I’m always a little suspicious when our current FDA, which has been on a mission to make birth control hard for women to get, makes a move in the direction of birth control. But, like Tracy Clark-Flory, I can’t help but think it’s a good thing that they’re reining in those annoying ads for Yaz that are the worst offenders in the art of advertising birth control pills as anything but pregnancy prevention, a tendency that Sarah Haskins has brilliantly skewered.
It’s a fascinating thing, because it’s clear the marketers are afraid of offending audiences with the unholy suggestion that women take the birth control pill mainly so they can have sex without those all-important “consequences”. That the birth control pill can be used to rein in miserable periods has become its excuse for existing, even amongst feminists. Rare is the thread underneath a post anywhere about the right’s attempts to prevent women from using birth control that you get more than 10 comments in before someone pulls the, “But there’s MEDICAL reasons to take the pill. I have cramps/bleeding/etc.” I know they’re trying to help, but it does reinforce the notion that preventing pregnancy isn’t a legitimate medical necessity. Plus, anyone who’s lived in heavy Catholic territory knows that every single Catholic girl under a certain age on the pill just had really bad cramps, you know. The birth control is just a happy side effect and god totally can’t get mad. (Disco Ball bless doctors willing to say that any teenager who wants the pill has a medical condition. It’s not far from the truth—the severity of cramps and bleeding when you’re a teenager will lead one to wonder why nature hates young women in the first years of post-pubescent life.) Ads like these Yaz ones reinforce this squeamishness, as Tracy notes:
The first, which stopped running in 2007, starts by telling us: “We all know that birth control pills are 99 percent effective and can give you shorter, lighter periods. But did you know there’s a Pill that could do more? ” Then it shows women giving an upper cut and karate kick to words like “irritability” and “moodiness”— all to a pop remix of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Effective against what? Being a bitch? Because that’s the implication in some of the worst offender ads.
Of course, the problem with the ads is they’re advertising themselves as treatment for a disease that is not something it’s approved to treat, and is also—and I know I’m going to get crap for this—something that doesn’t seem to exist once you apply scientific rigor to it. Carol Tavris wrote about this much more sensitively than I ever could, so I recommend reading the chapter in Mismeasure of Women on how PMS morphed from a very real (and debilitating) disease that affects about 5% of women to a much more hazy and ever-growing set of symptoms that can actually occur any time of the month to any woman, but are assumed to be PMS “lite”. The phrase “PMS” became such a catch-all and it was assumed that most or all menstruating women suffer from it, and now they have an entirely different word for what used to be called PMS—premenstrual dysphoric disorder. No one is skeptical of the 5% of women—and really, 1 in 20 is a lot—that has symptoms that are so severe that they really stand out.
Of course, Tavris’s skeptical chapter on PMS was written in 1992, so maybe things have changed? Maybe there’s newer, better evidence that PMS isn’t a social construct that has the dual functions of medicalizing a normal (if not particularly pleasant) part of life and giving women an out for their undesirable-in-women (but very human) emotions? If you know of it, leave it in the comments. My Googling didn’t turn up any scientifically rigorous studies to read.
Tavris’s argument is that the symptoms that are touted as PMS symptoms are a mish-mash of just hormonal fluctuations that you have every right to treat if they make you uncomfortable, but aren’t exactly a disease, and also behaviors that are common to the human condition, but considered undesireable in women, which compels women who exhibit them and the people around them to write off their behavior as stemming from hormones, not from genuinely felt emotions. Studies she cites show, for instance, that irritability didn’t tie to menstruation in any consistent way in women who felt they were PMS sufferers. The Yaz commercial points to this unpleasant conclusion, as does the lists of symptoms found all over the internet, as you can see in the ad. Call it the balloons of bitchiness ad:
I’m often irritable and fatigued. I don’t know anyone who isn’t at times, but women especially seem to suffer and I blame the second shift as much as anything.
* Mood changes (e.g., crying for no reason, depression, anxiety, anger, sadness or irritability)
* Changes in mental functioning (inability to concentrate or remember)
* Changes in sex drive (increased or decreased libido)
* Upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation
* Difficulty sleeping
* Fluid retention/bloating
* Breast tenderness
* Joint or muscle pain
* Food cravings (especially for carbohydrates, chocolate and other sweets)
* Weight gain
Of these, if I remember correctly, breast tenderness and bloating are pretty well-established, scientifically speaking, and it makes sense. But some of this stuff is almost funny. Your sex drive goes up OR down. It’s only PMS if it bothers your partner, I guess. Which is my point. The list of PMS symptoms, especially the ones singled out by commercials like the Yaz one, corresponds remarkably well to the list of “Thou shalt nots” for women in our culture if they don’t want to be called a bitch. Having a big appetite, snapping at people who irritate you, any weight gain at all, being upset when it’s inconvenient for others—if you’re a man, these are your privileges (to an extent, with the exception of weight gain past a certain point). If you’re a woman, well, it’s not your fault you were out of line. It was your hormones, thank god.
Again, it’s crystal clear that a percentage of women have severe, debilitating symptoms. But I question a society that redefines reasonable shows of anger or sadness, occasional desires to just dig in and eat, and feeling horny or not when it’s inconvenient to men as a disease so that we can dismiss the real person behind these feelings. Moreover, I can’t help but point out that PMS is a go-to excuse for sexists seeking to deprive women of power. How many jokes did you hear about Hillary Clinton’s PMS during the primaries, even though she’s probably not had a period in many years? And how come we don’t hear them when it comes to Sarah Palin, even though she’s always cuddling living evidence that she’s still fertile? I argue it’s because “PMS” is a code word in our culture for “disobedient woman”.
I always feel guilty being a PMS skeptic, because I have nothing but sympathy for women who feel relief being able to avoid being a bitch and relabel themselves as someone who deserve sympathy because they have a physical problem. Many a time has my period been the scapegoat for a cookie consumed or a stress headache it was inappropriate to feel in the face of demands of effortless perfection. It’s so tempting that even women I know on the pill—which cures PMS, doesn’t it?—lay claim to symptoms, and I include myself. But the dangers are increasingly apparent to me, both in that it’s used to dismiss women as equals to men, and also that it gives our culture an excuse to dismiss women’s desires and feelings.
You know, plus it gives drug manufacturers one more excuse to obscure the fact that yes, women use contraception for contraception.