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Waking Up From the Pill

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Some versions of the Pill even reduce acne, soften the experience of painful periods, and significantly decrease the chance of endometrial and ovarian cancer (when a woman ovulates less, her cells divide less). This October, Bayer, the biggest maker of contraceptives in the world, even came out with Beyaz, a Pill that includes the same folic acid that women who are trying to conceive are supposed to take every day to reduce the incidence of some birth defects—just in case the Pill doesn’t work. But forget a male Pill: With the high cost of clinical trials, the lack of interest in upending cultural norms, and the need to make a pill with zero side effects (after all, this Pill is being taken by a man), this formulation hasn’t gone much beyond forays in the mid-sixties, when a male Pill, tested in Oregon prisons, turned men’s eyeballs red when combined with alcohol.

With the pill’s relative safety today, it’s suprising that so many women still complain of side effects. Women’s blogs like Jezebel are swarming with women who attribute a whole host of side effects and medical problems to the Pill, most of which are most likely unrelated (though there may be some loss of libido with the Pill, which ties up the body’s free testosterone). Earlier this decade, when women were offered the chance to eliminate menstruation with extended-cycle pills like Seasonale and Seasonique, which promise the visit of “Aunt Flo” only four times a year, not many women chose to take it. (The period a woman gets on the Pill is artificial—it’s just the withdrawal of the Pill’s hormones—and there is no medical reason for it.) That’s amazing: Who would have ever imagined that women would turn down the chance to abolish periods?

The reason for this may be that women are half-consciously rebelling against the artificiality of the Pill’s regime. Removal from one’s true biological processes was more appealing in the Mad Men era, when machines were going to save the world and pills could fix everything, even the ennui of housewives. But for the wheatgrass-and-yoga generation, there’s something about taking a pill every day that’s insulting to one’s sense of self, as an accomplished, adult woman. “I feel like I’ve gotten a message over the years that the less I have to do with the nitty-gritty biological stuff of being a woman, the better, and that’s a weird message,” says Sophia, 35, who was on the Pill for fourteen years. “In my ninth-grade health class, I remember the teacher saying, ‘You can get pregnant any day of the month, so always use protection,’ and I kind of knew that wasn’t true, but because I was on the Pill, I never really cared about finding out the right answer. The Pill takes a certain knowledge away from you, and that knowledge is empowering.”

The Pill didn’t create the field of infertility medicine, but it turned it into an enormous industry.

Consequently, a cult market has cropped up catering to women in the process of rediscovering their bodies when they go off the Pill. There are ovulation kits, though they carry a hefty price tag ($30 for a pack of seven tests, while Viagra is covered by health insurance—how revolting), and Whole Foods carries a set of plastic beads with colors that indicate when a woman is fertile and when not, called CycleBeads, a collaboration between a private company and Georgetown’s Institute for Reproductive Health. CycleBeads use a twelve-day “fertile window,” because even though an egg is able to be fertilized for only 24 hours, sperm can last up to five days inside a woman’s reproductive tract—though a more realistic estimate of a woman’s true fertility window is more like three days, certainly for women whose fertility is declining because of age.

But the most popular new natural method is the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM)—a more sophisticated version of the rhythm method—which was popularized by fertility guru Toni Weschler, a mellow, soft-spoken 55-year-old from Seattle. “Oh, I’m not a guru,” she says, calling from the West Coast. “I’m just a regular Josephina.” Weschler doesn’t have any kids—“I am an unadulterated weenie,” she says, giggling, “I can’t deal with a splinter, so I don’t know how I would handle taking care of a kid who banged his head”—but she’s devoted herself to helping women start their families or just get in touch with their bodies. In some ways, her 400-page book Taking Charge of Your Fertility has become the Our Bodies, Ourselves for our time. Alternately silly, whimsical, and exhaustingly specific, the book was published fifteen years ago and is ranked higher by customers on Amazon than all other books except the third and fourth Harry Potters.

Weschler’s method is precise, though it requires some organization. Every day, women have to take their temperature first thing in the morning with a basal body thermometer and then monitor their “cervical mucus,” which, in addition to being a great name for a riot-grrrl group, is one of the best signals of impending ovulation (monitoring your “cervical position,” which Weschler advises doing in a squatting position, is optional). All this information is written down on “the chart,” a piece of paper with a series of boxes that looks like a primitive Excel document. Cervical mucus (or fluid, the word that Weschler prefers) means that estrogen has risen dramatically and ovulation is about to occur. A rise in temperature tells a woman that she has ovulated. A sudden drop means a period is about to begin.


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