Growing up, one of my family’s most watched movies was “The Bad News Bears,” a 1976 classic whose entire script quickly earned a permanent spot in my brain. Though the movie is about a little league baseball team and its all too raunchy coach, what sticks out the most in my mind is the description of something seemingly unassociated with the film: birth control. When the film’s only female protagonist, Amanda, mentions the fact that her friend started “the pill,” she is greeted with the statement, “Don’t you ever say that word again.”
Though the scene takes up barely 15 seconds of the film, I am slowly beginning to understand that statements like this have cultivated a stigma of shame and negativity surrounding contraceptives. Even more so, now that the little pink pill has made a home on my own nightstand, I am realizing that the side effects of starting birth control begin long before it is even a thought in young womens’ minds. As a result, these adverse effects extend much further than what any pharmacist or gynecologist could possibly warn, affecting mental, emotional, and physical health (and not just hormonally). To put it simply, the stigma surrounding sex results in a fear and shame of birth control which is both dangerous and oppressive to young women.
When I made my first gynecologist appointment to start birth control just a few short months ago, I remember the red creeping onto my cheeks as I told my doctor the reason for the visit. While my nervous voice awkwardly traveled across the tiny consultation room, my mind roamed wildly to places of fear, hesitation, and discomfort. Am I making a mistake? Is that a look of judgement in her eyes? Why didn’t I just sign up for one of those birth control subscriptions I saw on TikTok?
Although my doctor could not wrap her mind around the embarrassment and shame I felt in starting the pill, I’ve come to realize that these feelings were neither new nor misplaced; they had been festering long before I even had a clue of what sex was.
I can vividly remember the day our fifth grade teachers sent home a consent form that notified our parents that we would be talking about the anxiously awaited inevitable—puberty. While the boys’ talk was appropriately labeled a “puberty seminar,” ours was labeled a “hygiene talk.”
Unknowingly, at just ten and eleven years old, we were experiencing the first inkling that the topic of sex was not the same for boys and girls.
As the boys learned about their reproductive systems, the girls learned about the importance of deodorant and being hygienic when our periods came. While the boys snickered and shared their experiences of their seminar, the girls walked around with flushed cheeks and nervous hands. These seemingly trivial differences in the way sex education is introduced to children leave a permanent imprint on the way girls will view themselves for the rest of their lives. Already, we were being taught to be uncomfortable with our bodies even in their most natural forms, a feeling which is easily taught but impossibly relinquished.
As the years went by and childhood immaturities slowly faded into harsh and bitter judgements, the stigmas on sex only seemed to become more obvious, and their existence only took more of a toll on my mental health. Looking back, it is not surprising that I struggled so much when starting the pill—it was never presented to me as a real, safe, and respectable option.
Instead, contraceptives were the prayer to the sin that was having sex, the scarlet letter on the chests of those assumed to be “getting around.” Having attended a Catholic school from kindergarten all the way through senior year, I was always taught that chastity was the only acceptable form of contraception.
My school even went as far as attending an annual conference dubbed “Chastity Day” in which every 14-year-old was herded into an auditorium and taught that STIs, teen pregnancy, and condemnation to hell were all inevitable results of premarital sex.
One of the highlights of the day was watching a video entitled “Like A Pair of Old, Worn Out Shoes” which compared losing our virginity to anyone other than our spouse as giving away a grimy pair of sneakers as a gift.
Another, was being given a “chastity card” to publicly sign as an unbreakable commitment to save ourselves until marriage, a token which we were instructed to carry in our wallets or hang on our walls as a constant reminder to resist temptation.
Needless to say, the existence of condoms and birth control was never mentioned in the midst of the chanting nuns or ashamed “born again virgins” who warned us against their lives of sin and guilt.
In the 208 person class at my all girl high school, the taboo associated with sex only began to grow as gossip traveled come Monday morning. It seemed that the intimate details of every girl’s sex lives became public knowledge, the news of lost virginities and the whispers of “slut” and “whore” being hurled around the hallways like rapid fire, burning reputations to the ground as they did so.
Meanwhile, the same boys they were hooking up with were being congratulated and praised, their characters being raised to new levels even as their counterparts suffered the harshest judgements. While sex is a two person act, it is percieved extremely different for boys and girls, and this experience is not singular to me.
For young girls, having sex is often at the cost of pride, dignity, and even respect. Undoubtedly, I too fell into the commonplace mentality that sex was a dishonorable act that was unnatural and even desperate. Somewhere deep inside of me, I carried this mindset throughout the duration of my high school years. While I would love to say that I have been able to relinquish this way of thinking for good, I have recently learned that the picture of sex as sinful and shameful is still within me, still affecting the way I define my own worth and actions.
It wasn’t until this summer when I got into my first real relationship that all of the stigmas surrounding sex began to slowly make themselves known to me, and affect me in ways they never could before. Even though I knew that starting the pill was the best and safest option for me, I could not shake unrelenting feelings of doubt, hesitation, and fear; it always made to be this way. The process of starting birth control was never designed to be an easy one.
After having always been taught that sex was a one way ticket to hell and witnessing girls’ entire reputations be stained with its scar, my biggest concern with starting birth control was that it meant letting people know I needed it. Expectedly, this was a very hard thing to come to terms with.
Unlike most young women, however, I am fortunate enough to have a mom who never once shamed or judged me for my actions, but instead encouraged me to get on birth control and took me to my first appointment. She listened as I expressed doubt after neverending doubt, distraught over the possibility of becoming depressed, gaining weight, or turning into an entirely different person altogether. For this, I am extremely grateful. Too many of my friends have begun taking a life-altering hormone without informing the people meant to protect them, which is not only draining but also utterly dangerous.
If young girls feel uncomfortable and ashamed to inquire about birth control in their schools, to their friends, and even within their own homes, they have no space to gain the necessary knowledge on the different forms of contraceptives and their effects. This in itself takes a toll on the mental health of so many young, vulnerable, and scared girls. There is nothing more isolating than feeling like, no matter where you go or who you turn to, you are standing in a room full of people jumping at any opportunity to judge and chastise you. Even worse, there is nothing more defeating than being incessantly made to feel like you deserve it.
The day I was prescribed the pill, the part of me that still saw birth control as alien and unconventional was expecting it to be a drawn out process where I was met with discerning eyes or a sour tone. Much to my surprise, the procedure seemed to be too easy, too simple, too quick.
It was almost as if my gynecologist expected me to know exactly what I was getting myself into, so she skipped the formality of warning me of the neverending list of side effects and hormonal changes I could experience.
Instead, I learned about the pill and its horrors through my friends, TikTok, and the incessant amounts of articles which came up in response to my persistent google searches: ‘Will the pill make me gain weight? When I start birth control, will I be able to control my emotions? How fast will I notice symptoms?’ In other words, how much of myself is dissolving everyday at 9PM when my alarm reminds me to pop my little pink pill?
In reality, none of the articles prepared me for what I would experience on my first dosage of birth control. Without even realizing it, my entire demeanor changed a little more each day.
Most days, anything would set me off, or nothing at all—that was even worse. The sudden changes in my hormone levels resulted in uncontrollable emotional outbreaks of unmanageable rage, unconcealable happiness, and uncontainable sadness. Where I was once stable, happy, and level-headed, I was now bewildered, inconsolable, and unhinged. It seemed the blue skies I had once known to be my mind had suddenly become a hurricane of mismatched and exaggerated emotions who seemed to be just as confused by their presence as I was.
When I looked in the mirror, I no longer saw myself but an overly fragile, overly hollow version of her staring back at me. Her sunken and defeated eyes held no memory of my hopeful, contented ones. I could barely recognize her.
Despite the effects the pill had on my emotional and mental state, I was insistent upon sticking with it. For me, the issue with the pill was that I questioned every side effect I had. I had convinced myself that it was a matter of strength; if I kept going without admitting how it was really affecting me, I’d eventually learn to navigate and control it.
For weeks, I could not express the extent of what I was experiencing on the pill. Just like I had learned in the media, in school, and in every aspect of society since I was just a little girl, I believed that the pill and all of its cruelty was a punishment that justly fit the crime that is having sex. If I couldn’t handle losing the version of myself I once knew, I should have chosen chastity over contraceptives.
It took a lighthearted disagreement with my mom and sister to finally set me over the edge, for the month-long emotional turmoil, insecurities, and self loathing to finally spill all over the floor of my mom’s Honda minivan.
It was then that my mother called my gynecologist as I sobbed uncontrollably in the passenger seat, my little sister watching in confusion from the second row. As my mom rattled off my symptoms of spontaneous crying, emotional outbursts, and paranoia that everyone in my life —family, friends, boyfriend—all hated me, my doctor informed my mom that suicidal thoughts were often among the next in this train of side effects. Even still, I had to finish that month’s pack.
While I have since switched to a new dosage of hormones which has been drastically kinder to my emotional and mental health, I still constantly question whether I am the same person I was before starting birth control.
I am still constantly in battle with the young, innocent, impressionable version of myself who was relentlessly taught that the worst thing a girl could do is have sex. Still, my use of the pill causes merciless strains on my sense of self-worth, my feeling of security, and my overall mental and emotional health. Still, I keep my pills tucked away in my drawer or zipped up in my purse to rip away anyone’s opportunity to judge me based on my own decision to utilize a safe and necessary contraceptive tool.
And still, the words from “The Bad News Bears” ring all too often in my ears, shaming me and every other young woman like me from speaking out against the stigmas surrounding sex and birth control.
Just by being women, these preconceived judgements are inherently forced upon us and define the way we fit into the world before we can even decide where we belong for ourselves. This article is my first step on the journey of stopping those words for good. I hope it can be yours, too.