Is Biology Destiny? Being Female and Hormonal Birth Control

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What does it feel like to be female?

Why is discussion of female biology so controversial?

How does “biology is not destiny” thinking and anti-essentialism impact how we think about being female?

In a blog post I wrote some years back titled ‘Beyond Female’  I asked those  questions. It would later became the catalyst for my forthcoming book ‘Sweetening the Pill or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control.’ Over the years, I had come to realize discussing biology, and specifically female biology, was a very contentious issue mired in the politics of the “biology is not destiny” mantra of mainstream feminism. The notion that biology is not destiny impacts how we view birth control and as such it precludes the very mention of any potential dangers associated with hormonal contraception. What follows here is an excerpt from my book with some additional text specifically for Hormones MatterTM, where I explore what it means to be female and the role the pill plays in that discussion.

Female Biology is Important

In order for us to be able to honestly and openly discuss that the pill negatively impacts women it must be acknowledged that female biology is important. Such a discussion cannot avoid the claim that female bodies are different from male bodies.

By arguing that a drug changes female biology and negatively impacts mood specifically, it must be admitted that our experience of life is connected to our biology. It is necessarily claimed that who we are is linked to our biology. To say that the ovulatory cycle, a specifically female bodily system, can not be shut down and ignored without serious repercussion, because it is vitally important to women’s health, is to run the risk of inciting the furor of those who feel they have fought long and hard to wrestle down and defeat the connection between women and their bodies. Such statements are controversial. Even using the word ‘female’ can be contentious today.

In regards to the pill, we need to talk about “women” and “femaleness” because this is integral to how and why the pill came to exist and why it is still taken by so many women. To say that the pill can change the way a woman feels by meddling with her biology reads as anti-feminist. It is also anti-feminist to not take women at their word and validate their personal experience by acknowledging it to be right and true.

Marketing the Pill – Beyond Femaleness

Taking the pill might be seen as an act of trying to get beyond femaleness. As femaleness in our culture is understood in the negative, escaping its confines is good and progressive. Any dislike we develop of being female and of having a female body is rooted in the history of female bodies being seen as problematic and in need of male control.

This drug is not just birth control; it is, as a Yaz tagline once explained “beyond birth control.”

Taking these drugs is about being ‘beyond female.’ Female is not good, female is not something you want, female needs to be controlled, influenced, changed and organized into something neater, easier and less frightening to you and those around you. When we take the pill we shut down the interior indicators of our femaleness. The exterior remains and it is this that makes it acceptable. In actuality, the pill makes women more physically attractive within the boundaries of our Western patriarchal capitalist culture. We are free of messy periods, we may have clearer skin, be slimmer, we may have bigger breasts, and we are supposedly rid of troublesome PMS.

The former YazXpress area of Bayer’s promotional Yaz website asked women to ‘Get with the program!’ Women taking or interested in taking Yaz were able to sign up for an “insider’s guide to Yaz, fashion, music and style.” The articles in this guide were co-created by the magazine editors at Elle and Cosmopolitan, the pages of which frequently feature print adverts for birth control brands. Yaz was associated with an affluent, glamorous way of life.

Taking Yaz would lead to the life of an attractive, confident ‘Sex And The City’ type of woman. Coolness, sexiness, modernity and glamor were linked to taking this brand.

In 2009 Bayer took on Lo Bosworth, star of The Hills, a popular Los Angeles-based reality show about a group of twenty-something women aspiring to make it in Hollywood, as a spokeswoman for Yaz in Canada. Of her support for the drug, Bosworth remarked, “As a ‘Gen Yer’ working in the entertainment industry, I need to be disciplined. I need to make sure I’m taking care of myself so nothing interrupts my day.”

Plastic Surgery versus the Pill

Although certain procedures have entered the mainstream in the US, women who have plastic surgery can come up against much criticism. Discussion circles around ideas of women taking plastic surgery choices too far, getting obsessed with making changes, making choices based on their insecurities or in response to difficult experiences such as the failing career and the bad break up. A woman who chooses to undergo plastic surgery is choosing to change her body. She is exerting control over her body. She is choosing to be ‘beyond’ human through changing her very physicality. She is choosing to not age or not submit to what her genes, her biology, have given her.

How does plastic surgery factor under the women’s liberation message of “my body, my choice” and why is so much said about the psychological and social impacts of this choice?

Why are people who have lots of plastic surgery a concern, but not people who take a drug to shut down their ovulatory cycle, stop their periods and ‘perfect’ their bodies from the inside out?

Environmental Estrogens

We are used to seeing labels for “BPA-free” plastics as we have become more aware of the synthetic estrogens in many everyday plastic products. One study shows seventy percent of items made of plastic leach chemicals that act like estrogen.

The perfected body, as our ideology teaches, is not female but male. If we shut down the essential biological center of femaleness, the primary sexual characteristics, then can we say that women on the pill are still “female”? The mythology of the pill reveals how femininity is valued within our society. Women on the pill still have their secondary sexual characteristics. We understand judgment and valuation of our femininity is directly correlated with our appearance, significantly our attractiveness. Women who are not attractive by the Western cultural standards have their femaleness questioned, as do women who have less defined visual secondary sexual characteristics, such as smaller breasts or a wider waistline or shorter legs. The ideal body in this age of plastic surgery has exaggerated exterior signs of femininity.

Legitimate Concerns For Oral Contraceptives

In a piece for the Vice magazine website, porn actress Stoya writes on her experience choosing a birth control method. She admits she feels hormonal contraceptives are the best choice for an actress having sex with men but states, “the pill and I don’t seem to get along well.” After suffering with side effects in her teens Stoya had not considered using the pill again until she began performing in scenes with men. She started taking the latest brand, “Four months into taking Yaz, I was miserable. I bled profusely the whole time. Instead of migraines once or twice a month, I had them multiple times a week. I had intense mood swings and was constantly dizzy. I had planned on giving it another one or two months, hoping that my body would adjust, and then I fainted while waiting in line at the bank.”

She came off Yaz and four years later decided to try Ortho Tricyclen Lo, but only lasted three months. She now takes Loestrin 24 Fe and still experiences continuous bleeding and mood swings but describes how pleased she is with one particular side effect – an increase in the size of her breasts, “Dragging myself out of bed became a herculean effort, and the idea of showering or brushing my teeth was beyond my abilities. Everything felt tragic and hopeless. My only redeeming qualities were my tits. They were by no means giant hooters, but they were noticeably fuller, which was pretty cool. I started to think hormonal birth control was a patriarchal plot to keep women down by rendering us completely loony. The question, “How can we ever break the glass ceiling, if we can’t stop crying?” actually came out of my mouth. I still feel nuts, but hey… at least this B-cup kind of fits.”

Stoya has self-awareness and insight into her situation but she sacrifices her health and well-being partly, it seems, because she’s not aware of the alternatives or feels they are off-limits to her. She wryly jokes about her predicament.

Female Sexuality

A woman on the pill is likely to experience low libido and will certainly feel some detachment from her sexuality. The feeling of sexuality is different from female sexuality, but is vitally important, as it is personal to women and separate from their relationships to men. Not feeling sexual could lead to a desire to look exaggeratedly sexual and to appear and behave very sexually in an act of over-compensation. Such a desire can be fulfilled in part through plastic surgery.

The Blame Game – On Being Hormonal

We support modifying and suppressing our bodily functions with science to perfect our faulty bodies even when we are generally healthy and well, and even when the notion of what it means to be faulty is so spurious. When experiencing the side effects from hormonal contraceptives women have a tendency to blame what they view as their own overly hormonal, unpredictable, difficult bodies that in reacting negatively to these drugs are behaving badly. It is their bodies that are not good enough for the drugs.

Medical Marketing and Birth Control

Even if we are not ill, science is making us better. We are becoming better humans, better women. The pill is no longer about birth control; it is about being a better, improved woman. It is about moving beyond our femaleness, about asserting loudly that biology is not destiny; but should it be?

Pharmaceutical companies move the target constantly from birth control to menstruation suppression, from acne control to mood control and in so doing they are betraying their motivations. By medicalizing the normal physiology of the female body, and saying overtly that it needs to be controlled and improved upon they are betraying the foundations of pill promotion. If we believe we should get beyond our femaleness we are accepting that women’s bodies are bad and need to be made good. The consumer economy is crafty; it will always find an avenue for assimilation. The pharmaceutical companies are listening at the door to our presumed post-feminist talk. What do you think?

About the Author: Holly Grigg-Spall is a writer and activist. Her work has featured in the Washington Post and the UK Times and Independent newspapers. She has contributed to re:Cycling, the F-Bomb, Bedside Manners, Ms. magazine’s blog, and Bitch, amongst others. You can find out more about her forthcoming book ‘Sweetening the Pill’ and documentary project at Sweetening the Pill, on Holly’s Facebook page or by following Holly on twitter: @hollygriggspall.


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Hormones MatterTM is conducting research on the use patterns and side effects associated with oral contraceptives – the birth control pill. If you have used and/or are currently using oral contraceptives as a birth control option, please take this important, anonymous survey. The Oral Contraceptives Survey.

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Holly Grigg-Spall is the author of "Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked On Hormonal Birth Control." She is a consulting producer on the documentary inspired by her book that is currently in production, with director Abby Epstein and executive producer Ricki Lake. Holly is a freelance writer who currently works as a writer and consultant for two women's health-centric companies - Daysy and FLO Living - as well as producing articles for the likes of the Guardian and Marie Claire. Holly's work has recently featured in Vogue, the Washington Post, Broadly, the BBC and CBC.

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