, are horribly expensive and cause me serious pain, even with lubrication. I also don’t have an allergy to latex so lamb skin condoms didn’t solve the problem. I needed a non-friction form of protection and the pill only had to be taken orally.

    After being on the pill for more than two years now, I can happily say that I love it. Once I got on the correct pill(the first one made me narcoleptic), everything got better. My periods were lighter, less painful and only lasted 7 days. I can actually time my watch by them they’re so regular! I have no discomfort during intercourse and I am generally happier than I was pre-pill when I suffered from depression. Yes, my mood swings can be prominent around my time of the month, but it’s nothing compared to what it used to be where I would cry at the drop of a hat.

    Finally, I agree there’s nothing wrong with speaking about the bad side effects and I make sure I talk about it with my friends who are sexually active. Weight gain, nausea, acne and, in my case, narcolepsy. The first pill was bad. I didn’t react properly to it. So I went back to my doctor after trying the pill for three months and told her it wasn’t working. She switched the type and brand of the pill and everything changed. The only slightly negative side effect I’ve had from this pill is the increase in breast size, it’s very difficult to find a fitting bra. Granted, my boyfriend likes it, so it’s not all bad!

    Overall, it’s up to each woman and her partner what’s best for them, and making that choice requires a lot of through research and medical advice, not just picking something you saw on television.

Readers should note that statements published in Menstruation Matters are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.