After reading Holly Grigg-Spall’s most recent book Sweetening the Pill : or How We Got Hooked on Hormonal Birth Control I was left feeling like I had just read a cautionary tale. The book is a well researched report about the birth control pill complete with numerous stories from women who have used the pill and had extremely negative side effects.
The most alarming aspect of this book is the devastating impact that the pill has on these women and the pervasive nature of those effects. The scariest thing is that for the most part, unless the woman has an obviously extreme and jarringly negative experience soon after she starts taking it, she is likely to continue on the pill for several months or years before realizing that the pill is what is actually causing the problem.
Holly highlights that the very nature of the pill is basically the “set it and forget it” approach, and as a result women who take the pill aren’t thinking about it. The side effects are so readily downplayed by medical professionals that women are virtually never properly advised about the very possible side effects of the pill. This means that women can be suffering from these symptoms for years and the whole time be attributing it to their own inability to cope with life’s challenges instead of even considering that the pill may be at the root of their troubles. This means that only when women go off the pill do they realize that the pill was at the root of their emotional and physical symptoms.
Throughout the book many women describe their experiences while on the pill and below is a list of the some of the side effects they experienced:
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Feeling detached from life, described as feeling like you’re living life behind a veil
- Loss of libido or loss of interest in sex
- Anxiety and/or paranoia, described as a constant state of dread or feeling like something terrible is always about to happen
- Fits of unreasonable rage that lead to arguments
- Panic Attacks
- Chronic fatigue
- Sore, swollen breasts
- Urinary tract infections
- Hair loss
- Muscle weakness
- Sore and bleeding gums
- Increased risk of developing blood clots
- Increased risk of certain cancers
By detailing the broad range of symptoms that the pill is responsible particularly in the emotional realm Holly is uncovering the true nature and purpose of a woman’s hormonal cycles. She questions the modern day assumption that the menstrual cycle only serves a purpose when women are trying to conceive. She imparts an important perspective that the menstrual cycle and the corresponding hormonal cycle play a role in more than just fertility, but it also plays an important role in many aspects that determine the overall functioning of a woman’s body from her emotions to her sleep patterns to the functioning of her immune system and even the way her body assimilates and stores vitamins and nutrients. She discusses the important role that having a regular menstrual cycle plays in a woman’s overall health, a topic that is clearly not emphasized or well understood in our current medical model of care.
She highlights the very nature of the patriarchal male-centered culture that we live in, and the role that the birth control pill has played in attempting to subdue the female body into a body that operates more like it’s male counterpart. She discusses menstruation, and how menstruation itself is a marker of the way that women are inherently different to men and how the pill has served to medicate women to make us more like the standard male model. In her own words “Neither pregnancy nor fertility should be viewed as an illness that requires treatment with pharmaceuticals or surgery” 
What I love about this book is that it brings to light an extremely important conversation that is happening about women’s health, fertility and contraception. She highlights the fact that many women are unsatisfied with the level of care and education they receive when it comes to their fertility and the contraceptive options that they are provided with. It is common for women to experience side effects from hormonal contraceptives, and it is also common for women to be switched to different hormonal contraceptive options because of those side effects. Holly identifies a serious problem related to the lack of complete and accurate information about the possible side effects of the pill that women are provided with. Many women suffer with these terrible side effects for years because they believe there is simply something wrong with them. Had they been provided with adequate information about the possible side effects they could more readily identify that the pill may be causing their symptoms.
If you are looking for a detailed chapter on the benefits of the pill or detailed testimonials of women who are happy with their experiences on the pill you won’t find it here. Although it could be argued that Holly didn’t put forth both sides of the “debate” I feel that the perspective she shares is an important one. We all know that everyone’s experience on the pill isn’t going to be the same, but that doesn’t mean we can keep pretending that there isn’t a significant percentage of women who have extremely negative experiences with the pill. This book also highlights a particularly alarming reality which is that women who start taking hormonal contraceptives in their early teens wouldn’t even know they are experiencing bad side effects because they would have nothing to compare it to having been on hormones from such a young age. Perhaps they would just go on thinking that they are just sad and anxious people because no one ever told them that the pill could actually cause them to feel that way.
Another thing that Holly does wonderfully in this book is that she critically examines the viewpoint that many of us take for granted living in a North American Society – that the pill is the only effective option when it comes to birth control. Not only does she cite examples of other countries with low birth rates and low hormonal contraceptive use, but she discusses many other methods of birth control including condoms, diaphragms, and the Fertility Awareness Method to name a few. She calls into question the whole myth that our society couldn’t function without the pill, and shows real examples of how effective non-hormonal methods actually are in preventing pregnancy.
Overall I would say that this is a book that women and men of all ages should be reading. 80% of American women have used some form of hormonal contraceptive method at some point in their lives . For that reason I feel that this is an extremely important book. If for no other reason than the fact that when you find yourself in a doctor’s office and end up getting a prescription for the pill, he or she will not be providing you with as detailed an explanation of the side effects that you could and most likely will end up experiencing when compared to the information you will receive in this book.
Have you read Sweetening the Pill? I would love to hear your thoughts on the book. Perhaps you have a different take on the book? Whatever the case I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment below and let me know what you thought of the book!