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Pamela Paul

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The Truth, Period

Posted: 06/19/07 07:30 PM ET

"Do you get your period on the Pill?"

I've been asking female friends this question for the past few weeks and the answer has pretty much been -- after a perplexed furrowing of the brow, as in "Why are you asking me such an obvious thing?" -- "Yes, but it's not as bad."

All these women are sophisticated New Yorkers in their 30s, well-acquainted with their own bodily functions. Many have been on the Pill for years, many of them have children. Anyone who has even heard of a mucous plug ought to be well-versed in the subjects of fertility and its prophylactics. You would think we were all well beyond Sex Ed 101.

Except that all of us apparently benighted women got the wrong answer. You don't get your period on the Pill - even without Lybrel, the new "period-free" pill approved by the FDA last month. As a mother of two who has spent years of her life on the Pill, I myself only received this intimate news via a front-page New York Times story, "Pill that Eliminates the Period Gets Decidedly Mixed Reviews." Amidst anecdotes detailing women's reservations about taking a birth control pill that absents monthly bleeding from their Palm Pilot schedules, was this nugget: "Eliminating menstruation is not a completely new concept. Women who take any kind of oral contraceptive do not have real periods."

Well, color me dumb, but I didn't know that. Sure, I knew that periods on the Pill are a relative joyride -- short, snappy and cramp-free. Nothing a few regular-sized Tampaxes can't take care of. And yes, I knew that no egg is released from the ovaries and that there is no lining of the uterus to dispose of, the underlying causes of more onerous menstrual cycles. What I didn't know was that the little four-day long "period" was simply random bleeding caused by a disruption in the Pill's 21-day-long chemical march into the bloodstream, when women take placebos for seven days. The appearance of blood is there to reassure women, "No worries, dear, your body is functioning just as it ought to." Hey, if the Pope was meant to believe it... (When John Rock, inventor of the Pill, established the 13-periods-a-year formula he did so to convince the Pope that using the Pill was akin to the rhythm method of contraception.)

In other words, there's nothing natural about the Pill "period" at all. It's faked. Making women bleed on birth control is essentially a marketing ploy to get women to think that the Pill isn't such a big deal. That rather than a potent drug that completely reformulates a women's hormonal brew, with uncertain long-term implications (Any woman can tell you anecdotally about friends who have struggled to get their cycles back to normal after years on the Pill and have trouble conceiving as a consequence.), it's just a groovy, carefree capsule of female sexual liberation -- and, let's not forget, a superfun boon for men. Obfuscating this reality is part of the Pill business plan. Back when Seasonale, the "low period" pill was introduced several years ago, it was pedaled with flashy commercials and the sassy tagline, "Fewer periods. More possibilities."

I'm not some sanitary napkin-waving fan of menstrual periods. I'm not about to join the Red Web Foundation, a group that exalts the spiritual and natural glory of menstruation. Nor am I advocating banning the Pill. I just think, in the spirit of Barbara Seaman, advocating for a little truth in marketing is in order. Lybrel, the supposedly period-free pill is no great pharmacological revolution. Women on the Pill have been skipping their periods for a long time.