That Time of the . . . Year
Seasonale May Make Monthly Periods Obsolete. But at What Psychological Price?
By Elizabeth Gettelman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 8, 2004; Page HE01
How's this for a description of menstruation?
"Contact with it turns new wine sour, crops touched by it become barren, seeds in gardens dry up, and fruit of trees fall off. Hives of bees will die. Even bronze and iron are at once seized by rust, and a horrible smell fills the air. To taste it drives dogs mad and affects their bite with an incurable poison."
Roman scholar and scientist Pliny the Elder wrote that, circa 65 AD, and the general attitude toward women's monthly cycle has been little tempered by the centuries: It's potent, damning and gross. It's also a universally recognized rite of passage and a sign of fertility.
Or at least it has been until now. The launch of Seasonale, Barr Pharmaceuticals' expensively promoted new oral contraceptive, is likely to challenge the universality of the period and the notion that the monthly ritual is an inevitable part of womanhood. The first FDA-approved extended-cycle oral contraceptive -- a pill regimen specifically designed to suppress menstruation through continuous doses of hormones -- Seasonale reduces the number of annual periods from 13 to four. A major marketing campaign for the product began this spring.
Seasonale is the multi-million dollar gamble of Barr Pharmaceuticals, the largest supplier in the $3.4 billion oral contraceptive market. In the late 1990s, Barr's CEO Bruce Downey agreed to manufacture and market the drug after other companies, in the words of one of Seasonale's inventors, Andy Anderson, "laughed us out of the room." Downey, who has a relative with endometriosis (an often-painful condition exacerbated by menstruation), could imagine a sizable niche of women willing to cast off messy monthly periods.
If that potential niche extends not just to the 2.5 million women with menstrual complications but to the more than 70 million of reproductive age, it becomes a market of awesome size. And if women are convinced Seasonale is safe and that periods are not necessary, then a steady absolute will become a matter of choice. We women will have to ask ourselves a wholly new question: What does my period mean to me?
This is a thick and complicated question. But I think it's even thicker and more complicated for me. I went six years without my period and, having experienced the "promise" of Seasonale involuntarily, I found it neither liberating nor a relief. Instead, I felt abandoned and not altogether whole without the monthly marker of what it is to be female.
My grandfather, a pediatrician for 65 years, has his own take on first periods that he passed on to hundreds of fathers: "On that special day, buy her flowers, take her out to dinner and make a good fuss."
Nobody gave me flowers when I first got my period, probably because I was too mortified to tell anyone. In a strange bed, staying with family friends, I woke up with stained sheets. I did what any embarrassed 11 year-old would do; I stripped the sparkling white fitted-twin and stuffed it into the hamper. Then I jammed toilet paper down my pants and waited a whole day to tell my mother.
I didn't love my period back then. But I was a loner in school, tall enough to tower over my classmates, and I was thankful that at least in one way, I was like every other girl. Then I went to Harvard, where I was a varsity athlete in basketball and crew.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company