Sweetening the Pill by Holly Grigg-Spall

2nd Oct 2013

sweetening the pill
The Pill has been lauded as a feminist icon since it burst on to the scene in the sixties, and praised for its role in the women's liberation movement. But with such a profound impact on women's bodies, not limited to closing down the natural menstrual cycle, is The Pill really just prescription patriarchy?

Holly Grigg-Spall exposes the truth about the oral contraceptive pill and asks if this icon of the women’s liberation movement is as liberating for women as it appears.

Let’s get one thing straight, the hormonal contraceptive pill closes down the female body’s natural cycle. Ovulation is suppressed and while women may still bleed once a month, the appearance of blood is the only link with natural menstruation.

It is a false bleed to give women confidence that the pill is still natural. This is the harsh truth as set out in Sweetening the Pill: Or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control.

A woman who hates and fears her own body is docile and a model consumer.The pill has an impact on almost all body functions including energy levels, the immune system, and thyroid and adrenal function, as well as memory, concentration and sleep patterns.

According to Grigg-Spall, half of all women who take this drug have reported side effects such as loss of libido and creativity, depression, anxiety and a general sense of living life “behind a veil.”

So why is it still so popular both as a method of birth control and as a way of controlling conditions such as acne, heavy periods or pre-menstrual symptoms?

Grigg-Spall places the pill firmly within the patriarchal structure. It closes down women’s natural changes throughout the month, appearing to make us more like men.

The male state of being seemingly constant throughout the month is depicted in society as the norm, the female differs from that norm and must therefore be medicated.

The persistent narrative that menstruation is dirty and should be hidden, that PMS is a laughing matter, that the natural ups and downs of the menstrual cycle are justification for oppression is likened to the constant bombardment of images of an unattainable version of female beauty in causing physical self-loathing in women. A woman who hates and fears her own body is docile and a model consumer.

But despite seemingly overwhelming evidence, it is very hard for feminists to criticise the pill. It is still held up as an icon of the women’s liberation movement, releasing women in to the workplace and removing one of the obstacles to being accepted as equal citizens with men.

Feminists have long fought the claim that ‘biology is destiny’ but in order to acknowledge the side effects of the pill, we have to accept that the female biology is different to the male. This is one of the fundamental dilemmas of this issue.

These are all vital discussions to have, the story needs to be told. But where this book falls down is in the telling.

Grigg-Spall extrapolates from her own experiences – and those of the women commenting on her blog – to all women, making sweeping statements with no qualification or challenge.

It is not obvious to which country many of the statistics relate and much of the argument regarding the marketing of the pill is only relevant in the US where brands of contraceptive are marketed directly at consumers.

The structure she has chosen limits the discussion, and many facts and anecdotes often appear shoe-horned in to the argument, and some of the editing is plain shoddy.

Sweetening the Pill highlights some very important issues regarding the hormonal contraceptive pill, but the lack of rigour in the way the information is presented reduces the impact of the ideas.