Men tell war stories; women have period pieces. There's the journalist friend who growls: 'Try changing tampons in the middle of a bunker with seven soldiers a few feet away.' There's the doctor whose excessive bleeding means she has to schedule her frequent visits to villages around her monthly cycle.
Ordinary officegoers know the hell of inadequate bathrooms and interminable meetings; home-makers know how debilitating heavy bleeding, cramps and back pain can be; some women simply resent the discomfort.
And yet, if you could, would you put a full stop to your periods' The answer to that question is closer, and more complicated, than you might think. Many women already know that they can skip or postpone periods: if you're using oral contraceptive pills, just continue with the next pack instead of taking the placebos. Though doctors do not recommend this method, women athletes have used it for years. Other women use the back-to-back pill to stave off a period when they're travelling or especially busy. Aside from women who shouldn't be using the pill in the first place, women who do this often might see an increase in 'breakthrough bleeding' and spotting between periods.
In 2003, the US approved Seasonale, an oral contraceptive pill that is taken for 84 consecutive days rather than the usual 21, bringing the average woman's periods down from 13 in a year to about four. It's heightened the debate over menstrual suppression.
Advocates for menstrual suppression argue that the modern woman's cycle is unnatural. Our ancestors got their periods later, had shorter lifespans and were pregnant (and breastfeeding) more frequently, which adds up to far fewer periods than the modern woman has. Especially those who delay childbearing, have just one or two children or stay childless.
Opponents of menstrual suppression divide into two camps. One section argues that putting a stop to periods is unnatural, and argues that encouraging women to have fewer periods will reinforce the 'negative myths' of menstruation. The other section argues that not enough studies have been conducted into the long-term effects of suppressing menstruation. Taking pills containing even low doses of hormones over a longer span of time with fewer breaks might have effects on bone density, might suppress the first signs of some medical conditions, and might have effects that we don't know about, they warn.
Seasonale will become widely available over the next two years. In theory, I love the idea of a life with fewer periods: some might adore those five days every month, but I'm not one of those women.
But before I said yes to Seasonale, I'd want to know that this was the right thing to do for my body. How safe or unsafe is this second stage in the contraceptive pill experiment' Even advocates of Seasonale recommend at least those four periods a year. So there's a tacit recognition that it's not safe to do away with periods entirely. Which has me wondering: why is four the magic number' Why not five, or three' Until I have a strong medical reason backing up Seasonale's promise, I'd be wary of swallowing this particular pill.