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22 January 2019

For 60 years, women on the pill have had periods just to please the Pope. Why am I not surprised?

This week’s news is a blatant example of the way in which patriarchy distorts our understanding of what is in women’s best interests.

By Glosswitch

People ask you the strangest questions when you’re suffering from a life-threatening eating disorder. Such as: “How can I get it, but only for a bit?” and “Why don’t you just have a sandwich?”

The strangest for me, though, was this: “Don’t you miss having periods?” As though the prospect of cramping and bleeding could have lured me back to recovery in a way a tuna melt never could.

I didn’t menstruate at all between the ages of 11 and 21. For me, amenorrhea was a symptom of starvation. The people around me were right to be worried. Even so, I couldn’t help thinking they had an odd way of expressing it.

I missed having a healthy body, one that would have been capable of menstruating, and was thankful when I eventually got it back. But miss periods, in and of themselves? Why should I? Was this really about health or something more – the idea of being a “proper” woman, as opposed to one who used illness as a way of shirking her monthly duties?

I was reminded of this on reading the revelation that countless women have, for the past 60 years, been having monthly bleeds for no reason whatsoever. For decades, women who take the combined contraceptive pill have been advised to follow a regime of 21 days on, 7 days off, in order to experience “withdrawal bleeds” which, while technically not the same as ordinary menstrual periods, certainly feel like them.

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The reason for this has not been women’s health, even though many pill-takers – myself included – have naturally assumed that skipping periods is inherently harmful. It turns out that John Rock, one of the gynaecologists who worked on the development of the pill in the sixties, was hoping to make it more palatable to the Catholic Church. If women could still be seen to be having “natural” monthly cycles, then perhaps they could be forgiven for bailing out on unwanted pregnancies. The Pope was having none of it. Nonetheless, the advice to women didn’t change, even if not all of them followed it.

Years ago I shared a house with a woman who took her pills all the time and therefore avoided bleeds. I admit to having been deeply mistrustful of this. Surely you couldn’t just skip that part of having a female body? Surely there’d be some payback somewhere down the line, not unlike my own increased risk of osteoporosis following anorexia?

I imagined litres of poisonous excess blood building up inside my housemate. I considered myself a feminist, hardly someone who believed women should be punished for failing to commit their bodies to reproductive cycles; yet somehow I’d absorbed the idea that the body itself would only “forgive” you for avoiding menstruation if you were pregnant or breastfeeding. (After all, everything I’d read about the menopause suggested that even anything gained by the natural cessation of periods would be lost several times over by mood swings, hot flushes and brain fog; Mother Nature – or God’s – final joke at women’s expense.)

It’s easy to be appalled at the degree to which patriarchal beliefs, religious prejudice and conservative morality inform not just the medical advice handed down to women, but how we understand our own bodies, regardless of whether we give credence to the misogynist fetishisation of female pain as both natural and deserved. (I, for one, do not.) This week’s news about the pill is a blatant example of the way in which patriarchy distorts our understanding of what is in women’s best interests. This could then lead us to ask where else the promotion of “women’s health” might be a question, not of strength and well-being, but of normalisation – of making a woman “fit” for a society in which she is expected to render specific services.

I don’t think this is always clear. With so many issues concerning female reproductive lives – the use of pain relief in childbirth, the rise in the number of c-sections, the drive to increase uptake in breastfeeding – it can be incredibly hard to separate the serious, evidence-based advice from the ideology. You can take efforts to inform yourself, but the prejudice is all around you. It can be inside you, too.

I gave birth to my children without pain relief. I tell myself this was not ideological. I do not believe some women are “too posh to push”; I do not believe a woman must suffer in order to bond with her child; I do not believe labour pains are Eve’s curse. I tell myself I was fortunate not to experience complications, and that was all.

And yet I wonder – is there not some part of me, the part that is surprised women can “get away” with not bleeding every month, that is also primed to believe, deep down, that female pain is good? Am I absolutely sure that the way I gave birth was best for my body? The more I read, the less sure I am which is the more patriarchal – the veneration of “natural” childbirth or the excessive pathologisation of female reproductive experiences. It can be impossible to know whom to trust.

For this reason, it can be a relief when at least one myth is exposed. “How can it be,” asks Professor John Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health, “that for 60 years, we have been taking the pill in a sub-optimal way because of this desire to please the Pope?”

Because, I think, it goes beyond a single area of patriarchal control. It’s less about a desire to placate a specific religion, but a broader culture which makes lies about female bodies acceptable as long as they reinforce greater “truths”. We end up thinking we’re meant to bleed. We prioritise being “normal” above being comfortable. We might be getting there, but we’re still a long way from knowing what’s really good for us.