Saturday, June 25, 2011

How understanding my cycle empowered me

For many women their extent of knowledge about their monthly cycle is not much more than, “I bleed once a month... if I’m not pregnant.” That was about as much as I knew once, but over the last five years I’ve learned a lot more about my cycle, and what I’ve discovered has changed my life for the better. This is the story of my cycle self discovery.

At sixteen I was prescribed the birth control pill, and I used it constantly for 10 years. I didn’t question anything about it; it was prescribed by my doctor, everyone I knew used it and it performed its function beautifully. It was easy because I never had to think about it. What I learned in recent years, however, is that not thinking about your cycle is doing yourself an incredible disservice.

After getting involved in feminism in my early twenties, I started to hear about alternative choices for birth control and sanitary products. The first time I stepped outside the Tampax box was when I tried the Diva Cup, which is an alternative to tampons and pads. The Diva Cup is a small silicon cup that you insert into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. The cup is reusable – you simply tip, rinse and reinsert as needed. Prior to using it, I’d never had any cause to take note of what was going on during my period. After using the Cup, I became comfortable inserting and removing it with my fingers and I could see the colour, consistency and amount that was normal to bleed each cycle. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was interesting and exciting for me to gain a better understanding of my period.
The Diva Cup

When I told other people about the Diva Cup I often heard, “Gross! I don’t want to stick my fingers up there and get my hands dirty!” It saddened and frustrated me that women could be so afraid of their own bodily fluids because tampons have allowed us to become so detached from our menstrual blood. I started to realize that women in general are poorly educated about their own cycles and about the variety of menstrual products and birth control methods that are available.

The next big leap for me was when I learned about a natural method of birth control that involves charting your cycle and making observations about your vaginal discharge in order to determine your fertility. I met with a Fertility Management Practitioner and learned how to observe, chart and interpret my menstrual cycle to determine when I’m fertile and infertile.

Prior to this discovery, I had no idea that women’s bodies give them direct and obvious signs when they’re fertile. I was outraged that I’d never been taught that in Sex Education. Learning how to chart and interpret your cycle using the Justisse method is effective, free and incredibly empowering. I won’t deny that in order to chart your cycle you need to be dedicated, organized, and practice charting for about 6 months before you get the hang of it. It’s not easy at first, but it’s so rewarding.

Now I intimately understand every phase of my cycle. I’ve been off hormonal birth control for almost two and a half years and I feel great. Many women are unaware of the potential side effects of hormonal contraceptives, including anxiety, depression, decreased sex drive, weight gain, intense mood swings and more.* Not only do I understand my cycle better, I feel that my sexuality is truly mine because it’s not influenced by external hormones. Since going off hormonal birth control, I’ve felt more confident and open about my own sexuality. It’s good to know what my natural rhythm is, because the more I understand about my body, the more I know what’s healthy and normal for me. Knowledge is power, especially when it relates to our own health.

I’m grateful for the inventions of tampons and The Pill and the many freedoms they have brought women, but we need to be aware of the other options out there. All women deserve bodily autonomy: the choice and resources to have children (or not), to have an abortion (or not), to choose our sexual partners, to choose when to have sex and so much more. In order to make those choices, we should know more about our cycles, but no one is going to spoon feed that information to us. You have to be responsible for your own reproductive health, and although that’s not easy, it’s empowering to take that responsibility into your own hands. I recommend it to everyone – so, what are you waiting for? Get out there and learn about your cycle! It’s probably some of the most useful and practical knowledge you can obtain.

*Reference: Coming off the Pill, the Patch, the Shot and Other Hormonal Contraceptives by M. Lalonde and G. Matus.

Your Birth Control Options

A great little video by Dr. Betty Dodson and Carlin Ross - two very cool feminist sex educators.

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