on 12 September 2013
My God. The first ten pages of this book had me reading it all the way through in one sitting.
"Who am I when I'm not on the Pill?" This is the question in SWEETENING THE PILL, posed in the first chapter, that grabs you by the ovaries, the heart and the mind and won't let go.
While taking Yaz/Yasmin, Holly Grigg-Spall thought she was losing her mind. Her sanity, her work as a writer, and, she thought, everything she held dear was collapsing. She felt a "nothingness," paranoia, rage, loss of interest in sex, and thought she was losing her mind. In delving into the problem with a trusted girlfriend, a doctor who did not dismiss her concerns, groundbreaking books, her then-boyfriend now-husband, and women that had taken to the Internet to air their personal stories, Ms. Grigg-Spall realized that Yaz was wreaking havoc with her body and mind--and yet, even after stopping it for good, the allure of the Pill in general beckoned. The last thing she expected was for pro-choice (which she notes has been coopted, in terms of contraception, to mean pro-Pill) women to pile on her.
Ms. Grigg-Spall has plenty of attitude, wit, and insight and spares no one in the birth control debate, as well she should not--population control advocates, the treadmill of success, our warped commercialized view of sexuality, the patriarchy, pharmaceutical companies, the religious right, the Pill evangelical feminists on the Left who silence any criticism of the Pill's and in particular Yaz's serious emotional and physical side effects. It is refreshing to see Ms. Grigg-Spall take on all comers and argue for a portrait of women that isn't perfect, that allows, nay, encourages dissent. There is a lot to criticize about this drug, Yaz, and hormonal BC as well and the way cultural icons "Om NOM NOM" the Pill and Yaz in particular. The labyrinthine daisy-chain forged by the pharmaceutical companies, society, eugenics, the culture, the success treadmill, even other women (!) gets skewered and dissected here.
"Who am I when I'm not on the Pill?" This is a question the author asks herself. She also comes to the conclusion that she, like many women, is still discovering who she is off birth control, which she took for ten years, including the infamous Yaz, because she became dependent on it. Who the author is now is a fearless, dynamic, take-no-prisoners, yet compassionate voice. She may upset the sexual and social apple cart, but speaking as a Yaz survivor who loathes this drug and distrusts hormonal contraception in general, I think it is long overdue.
The women that have actually lost relationships, jobs, marriages, their own self-worth, and even more, the sense of self that is sacred, to say nothing of their health and wellbeing, while on this drug have been ignored because their stories are 'anecdotal,' treated with all the respect of an email hoax or an urban legend 'old wives' tale'. I would actually have liked more women's stories in the book, and another helping of the author herself. The scholarly and meticulous research and cultural trends are important but, true to the author's contention that we need to listen to women's actual experiences, the stories give faces and life to the research.
This is an important book because it also gives a roadmap for women that are wondering where they go from considering the Pill, taking the Pill, getting off the Pill, rediscovering the reason for their menses. I for one had never been all that enamored with my period (except when it worked), but now I come to understand the reason for ovulation: keeping our fluids in balance, keeping our bodies in balance, whether we have children or not. As much of a hassle as menstruation is, it's better than being silenced and not having someone love you for who you are. It is better than taking a Pill that promises to cure PMDD but makes you feel worse.
Is it desirable for women to make themselves sick by eliminating their own hormonal balance--and in so doing, alter their own characters? Those who say 'biology is not destiny' have no idea of how hormones, proteins, our brains, and our beautifully interlinked systems work. Why is it anti-feminist to say that we shouldn't just put young women on birth control? Why is it anti-feminist to say that Yaz was marketed in a misleading way, which the FDA agrees with? Why are we automatically labeled as abetting the Religious Right (Ms. Grigg-Spall is correct when she says both sides have botched the debate) if we question whether the Pill is healthy? Why does the pro-Pill lobby automatically dismiss women who have major depression on the Pill that disrupts their life badly so that they cannot function and in some cases self-harm or attempt suicide (such as Autumn Plevniak, who tragically succeeded while on a cocktail of Yaz and Accutane) with no prior history of depression (or even if they have!), as "well, she's a headcase anyway, it works for me, it's her fault"? The hypocritical pro-Pill lobby blames women with a ferocity that, had Michelle Bachmann or John Boehner said anything comparable, these politicians would have been attacked with organic cotton tampon blow darts.
The eco-feminists, those who believe that the domination of women is connected to the domination of nature, campaign for everything else that betters our health and our planet such as organic everything, natural cotton tampons, cage-free and free-range and hormone-free chickens, pigs, and cows, a vegetarian or vegan diet, cleaning products from Whole Foods, cruelty-free products, and so many causes. Why, then, do they cheerfully accept that pumping our bodies full of hormones we don't need (and that in the case of drospirenone are especially toxic), no questions asked, to change our cycles and change who we are (silencing us) is as unacceptable as hormone-sick cattle, chickens, and pigs? Are we worth less than cattle? Why will we avoid white sugar/high fructose corn syrup, bad cholesterol and bad fats that have no health value but pump hormones in our bodies that also only have no health value and are detrimental?
Why don't we demand a higher standard of care from the men in our lives (the book notes that Japan, which gives us blow-up dolls and manga with big-eyed childlike women in schoolgirl uniforms, demands that men use condoms to show their devotion to their partner)? Ms. Grigg-Spall's then-boyfriend and now husband (and the other supportive husbands and boyfriends I have read of) had the sense to understand what was going on--in his case, he could see a connection between his battle with cigarettes and her battle with the Pill. (Thumbs up to him.) As Marilyn Monroe once said, "[I]f you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."
There is another aspect to the Pill. It silences conversation between men and women about sex, about taking care of each other, about being able to express our needs and our desires and our concerns. If you want to get a sense of who your partner is, buy this book and give it to him. If it starts an honest conversation and he is concerned about you (and your children if you have them), he's okay.
SWEETENING THE PILL has opened the debate (although there is no debate for me), which is what we needed. It also makes the thought provoking point that we allow ourselves to be controlled by others' expectations, sometimes with life-changing consequences.
Finally, those who criticize what women have suffered while on Yaz or on other birth control pills with drospirenone or pills that deliver four periods a year have no clue what it is like to have your sense of self violated, your creativity stifled, your personality altered, blood clots, strokes, major depression, and all the life-threatening conditions. One prays that they never experience this suffering, but even if they reject us, we will continue to speak out without fear.
Because that is who we are when we're not on the Pill.