by Brigid Taylor
Recently The Atlantic published an article by Alana Massey entitled, “Women Don’t NEED to Have Periods.” Massey suggests that menstrual bleeding is unnecessary for women in the age of hormonal birth control which can effectively suppress the menstrual cycle with no adverse health problems. There are many ways the issues in this article could be addressed, but my response focuses on the way the ideas presented here further a misogynistic view of the female body.
Wait, what? Misogynistic? No the pill is all about female empowerment…right? And since the only thing that periods are good for is the ability to get pregnant, why do women who do not want to get pregnant need to bleed? Why can’t we just “fix” this problem?
Ok let’s back up a little bit. Before we go any further, we should probably start by talking about why we have (and need) the menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle is actually an important tool in evaluating woman’s overall health. In her article, “5 Facts About Menstrual Suppression,” Holly Grigg-Spall, author of Sweetening the Pill: or How we Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control, breaks down some of the most common misconceptions about menstruation and health. Grigg-Spall cites experts in the field of women’s reproductive health who state that regularly experiencing the menstrual cycle positively impacts heart, bone, and breast health. Additional benefits include decreased risks of osteoporosis, breast cancer, cervical cancer, stroke, and heart problems.
But wait, there’s more! Leading women’s health expert Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D. describes how the menstrual cycle is not only a biological process, but a psychological one, “The menstrual cycle governs the flow not only of fluids but of information and creativity. We receive and process information differently at different times in our cycles.” Our energy levels, productivity, creativity, sexual desire…all of these are influenced by where we are in our cycle. If we learn to tune into our own individual cycle, these emotional and hormonal fluctuations become something we can take advantage of, rather than something we feel no control over.
In addition to the flaws in the idea that we only need periods to make babies, Massey’s assertion that it is perfectly safe to suppress your menstrual cycle through synthetic hormones is extremely problematic. Grigg-Spall notes that in cases where the menstrual cycle is suppressed through taking birth control pills back-to-back, “…doing this consistently leads to a woman taking 25 percent more synthetic hormones into her body every year and therefore her risk of suffering the documented adverse effects, from depression to blood clots, is increased significantly.” Okay, but what about IUDs? Massey’s article mainly discusses the use of the intra-uterine device Mirena for suppressing the menstrual cycle. So how safe is Mirena?
According to the Mayo Clinic, possible side effects of Mirena include breast tenderness, weight gain, changes in mood, acne, ovarian cysts, and pelvic pain or cramping. Of course amenorrhea (lack of periods) is a possible side effect, but irregular bleeding is as well. Now those side effects sound pretty straight forward right? Not great, but also not life threatening.
Unfortunately, there are much more dangerous outcomes associated with Mirena that have led to an ever increasing number of lawsuits. These include extrauterine migration of the IUD, perforation of the uterus, vaginal hemorrhage, complications that arise when surgery is necessary to remove the IUD, and pelvic inflammatory disease. The Mirena Lawsuit Center notes that, “To date the FDA has received an estimated 45,000 adverse event reports involving the device.”
Alright, that was a little heavy. Take a moment to process this and then come back. And when you come back you’re probably going to be asking, “Wait where’s the misogyny? This seems like it’s just all pro-period, anti-Mirena! Where does the women-hating come in?”
If that’s what you’re thinking, that actually makes total sense! In a patriarchal society where male privilege runs rampant, it can actually be hard to identify misogyny when we see it. So let’s look for it in the idea of menstrual suppression-it won’t take long!
Massey repeatedly turns to the idea that period suppression allows women to have greater control over their lives. She explains that for some women, circumstances in their family situations and/or careers could be made easier by eliminating their periods. “Periods can be painful and messy, and while they are considered a marker of female identity, there are also social pressures to keep them invisible on account of their ‘ick’ factor. So there are some who find eliminating periods altogether to be their best option.” In truth, she’s right! For some women not having a cycle could potentially benefit them financially, professionally, etc. The option to artificially suppress their cycle should therefore be available to them, along with full informed consent about the potential risks of this decision. This, however, is a solution in the immediate, and such short-term solutions should be used in conjunction with long-term efforts to fix the larger problem. So what’s the larger problem? (I’ll give you a hint, it’s not periods!)
The larger problem is the stigma that surrounds menstruation and the menstrual cycle in general. We must work to normalize the cycle in all aspects of life-at home, in school, in the workplace, in the media, and yes at the doctor’s. As explained above, periods are a normal and healthy part of the female experience. The suggestion that artificially suppressing the cycle is a harmless way to make women’s lives easier furthers the negative cultural view of menstruation.
The attitude that periods are unnecessary, and best got rid of, furthers the disparagement of the female body by making a menstrual cycle out to be the “unnatural state.” Experts at The Centre for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research express their concern that, “…the hype surrounding these new ways of taking hormonal contraceptives is focusing negative ideas about women by making normal menstruation into a problem…Have periods have [sic] become the latest of women’s ‘deficiencies’? Is having regular menstrual flow a ‘Pill deficiency disease?!’” When the technology to eliminate it is available, women who continue to menstruate and even appreciate the cycle become the strange ones.
But it’s more than that. With this attitude women who choose to keep their body’s natural cycle intact are viewed as unreasonable, as they appear to be asking for special treatment. Why don’t they conform and take drugs to alter their bodies? It’s better for them anyway; they don’t have to suffer with the inconvenience and pain! (And the patriarchal society doesn’t have to hear about cycles, risk seeing blood, or horror of horrors, have to give women a day off if they are suffering from difficult cramps!)
This view is very similar to how women are seen when they make other “unconventional” decisions about what to do with their bodies. This includes wanting a childbirth with few interventions in which case many women are told things like, “You’re being high maintenance! The doctor knows what’s good for you!” Breastfeeding is another example as many women who choose to breastfeed face questions like “Why do you want to go through unnecessary pain?”* or “Why should we give you extra time to pump when you could give your baby formula?” Please note I am not at all condemning women who cannot have or do not want intervention-free births, or women who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. Rather I am condemning a society where women have to fight for the right to follow their body’s own natural rhythms and purposes.
We live in a society where menstrual suppression will not help women long-term, but will actually strengthen the patriarchal system in which we live. It is a dangerous lie to say that taking potentially harmful pills, or using potentially life-threatening devices to suppress our natural healthy cycles can better our position in society. The option to suppress the cycle should always be available to women who choose it, but we are only hurting ourselves if that is all we do. There is a curse on women alright, but it’s not periods. No, the curse on women is that we live in a society that is disgusted and terrified of our bodies. Hopefully, with time and dedicated effort from both women and men, this curse will prove to be reversible.
*It is a myth that women should have pain with breastfeeding. If you are experiencing pain with breastfeeding, please see a lactation consultant.