“The Beauty Pill”: A History of Linking Women’s Sexuality, Beauty, and Health

Earlier this year, I decided to go on birth control.  Nothing in my personal life had changed particularly (my level of sexual activity, a new partner, etc.), but it felt to me like the world had changed drastically.  Although I recognize that, in some ways, Trump’s election represented more of a culmination, and widespread recognition, of our appalling status quo than it did a radical break, my worldview shifted somewhat significantly.  One of the ways that I felt this most personally was through birth control; staking a claim on my uterus before someone else put up a “For Sale” sign on it, as one of my friends so strikingly described it, felt urgent.  That, in combination with several stress dreams I had about unwanted pregnancy, drove my desire to find the best option for me, and soon.

Although I wound up choosing an IUD, I did some preliminary research on “the pill.”  As we in the “age of Google” know, often a search returns things you would never expect.  One of the first articles I encountered was a Mother Jones article from the late ’90s, re-posted (as it apparently was considered still relevant) in the late 2000s, entitled “The Beauty Pill.”  In the article, Carol Lloyd discusses how “the pill” has come to be seen as a sort of a beauty panacea, approved by the FDA to treat acne and prescribed regularly by dermatologists.  Lloyd credits the advertising of birth control pill companies with “creating a need where one doesn’t exist.” [1]

Interested from Lloyd’s comment in seeing what kind of advertising these companies were using, and knowing that the library had recently acquired access to the Women’s Magazine Archive, I searched for how birth control was advertised in the late ’90s, locating the ads to which Lloyd was referring.

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Ads above (along with the featured photo) obtained from Good Housekeeping (Women’s Magazine Archive)

I was fascinated by the very clear connection with beauty, and white beauty, as seen in these ads, and immediately began reflecting on the information, or social experience, that I had had with birth control growing up.  I began to recall how I had numerous friends, and acquaintances, who had begun taking the pill early on as an acne remedy.  I recalled also that several of my friends had used the legitimizing reason of acne control as a justification for beginning the pill before their parents approved of it.  Thus, I became curious.  Has the history of birth control, and the pill specifically, always been tied to beauty?  Has it specifically been tied to white beauty?

I began searching further through the archive, while additionally doing further research about the timeline of the pill and its development.  As I learned, although research into developing the pill began decades earlier, it was not legalized by the FDA for severe menstrual disorders until 1957, and not for contraceptive use until 1960. [2] Early ads for the pill seemed to use a lot of justifying, “scientific” or “medical” language, seemingly trying to assert its legitimacy.

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Ads/Images above obtained from Redbook and Good Housekeeping (through the Women’s Magazine Archive)

As you can see, the ads themselves appear strikingly “de-feminized,” often in black and white, purporting to be the doctors’ “inside scoop” on the healthfulness of the pill.  I noticed a transition in the kinds of ads and articles published as they moved into the ‘70s that seemed to express more anxiety surrounding the pill.  Articles and advertisements addressed topics like if the pill really worked, questioning the validity of the practice.  Many further linked the pill to sexual promiscuity and the rising “single girl”, reflecting a widespread social concern about the sexual liberation it (possibly) entailed.  This linkage was often accomplished through discussions of the side effects of the pill – by demonstrating that it was unhealthy or healthy, the women who consumed the pill were either healthy or unhealthy, and either clean or unclean. [3]

Progressing further through the decades, it appears that the way the pill was advertised really reflected its sociopolitical context.  For example, in 1969 Barbara Seaman published The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, critiquing it through medical discretization, and in 1970 the Senate heard cases on the safety of the pill (excluding the voices of women completely, I might add), reflecting a need for advertisements to justify the contraceptive more vigorously.  By 1979, sales of the pill had dropped 24% due to this health risk publicity, and this drop continued through the 1980s.  [4] Although in the late ‘80s a lower-dose version of the pill was put on the market, the pill continued to carry the “health risk” and “unclean” stigma of the earlier decades.  Thus, what better way to promote its acceptability than through a link to women’s beauty, particularly white beauty?  By further “feminizing” the product, in a way that did not further anxiety around women’s sexuality, the pill became sanitized in the public eye; beauty was an acceptable goal for women, or at least one that made sexual liberation more publicly palatable.

The pill becomes even more fraught when its racialized history is considered.  As Bethy Squires argues in her article “The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret,” testing for the pill was primarily carried out, without consent or proper information, on the bodies of Puerto Rican women.  In addition, in 1967 African-American activists charged that Planned Parenthood, by providing the pill in poorer, minority neighborhoods, was committing genocide. [5] Yet, in the narrative of widespread female sexual liberation that often accompanies the pill, these histories are erased.

Thus, the contemporary beauty, and sexuality, of many white women, hinges on the past suffering and the erasure of the experiences of women of color.  This erasure is incredibly reminiscent of Pham’s work on Asian superbloggers in Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet; as she argues, the contemporary social experience and capital of many white women hinges upon the labor of women of color, whether in factories, on the internet, or as unwilling test subjects for new drugs. [6] Yet, that labor, and the women involved (even if they are in high visibility positions), are invisibilised and erased.

Endnotes

  1. Carol Lloyd, “The Beauty Pill,” Mother Jones, 1st pub. March/April 1998, Web, 2 June 2017.
  2. Alexandra Nickolchev, “A Brief History of the Birth Control Pill,” PBS.org, N.p., 7 May 2010, Web, 2 June 2017.
  3. For examples of this kind of language, see “Birth Control an up-to-Date Summary of Contraceptive Methods,” Good Housekeeping; New York Sept. 1962: 153–155, Print; and Louis Hellman, and The Editors, “YOUR HEALTH–A Guide for Women: A DOCTOR’S VIEW OF BIRTH-CONTROL PILLS,” Redbook; New York Apr. 1969: 60, 62, 66, 68, 70, Print.
  4. Nickolchev, “A Brief History.”
  5. Bethy Squires, “The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret,” Broadly, October 17, 2016, Web, 2 June 2017.
  6. Minh-Ha T. Pham, Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging, Duke University Press Books, 2015, Print.

Sources

“Advertisement: ORTHO PHARMACEUTICAL CORPORATION.” Parents; Des Moines Aug. 1997: 116–118. Print.
“Advertisement: ORTHO-McNEIL.” Parents; Des Moines Jan. 1999: 150–152. Print.
“Birth Control an up-to-Date Summary of Contraceptive Methods.” Good Housekeeping; New York Sept. 1962: 153–155. Print.
“Dangerous Contraceptions.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 June 2017.
Hellman, Louis M., and The Editors. “YOUR HEALTH–A Guide for Women: A DOCTOR’S VIEW OF BIRTH-CONTROL PILLS.” Redbook; New York Apr. 1969: 60, 62, 66, 68, 70. Print.
Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. Yale University Press, 2010. Print.
Lloyd, Carol. “The Beauty Pill.” Mother Jones. 1st pub. March/April 1998. Web. 2 June 2017.
Nikolchev, Alexandra. “A Brief History of the Birth Control Pill.” PBS.org. N.p., 7 May 2010. Web. 2 June 2017.
Pham, Minh-Ha T. Asians Wear Clothes on the Internet: Race, Gender, and the Work of Personal Style Blogging. Duke University Press Books, 2015. Print.
Squires, Bethy. “The Racist and Sexist History of Keeping Birth Control Side Effects Secret.” Broadly. October 17, 2016. Web. 2 June 2017.
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