When I was sixteen, I started taking the contraceptive pill. I’d had a natural cycle for a year or so, but my acne was getting worse and having a face full of pimples was the most difficult part of high school for me. I’d think about it constantly, slathering my skin in thick concealer during the day and harsh drying creams at night.
I’d squeeze my sore, red face until it was raw and bleeding. I went on a few courses of antibiotics, and later, Roaccutane, for my skin, and while these worked for a little while, the acne would return as soon as I came off them. In the winter of 2004, a few months before my 18th birthday, I was hospitalised with a nasty bout of liver inflammation (years later I’d discover that the antibiotics I had been on were known to cause liver inflammation), and my medical specialist made it clear that I’d need a liver biopsy and at least one round of steroids to treat it.
A friend of my mum’s lent me Dr. Sandra Cabot’s book The Liver Cleansing Diet and, to my surprise, and so very gratefully, my severely jaundiced body was back to normal within weeks of following this whole food plan—my first introduction to the healing powers of holistic living. I came off the pill while I was unwell and my skin erupted again; even this super cleansing diet made no difference to my skin. A different contraceptive pill was soon prescribed for my acne… and it worked! My skin was clear and glowy, and though it’d be another four years before I was really sexually active, I took the pill consistently for an entire decade.
Every single time I tried to take a break from the pill though, my skin would break out in pimples down the sides of my cheeks and jawline.
My GP told me that I would need to stay on the pill indefinitely if I wanted clear skin. At the time, that advice didn’t even register as an issue. Becoming pregnant wasn’t an option (or a good idea) and I travelled (and drank) a lot in my 20’s, backpacking around the world and partying up a storm. The pill provided an enormous amount of benefits for me: contraception, convenience and clear skin being the three main contenders.
I’d regularly skip my period or orchestrate my cycle so that I wouldn’t be bleeding at big events (or for all summer for that matter), and I never had any issues taking it consistently; I kept the sheet of pills in my wallet and had my ‘period’ (aka withdrawal bleed) every second or sometimes third cycle. I didn’t know what I was sacrificing by being on the pill (like experiencing a libido or the ability to properly absorb nutrients or the power of intuition that having a natural cycle cultivates) and to be honest, even if I did know, I probably would have continued to take it anyway. I loved being on the pill.
But I didn’t love being a woman.
“It annoys me the way you suck your stomach in every time we pass a reflective surface,” said Jess. “You know that? I’m sorry, but it’s true.”
In our 17 years of friendship I can bring to mind only a few moments where heated words have left the mouth of my best friend. With her size 8 black skinny jeans and a diet consisting of 85% potatoes and pasta, she’d spent years curiously watching me go on diet after detox after ‘Drop 5kg In 7 Days!’ plans and would mostly shake her head at my insanity. But this was different. We were in Malaga, Spain, approaching the end of six-weeks backpacking Europe and by then our travelling posse were no strangers to an impatient spat, our fuses grown short in the heat and hostels.
“What? I am not! Well, if I am, I don’t actually realise that I’m doing it.”
“Claire, you always do it,’ Amelia added. “And you made me delete those photos from Greece where you had like, two rolls of fat showing.”
My face grew hot as I grunted something inaudible in response. Bitches. Afterwards, I wondered if I was more embarrassed by the fact that I’d been caught in my act of vanity, or because my belly needed sucking in to begin with. Did they think I was putting on weight? At this, I instantly pulled my stomach in tighter.
As we were getting ready for school, Mum would get home after a long night of work at the hospital and walk straight to the bread cabinet.
Slice after slice after slice in the toaster, dripping with thick slabs of butter and strawberry jam, barely audible until she’d finished, satiated finally, after not eating for almost a day. We’d all walk together to the bus stop and she’d hug us goodbye before finally collapsing, exhausted, into bed. There was always weight to lose. She’d often tell me that she didn’t feel big, until she saw a photo of herself and would feel surprised, and then disgusted, at how she looked. Before every family reunion there’d be X amount of kilos to lose, the scales as essential in our bathroom as toothpaste. Exercise machines would arrive and be used on rotation until they became a place to dry clothes.
When I was in year 12 we went on the soup diet together and I had to sit out of dance class because I felt like I was going to faint. My great aunt Margaret, who was much thinner than the rest of our family, once told me that her secret was to run every morning and every evening. So for a long time—as well the diet shakes and protein bars and suck-you-in-undies—that’s what I did.
I’m twenty-one and in love.
A mop of wild brown hair skims his huge, clear eyes. It was a Hi! Nice to meet you! Let’s be together! sort of affair and though we peel back our skin and let each other into the scary darkness of our hearts, I won’t let him touch my stomach. Not in sex, not on the couch watching movies, not ever. I squirm when he goes down on me, terrified that I taste weird or smell worse or that he hates it. It feels great, of course, but that’s beside the point.
The first time we sleep together when I’m bleeding I’m too embarrassed to mention that I have my period until he’s inside me. “By the way, before you go ahead and put your penis inside of me, I just want you to know that I have my period,” is a sentence that feels completely inaccessible. Another time, staying with his parents, I wake up to discover I’ve bled all over the sheets. Both of us afraid to tell his mum, we strip the bed and pretend like nothing happened.
I weigh 57 kgs and eat 1200 calories a day.
If I greedily hit 2000 calories I simply eat more, enough to make myself sick. I’m addicted to Body Step and Body Pump, doing back-to-back gym classes and taping down my breasts and drinking myself into oblivion—because I ‘just feel more like myself’ when I’m six beers in. Soon I’ll realise the miracle of taking ecstasy (it quells your appetite and it’s calorie free!), and I often imagine slicing parts of my body off with a knife, particularly around my hips, boobs, belly and womb area: all of my juicy feminine bits. All of this is an attempt to get to my ‘perfect weight’ of 55kg, where I imagine all of my problems will magically dissolve along with that 2kg and I’ll finally be happy with my body and who I am. Then I’ll let him touch my stomach.
At twenty-six, I had what I call my ‘quarter life crisis’.
And it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. While it felt completely chaotic at the time, it completely shifted the trajectory of my life. It all stemmed from a place of wanting: wanting my life to have greater meaning, wanting to feel more at ease, wanting deeper satisfaction, wanting to feel more creative and definitely wanting more connection with myself. I revisited the liver cleansing recipes I’d fallen in love with in my late-teens, hired a life coach, bought myself a journal, started a blog and went on a yoga retreat in Ubud, Bali. I eased off the binge drinking and spent my hangover-free Sunday mornings at Melbourne’s best farmers markets, committed to eating whole foods from a place of love and care for myself, rather than the diet-binge-purge-detox cycle that I’d been on for a decade.
I devoured everything I could get my hands on in the realm of self love, healing, the law of attraction, gut health, toxic load, intuition, meditation, living by the seasons and lunar cycles and suddenly I felt odd about taking this little pill everyday. Manipulating my natural hormonal cycle seemed totally out of alignment with the kind of life that I wanted to be living. I was rediscovering my innate creativity and who I really was and I desperately wanted things to be different this time.
So… I stopped taking the pill.
Thanks for reading! This is part two of a three-part series on my menstrual cycle story, and how cultivating greater awareness of my cycle was the ‘missing key’ in a (very) long journey towards fully embracing my body, my sexuality, and who I am as a woman. You can find part one here.
Tell me in the comments: body image, sex, food and exercise — in your 20’s, how was it for you?