IN May the Food and Drug Administration approved a new birth control pill, Lybrel. It is as effective at preventing pregnancy as the other pills already out there (about 98 percent) but boasts one advantage: Women who take it will never get their periods.
Lybrel is landing on pharmacy shelves this month. And now war has been declared on menstruation.
Already the first few volleys in this battle have been exchanged. Gird yourselves, women, for a barrage of advertising and research highlighting the debilitating effects of periods and the joys of menstrual suppression.
After all, periods and their mood swings are bad for family values (who wants to have a stay-at-home mom when she’s so darn cranky?), bad for women’s health (women were never meant to menstruate so much; natural selection designed their bodies for back-to-back pregnancies and breast-feeding), bad for the fashion industry (how can beige be the new black if women won’t wear it all month?) and bad for the economy (everybody knows women take to their beds at the merest whisper of “cramps,” fueling the nation’s employee-absentee rate). Western civilization, it seems, hinges on our ability to wrangle our messy cycles to the ground and stomp ’em out once and for all.
In a presentation by Lybrel’s maker, Wyeth, to investors and analysts last October, Dr. Ginger D. Constantine, the company’s therapeutic director for women’s health, laid the groundwork. Citing company-backed studies, she reported that menstruating women feel less effective at work and take more sick days. Not only that, but they don’t exercise and they wear dark clothes more often, she said.
Suddenly, news articles are weighing the pros and cons of our monthly cycles. And while it’s great that the American news media are, for a moment, challenging the culture of concealment that typically surrounds the topic of menstruation, history shows that such debates are, well, cyclical.
It seems every time women start demanding access to this or that, there is a rash of studies “proving” that menstrual cycles render them unsuitable. In the 1870s and 1880s, when Americans were debating the value of higher education for women, a flurry of research asserted that women’s cycling constitutions made them unfit for sustained mental and physical labor. Henry Maudsley, a British doctor, reflected popular opinion — dressed up as “scientific truth” — when he observed that menstruation doomed girls to failure in college.
Comparing boys and girls, Maudsley insisted in an article, was “not a question of two bodies and minds that are in equal physical condition, but of one body and mind capable of sustained and regular hard labor, and of another body and mind which one quarter of each month, during the best years of life, is more or less sick and unfit for hard work.” Maudsley’s definition of “hard work” was unclear: no one worried that the fragile cook, servant girl or farmer’s wife was being overtaxed during any time of the month.
After women pressed ahead, attended college and excelled in the halls of learning, the debate about menstrual cycles shifted from their suitability for higher education to their suitability for public life in general. When the suffragists asked to participate in the political process, experts retaliated with more research proving that women belonged in the domestic sphere; menstruation figured prominently among the reasons.
Once women won the right to vote in 1920, the menstruation-equals-inadequacy debate ebbed for a while. In fact, two decades later, new proof arrived that women were perfectly fit and capable — even when bleeding — and therefore should step right up and join the war effort. When Rosie the Riveter was needed in American factories and recruits in the Women’s Army Corps, the War Department produced films telling women of the abundance of scientific evidence proving periods are no big deal.
A 1942 American propaganda film, “Strictly Personal,” for example, coached novice Wacs on nutrition, rest and exercise. In one scene, a soldier lies listlessly on her cot — “I can’t drill today, I feel unwell,” she whines — but a fellow Wac tells her to buck up. And a voiceover “doctor” explains: “That’s Victorian stuff. And so is that trash about nerves and sensibility during this period.” Menstruation, he says, “is no excuse for absenteeism and self-coddling.”
But then the war ended, and Rosie and the Wacs were retired — and shown a fresh batch of studies proving that children need their moms at home, that the workplace is potentially hazardous to women’s unborn children and that women’s cycles make them less efficient workers than men. By 1953, the affliction premenstrual syndrome turned up in the medical literature.
Someone cynical might suggest that research highlighting menstruation’s distressing consequences bubbles to the surface every time the public feels anxious over women’s expanding roles. (Say, the possibility that there might be a menopausal woman in the White House — and yes, you can’t win for losing here, given that our periods allegedly drive us to distraction and their cessation does the same.) So take today’s hoopla over menstrual suppression with a grain of ibuprofen.
While it may be good news for the 8 percent of women who have debilitating periods (a constellation of symptoms known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder), the rest of us may be puzzled by the fuss. Sure, getting our periods can be a bother sometimes, but after the traumatic moment of menarche — “How can this be happening to me when the sixth-grade pool party is tomorrow and I have no idea where that tampon goes?” — most of us get used to it.
It just is.
This is not a particularly profitable attitude for Wyeth, angling for its share of the $1.7 billion annual American market for birth control pills. It’s also not terribly useful for Barr, which makes Seasonale, an oral contraceptive that reduces women’s periods to once every three months. Nor for Watson, which sells a generic equivalent.
So what’s a poor company to do? Re-conceptualize menstruation as a disease in need of treatment.
And what’s a poor menstruating woman to do? Get cranky with the prophets who offer to cure us of menstruation; who minimize the complex interplay of hormones and their many roles in our bodies; who gloss over the still unknown long-term effects of menstrual suppression; who promise that cycle-free women are better lovers, mothers, workers.
Or just don’t buy it.
Karen Houppert is the author of “The Curse: Confronting the Last Unmentionable Taboo, Menstruation.”