The Truth About The Pill

August 31, 2009

Monica Levy, a Hunter College senior and DS intern, was having trouble with her number one instrument—her body. “I had really irregular menstrual cycles. Months went by where I wouldn’t get my period and then, when it came, the flow would be extremely heavy,” she says. To regulate her period, she went on birth control pills. But while they served their purpose, there were side effects: Her breasts increased to a double D—big enough to cause a wardrobe malfunction! “I was in a dance show at Muhlenberg College and had to wear a halter top,” she recalls. “As time passed, I had to keep adjusting the top because my breasts kept growing. Then, during a performance, my top came undone!” After this humiliating experience, Monica decided to stop taking the pill so her body could return to its natural shape.

Although not all bodies react to the pill in the same way, lots of girls worry about taking birth control because of its potential side effects. So what’s the truth behind the fiction? What is it really? What will it do to your body? What kind is the best for you? Here, DS breaks down the facts about birth control.

Why would a girl who is not sexually active go on birth control?

There are many reasons a young dancer may want to go on birth control. It can correct heavy or irregular menstrual cycles, treat painful periods and get rid of acne. The cause of these problems is the imbalance of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. Birth control balances these hormones, which alleviates discomforts.

  • Irregular periods

Birth control is also commonly prescribed to treat irregular or infrequent periods, a condition dancers are especially susceptible to due to their high activity level. Dale Perry, a certified nurse practitioner at Women’s Care of Beverly Hills, points out that studies have shown women with irregular periods to have an increased risk of ovarian cancer, as well as other health risks. “Since we don’t know how to diagnose ovarian cancer yet, it’s a good thing to avoid with birth control,” she says.

However, Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., a performance psychologist who works with the New York City Ballet, feels dancers should only use birth control in extreme cases of fluctuating periods. “I actually don’t like having dancers on the pill if there’s a possibility of an eating disorder, since it masks one of the main symptoms of anorexia: not menstruating.”

  • Painful periods:

“The majority of the prescriptions [for birth control pills] I write are for dysmenorrheal, or painful periods,” says Perry.

Hamilton says she’s seen dancers doubled over in pain from heavy periods. “I always recommend they see a specialist to see what their options are, including birth control, to regulate the problem.”

  • Acne

In cases of stubborn acne, specialists may suggest birth control because the additional dosage of estrogen decreases production of testosterone (a pore-clogging hormone), leaving skin clearer. However, birth control should only be prescribed if other treatments prove unsuccessful. Hamilton says that, if acne is the only concern, “girls should really try other methods—like the blue-light treatment, which also gets acne under control—before turning to birth control.”

How will birth control affect my body?

The relationship between a dancer and her body is one of great intimacy. Even the slightest changes are easily noticed, giving dancers a leg up when it comes to detecting the effects of birth control.

“A lot of dancers are worried about bloating and weight gain,” says Michelle Warren, Ph.D., an endocrinologist at Columbia University Medical Center. But weight gain from birth control is actually a myth. “There may be some adjustment in the first couple of weeks, so people feel bloated or like they’ve gained weight,” says Warren, “but it’s only water retention.” A prescription with lower hormone dosages can help eliminate such effects. Lily Rogers, a dancer with San Francisco Ballet, says she wanted to try a birth control pill with a low dose for that reason. Now, six months later, she says her period has gotten lighter. “I haven’t found there to be any bad side effects,” she says.

How do I talk to a medical professional about birth control?

Talk to your parents and let them know your concerns. Then visit your gynecologist.

It’s crucial to share your medical history with your doctor, and it’s important to get to know your body before making a commitment to medication. Perry prefers that girls have had their period for about a year before treating discomfort with birth control. “Unless there are specific issues, we don’t usually do anything while the body is figuring out its normal pattern,” she says. “But lives can be dramatically changed by birth control because girls don’t dread their periods.”

Don’t worry if your first prescription doesn’t work out perfectly. Different bodies react differently to certain types of birth control and higher or lower dosages of hormones. Just like pointe shoes, you have to try a variety before finding that perfect fit.

When is it time to go off my birth control?

Responses to birth control vary. What works for one person may be an unpleasant experience for another. Birth control is meant to help you, so if the cons are outweighing the pros, reevaluate your treatment with your doctor. Michelle Warren, Ph.D., says, “What a doctor does, and what a patient can help a doctor do, is look at the list of complaints and list of benefits about the birth control and see if it’s worth it. If it’s not, you can look into another option or decide to stop the one you’re on.”

Types of birth control

Mary Wilson, Ph.D., a gynecologist with Beth Israel Medical Center in NYC, says that, while the pill is the most popular form of birth control, some people have trouble remembering it every day. Here are the other options (which have side effects of their own, so be sure to talk to your doctor before starting one):

  • hormone shots received every twelve weeks
  • the patch, worn everyday for three weeks, with one week off in between
  • the vaginal ring, inserted monthly