I haven’t had a period in eight years and I feel great about it.
I started taking Seasonique when I was eighteen, after the closest thing my mother and I have ever had to a sex talk. (She looked at me shortly before I left for college and said, “You should go on birth control.” We haven’t discussed the matter since.) Periods only once every three months? It was a dream.
I hate being on my period perhaps more than the average woman does. I am a nervous wreck and a control freak on the best of days and there’s nothing that gets my hackles up like the experience of bleeding uncontrollably from my vagina for several days. I invariably destroy a pair of underwear every cycle — as a teenager, I had a closetful of stained panties that cold-water soaking couldn’t save — because pads don’t actually catch blood like they catch blue liquid on television commercials and because I hate tampons. When I wear a tampon, all I can think about is the fact that there’s a foreign object in one of my orifices. I can feel it. Like a little time bomb that’s going to explode and give me Toxic Shock Syndrome. So I wear pads instead, which doesn’t do much for my chronic case of VPL, but at least I’m not concerned that I’m going to die because I fell asleep with a fabric tube jammed up my catcher’s mitt.
So when my gynecologist mentioned that, if I wanted, I could skip the placebo week at the end of my birth control cycle and start my next pack of pills immediately after finishing the first, I was psyched. She didn’t make a big deal out of it — “It’s not medically necessary to have a period,” she told me.
It seemed like a no-brainer. I went home and looked it up, found Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating piece on the subject. I stopped taking my placebo pills and I haven’t taken them since. And in the intervening eight years, I have been continuously surprised by how the world reacts to this. I’ve argued with actual doctors whose diplomas don’t look fake about whether I should be having a period or not. To my female friends — and to my boyfriends and partners — I often feel like an oracle. So few of my friends have been told by their doctors that they don’t need to have their periods if they don’t want to.
It floors me that the Catholic Church has managed to institutionalize an arbitrary, medically unnecessary practice that some researchers argue might actually be harmful to women’s health. It’s not even approved by the FDA! My friends are often skeptical: “Don’t you feel… weird?” they ask, or “How do you know you’re not pregnant?” I am intimately familiar with my body. I was a dancer for many years and then, later, an anorexic, and I can detect any deviance from the norm within my body like a radar. I feel confident that if I were to become pregnant I would suspect it very quickly. (To that end, I’ve learned that I have to tell my boyfriends early on that I skip my periods — they are more attuned to women’s menstrual cycles than I would expect, and I’ve inadvertently ignited a little heartburn in partners who thought they might have extended the family tree.)
I am so grateful to my gynecologist for her wisdom and for freeing me from the burden of menstruation. She was a gem of a doctor, and sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be ridiculous to fly back to my hometown once a year just for a Pap smear that doesn’t come with a lecture about how I should really just let my body do what it does naturally. Nobody has ever recommended that I throw out my stash of Excedrin Migraine because headaches are natural.
I worry sometimes that I’m betraying some essential fact of my womanhood by opting out of menstruation. I want to stand in solidarity with my sisters who are treated as pariahs during their cycles. I want to combat the notion that menstruation is disgusting, and I wonder if my own disgust with menstruation is not rooted in some fundamental notion of inferiority. I don’t know that it is. I don’t like being uncomfortable; menstruating is uncomfortable, and given the chance to avoid discomfort, I leapt. Am I kowtowing to the patriarchy by saying that I feel disgusting when I bleed?
But I argue the opposite: that by taking control over my menstruation, I am exercising my rights as a feminist to own my body. I started menstruating when I was twelve. I came home from school, pulled down my pants to use the toilet, and discovered that my underwear was — for the first time, but certainly not for the last — covered in blood. I was a well-read kid and I knew what was going on, but I didn’t want to believe it, so I balled up the underwear and buried it under some Kleenexes in the trash can. I put on another pair and when I came home from ballet a few hours later, I had bled through to my pink tights and my pastel green leotard. I was the first of my friends to start her period and I remember, vaguely, some discord; we were at the age where boys and breasts were starting to drive rifts among us and our periods — or lack thereof — were just another source of strife. I felt mature and terrified and then, after several months of dripping blood onto my underwear, frustrated, that for the next forty years I would spend a week every month cramping and glopping and lumbering around with what felt like a throw pillow in my pants.
I feel freer than I would if I were still bound by menstruation. I exaggerated my lede — I’ve had a few periods, mostly when I forget to refill my birth control or if I’m trying to get over a yeast infection. Sometimes, especially when I’m traveling, my body just up and bleeds in spite of the hormones I’m pumping into it. Most recently, I boarded a thirteen-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles and realized shortly before takeoff that I had just started to bleed like I was on day two of my period. (Pro tip: United provides feminine hygiene products in their bathrooms! Specifically, they stash these huge pads that I’m pretty sure are actually throw pillows under the sink. I have never been as happy with United as I was when I discovered that. Not that that’s a high bar, but still.)
These experiences remind me of how grateful I am for modern medicine, for a compassionate and educated gynecologist, for being stubborn and refusing to be uncomfortable when I can avoid it. I often feel powerless against the patriarchy. I constantly receive feedback at my workplace that is laden in gender bias. I’m catcalled as often as any woman in New York. I can’t stop my sisters in Africa from being shunned when they’re bleeding. But I can exert control over my own body. I can take the $10 I would have spent on a box of tampons and treat myself to a glass of wine instead. I can buy pretty underwear and wear it any day I like. I can live without cramps, without my pubic hair gumming into a bloody, sticky mess, without yanking a fabric tube out of myself by a string. And I can do it for me, not for anybody else.
Follow Dana Cass on Twitter @DanaCass, and on her blog http://www.danacass.com