In the ever-wonderful discussion of menstrual politics—shaming vs. celebrating, managing vs. letting it all hang out—bowing out altogether from the period experience often gets short shrift. It shouldn’t, as not having your period at all is an increasingly viable option. But as periods become optional, their symbolic weight may increase.
Remember that episode in the fourth season of 30 Rock, titled Emanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land? In the midst of a difficult love triangle, Jack asks Avery to attend a fancy upcoming wedding with him, and the conversation goes a little something like this:
Avery: We both know that is a bad idea. Which is why I scheduled a conflict for this weekend I can’t get out of.
Jack: What is it?
Avery: Well, if you must know, I’m on Dodecacil, the pill where you only get your period once a year.
Jack: We’re so close to beating that thing completely.
Indeed we are. But spreading the word that this is a perfectly safe and convenient choice still may not sit well with some folks, who regard going period-free as unsettling as the period-related gas you may be experiencing right now while reading this. In a piece at The Atlantic called “Women Don’t Need to Have Periods,” Alana Massey breaks down the puzzlement and hesitation that often accompanies her mention of personal period abstinence going on over three years now. Massey writes:
Because of the confused looks I get when I reply with “May 2012,” I started prefacing my answer with an explanation that I have a Mirena IUD, an intra-uterine device used for birth control that lessens periods for some women and eliminates them completely for others.
I fall into the latter category. Though most nurses and doctors move along after this response, a nurse recently looked at me in undisguised disapproval and asked, “But what about when you want children?” I told her that I would take it out when I want children. “But doesn’t it feel unnatural to not have a period?” she asked. I told her it feels great to not have a period. She shook her head and said, “Just seems strange to have a foreign object in your body like that.” I replied, “Yeah, like a baby.” She stopped asking questions at that point.
Massey concedes this is not the default response per se, but that skepticism is normal. Friends and lovers, men and women alike, often express concern about her smooth sailing around the period waters:
Friends ask if I am constantly worried that I’m pregnant. Men I am not even exclusively dating wonder if I worry about infertility. The word “unnatural” comes up often.
But what’s really natural when it comes to having a period? For so many women, they are irregular, painful, messy, and even debilitating—according to some tallying, the cause of 100 million hours of lost work time a year. In fact, when it comes to reproductive health, working against nature has saved millions of women’s lives. On this site, Laura June wrote in an essay about her C-section: “I love nature. But when nature wants you dead, fuck nature. Take medicine and science.” She’s right. Any woman who’s ever had an inconvenient period understands that sometimes, natural just sucks.
This is not to argue that the period should be shamed or demonized. But, in the rightful effort to reclaim periods from their perceived “ickiness,” we’ve sometimes gone in the other direction, celebrating the period with gleeful abandon, as in the hoax-heavy “freebleeding.” No amount of theoretical period emancipation should stop a woman from shutting down operations if it makes it easier to live her life. And as Massey rightly points out, you don’t have to have a debilitating period to just not want to deal with that shit:
But there are those, too, who are simply inconvenienced by their periods, and would rather not have them. Susan Shain is a 29-year old travel writer who got an IUD because her hectic travel schedule saw her changing time zones frequently, making it difficult to take a pill at the same time every day. She had used the NuvaRing at one point but it needs to be stored in cold temperatures, and that she was worried that refrigeration could be unreliable where she was going. “I love to travel, I love to spend time outdoors. I love not having to worry about a period,” Susan said. Another woman named Jennifer Hancock is a writer in Manatee County, Florida, who told me she turned to the Mirena exclusively for the purpose of getting rid of her period. “When it is a regular part of your life, you don’t realize how much time and money is being taken away from you,” she said.
And later, she points out:
There are shift workers who cannot escape to the restroom, women in male-dominated jobs where they feel they have to hide their feminine-hygiene products to prevent further alienation, sex workers for whom bleeding is more than a hassle, and women with young children or otherwise unreliable sleep schedules who don’t need the stress of making sure they take a birth-control pill at the same time every day.
Massey speaks with gynecologists who say there are no known side effects from suppressing your period indefinitely, and other health sites around the Internet back this up. It really is OK not to have your period. Using birth control continuously—skipping the placebo week of pills to no longer experience the withdrawal bleeding—comes with the same risks of taking the birth control in the first place. But IUDs, the Pill, the ring, the shot, can all stop or at least chill out your periods, big time.
To be clear, these methods don’t work for everyone—I had Mirena removed because it gave me horrible cystic acne, so for me, periods are still a better choice. Though, trust: I have not given up all hope.
And there’s some misinformation floating around about what a period is good for anyway. In a piece at Bedsider, Dr. Maria Rodriguez explains that contrary to common concern, the uterus doesn’t need to be “cleaned out” every month with a period— “the uterus is not like a mouth,” she writes. (Thank god for that.) “It can take care of itself under most circumstances.”
For context, it’s important to remember that the Pill could’ve just as easily been designed to eliminate periods, but instead was created to mimic them based on research that women would find them comforting—the period would serve as a reminder they weren’t pregnant, and the sense that in spite of taking a daily hormone that their bodies were in fact still performing as they should.
In a 2012 piece on the history of birth control and the reason we don’t need to bleed, Valerie Tarico writes:
From the beginning, doctors recognized that there was no medical reason for women on the Pill to bleed, but they thought Pills would be more accepted by the public and by Catholic authorities if they mimicked a monthly menstrual cycle. For women who are taking oral contraceptives, monthly bleeding triggered by seven days of placebos isn’t actually menstruation, but rather a response to hormone withdrawal. Real menstruation is evidence of a feedback loop in which a functioning hypothalamus and pituitary signal the ovaries and uterus, causing a follicle to develop and egg to be released into an environment that is ready to receive it. The hormones in most oral contraceptives suppresses this cycle of ovulation.
In other words, women who are on the pill to regulate their periods aren’t actually regulating them. They are suppressing them and replacing them with withdrawal bleeding, and benefits of menstrual suppression accrue whether the monthly bleeding occurs or not. For two generations, women using hormonal contraceptives have bled monthly for cultural reasons, most without knowing there were alternatives.
And, again, as with anything—embracing these cultural hand-me-downs is fine if you want to. It’s great to have a reminder that you’re not pregnant, and whatever you find reassuring personally is always personally worthwhile. But Rodriguez at Bedsider says the methods that lessen or eradicate periods are “extremely reliable” if used correctly, meaning you won’t have to worry much about that, and you can always take a test if you’re sweating it. And these options are all reversible.
We can continue to draw protective lines around our bodies as spaces that should not be stigmatized by default. But plenty of women accept their bodies and their periods and simply have no need to bleed. Give them options, without assumptions that they’ve forfeited anything but a genuine pain in the uterus.
Image via Warner Bros