Holly Grigg-Spall is the author of ‘Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control’ in which she argues that the Pill is making women sick. Her work on women’s health issues has featured in Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, New York magazine, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Independent, the Washington Post and on BBC and CBC radio. ‘Sweetening the Pill’ is currently being adapted into a documentary film.
At the Women’s Marches held around the world on January 21, there was a connecting theme — women brandished signs saying ‘go with the flow’, ‘keep your rosaries off my ovaries’, ‘viva la vulva’, and ‘we’re here to sync our periods’, illustrated with pictures of uteruses, ovaries, vulvas, vaginas, and depictions of menstrual blood. There were giant knitted uteruses, and women with felt vulva hats. It appeared to be a collective reclamation of female biology, from those who seek to assert ownership, control, and physical force over the bodies of women.
Although women are actively encouraged to hate their bodies from every angle, this seemed a celebratory proclamation of body acceptance and positivity. Instead of feeling shame over their periods, their vaginas, their vulvas — here women were unapologetically, publically, collectively connecting over their mutual experience. Rather than female biology signifying weakness, at the Women’s March that biology was used to signify power.
The messages at the march were a boost to a small but growing movement — one that seeks to educate women about their reproductive anatomy, from cliteracy to the vulva/vagina distinction, and bring menstruation out into the open where it can be normalized and supported, an example of which is the fight to end the tax on tampons. I call it the ‘pro-period’ movement, one that seeks to question and resist the menstrual taboo in every aspect of women’s lives — from the menstrual products we use, to the reproductive healthcare we receive.
I call it pro-period because Western society and culture is fundamentally anti-period. As such, this movement is matched step-by-step with an aggressive campaign to discourage women from establishing body literacy. The symbolism of the march is significant, and yet, without feminists taking women’s reproductive health on as a feminist cause, it risks remaining just symbolic. This would mean addressing the control and ownership over our uteruses and ovaries that we permit the pharmaceutical companies and the medical establishment.
Just one week before the march, the Daily Telegraph reported research showing a significant drop, of 25 per cent, in the sales of tampons and sanitary pads in the last four years, as a direct result of more women choosing to stop their periods with hormonal contraceptive drugs and devices. Government-created campaigns to encourage women to use period-stopping methods of birth control including LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives like the implant) have had the desired impact. Persistent media messaging that presents periods as unnecessary at best; dangerous at worst (as an example, see the New York Times, ‘How to stop your period’ or the Guardian’s Vagina Dispatches ‘Stopping periods‘ episode, both from October 2016) has bolstered this cause.
Anti-period culture is anti-female, and yet many women still see stopping the period as simply a choice. In fact, more women prefer to resist the cultural pressure on them to wear make-up or shave their armpits, than question the coercive campaign to ensure they do not experience periods — which is just as much a part of the patriarchal system.
A gap in body knowledge has been created to be exploited in this way. Few are aware that menstruation is the fifth vital sign of women’s health or that suppressing ovulation long term has potentially serious consequences. Fewer still are aware that the bleeds experienced on the birth control pill are not actually periods, or that the widely accepted wisdom that too many periods are bad for women is actually the theory of one, feminist-hating man (Dr Elsimar Coutinho) who developed and stood to gain financially from the hormonal implant. The doctor’s implant is now seeing a huge increase in popularity, partly due to the proliferation of his agenda as medical fact.
The BBC and the Debrief recently reported on how many young British women suffer the side effects of hormonal contraceptives — including serious mental health issues such as clinical depression. Yet, many women still feel they must endure these side effects. We’re talking more about our periods and the pill, but there’s much invested in preventing women from connecting the dots to think critically about the mass medication of healthy women in order to suppress periods, switch off ovaries, and maintain patriarchal power structures, in personal relationships and politically.
By Holly Grigg-Spall