If you open up any Allure, Seventeen, Cosmo, Teen, or Jane you find advertisements and articles promoting the birth control Pill. The most alluring are the advertisements for Ortho-Tri-Cyclen, which is FDA- and dermatologist-approved and tested. The ads boast that this pill can “lighten your period” while clearing up your skin. No-fuss birth control that lightens your period and heals spotty skin? What tween wouldn’t take it? In fact, this month’s Seventeen (with a readership of girls ages 11-17) has an entire page devoted to “dealing with PMS.” One “possible symptom,” the magazine announces, is acne. Under the box “how to deal” is written, “All types of the Pill steady hormones, preventing chronic acne.”
My story with the Pill begins at the vulnerable age of 18. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So, I’ll begin when I knew something was wrong.
I was in the bathtub. It was late, about 1 am. I’d just come home from sitting in a café with a writing partner and I was happy. It was May. I drew a bath, got in. As I was soaping across my breasts, I felt it. This tiny hitch of the soap, like it stuck. Sleepily, I rubbed it back across my left breast and it hitched again. I put my hand to the spot and found a lump the size of a walnut. I was 24 years old.
I called my Mom. Her own mother had died of breast cancer. We stayed on the phone until light, when I began the medical odyssey that took over my life.
When I was 18, my mother, schooled in the seventies ideal of feminism and Our Bodies, Ourselves, thought the Pill would protect my future. I came home from a year in Paris with an Italian boyfriend almost ten years my senior to parents who were divorcing. The plane, the time change, and the stress — it all was making me have a really heavy period that continued into a second week. I was put on the Pill. My gynecologist told me that it would regulate my periods, which have always been heavy, and there would be the added benefit of protection from pregnancy. I can’t say I really thought about it one way or the other. It just seemed like the thing to do. I was told I’d have less PMS, my periods would lighten, I’d be less emotional, my skin would be clear, and I could have sex with my boyfriend without worry.
At the time, when I was eighteen, the Pill was the norm for everyone I knew. It was a savior. We didn’t choose it. We just took it. No questions. We were thrown right into the game where we could have sex without consequences, without reservations. We could be reckless. AIDS was a problem. A worry. Easily avoided with condoms. But abortion, pregnancy, the choice that could disrupt an Ivy League education, that was a real fear. It’s ironic that in the age of AIDS, we were more terrified of getting pregnant.