It's 10:30pm on a Monday night and I'm scrolling through TikTok, as if I'm begging for a shitty night's sleep. The usual videos are making an appearance on my FYP: Matty Healy of The 1975 eating raw meat on stage, IBS-tailored 'heal your gut' videos filled with pseudoscience, Taylor Swift's Eras tour told through the eyes of a Swifty who elbowed their way to the second row.
But as of late, there's been a new, unwelcome addition to my scroll: PillTok.
PillTok is exactly what you think it is — a corner of TikTok that's filled with videos showing women who have 'quit' the contraceptive pill and are urging other pill-takers to do the same. Among these videos are people who tout the benefits of ditching the pill, often heralding it as the best decision they've ever made. "What I've experienced is fucking life-changing," one person said after they went off the pill for four weeks. Meanwhile, a self-professed 'Period Coach' says ominously in another video, "Here's what your doctor didn't tell you about the pill".
Left, right, and centre, I — and many other people — are fed videos and rhetoric that the pill is extremely damaging to our bodies. "Here are some potential risks to your health," one creator says, before rattling off a lengthy list of side effects. "Hormonal confusion such as irregular periods, short periods, heavy periods, infertility, headaches, digestive problems, leaky gut, inflammatory bowel disease." And just like that, a new era of pill-mongering has been born.
Like so many conspiracy theories on social media, the reason they take off is because they're born from a small little nugget of logic. PillTok is the same. Side effects like mood changes and tender breasts are well documented, as well as an increased risk of blood clots in very rare cases. This is exactly why the Pill is prescribed by a doctor.
So, while legitimate concerns about the contraceptive pill are warranted (we're allowed to be concerned about any medication we put into our bodies), on TikTok, this fear has morphed into a type of holistic-esque smear campaign where 'natural' is always king. And while TikTokers have always been quick to shut down body or beauty shaming, pill shaming is worryingly becoming the latest fad on the platform — seemingly with little (or no) fact-checking.
And though taking medication is not something we're ever really excited about, some of us also don't have the luxury of giving it up.
Let me tell you a little story. When I was 20, I was admitted to hospital after experiencing a wave of extreme pelvic pain — the worst I've had in my life. After hours of being curled up in a ball trying to wait it out, my mum finally made the call to cart me off to the emergency room. Turns out, I had a ruptured ovarian cyst. Further ultrasounds revealed I had another cyst — the size of an orange — ready and raring to go (read: burst), which unsurprisingly, had to be surgically removed.
Affectionately dubbed the 'Exploding Ovaries' era of my life, I began to settle into a fresh new diagnosis that explained what was happening inside my body: polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. As anyone with the same diagnosis knows, the treatment for PCOS is pretty hazy. There is no cure for it, but birth control pills have long been utilised as a helpful long-term treatment method as the pill (and its fabulous cocktail of oestrogen and progestin) can help regulate hormone imbalances caused by the disorder.
Thus, my committed relationship with the pill is the longest I've ever had to date. It eviscerated the excess hair growth that PCOS gifted me (especially my moustache, which had been a sore spot since a boy from school pointed it out in Year 10). The pill gifted me with glowing skin and perfectly luscious, shiny hair — a welcome benefit of the new hormonal cocktail oozing through my veins. And perhaps the most important of all, it offered me a life that wasn't filled with debilitating pain or worry about when my next orange-sized cyst would rear its head, ready to explode at any moment. For me, the pill wasn't just a willy-nilly decision, made to stop me from getting up the duff — it was a health decision that drastically changed how my everyday life operated.
Of course, I'm not the only one who owes much of their quality of life to the contraceptive pill. There's no doubt that the pill ushered in an era of sexual freedom for women but a quick, informal survey of the Refinery29 office proved that many people take the pill for a primary reason that isn't contraception. Acne was a biggie, with several women in the office starting the pill as a teenager to manage their skin issues without dealing with the side effects that come with taking stronger acne medications. Others opted for the pill to deal with debilitating symptoms that came with their periods, including extreme nausea, pain, or abnormal periods. Another person reported that they began treatment to manage their symptoms after undertaking surgery for endometriosis last year. However, since then, she recalls having multiple people bring her sexuality into her health decisions, with one person questioning, "But you're a lesbian, why do you need contraception?".
For many, the choice to take the pill isn't really a choice at all — it's a necessity.
While extreme, this is just one example of the type of incessant questioning women who are on the pill are subjected to, especially in the age of pill-mongering on social media platforms like TikTok. And while it may not always be in the form of direct questioning or interrogation, the subtext of many of these videos slamming the contraceptive pill implies that there are alternatives. But for some of us, there aren't. Pill-mongering operates under the assumption that people have the luxury to opt into birth control. That we're only using it as an accessory to our sex lives. But for many, the choice to take the pill isn't really a choice at all — it's a necessity.
There's an inherent privilege that comes with pill-mongering. Only certain bodies have the ability to be pill-free. Some of us can't even fantasise about it. Every time I haphazardly stumble across a PillTok video, I can't help but question if they're really sharing the 'dark side' of the pill out of concern, or if I'm imagining the strange sense of elitism clouding their videos. After all, there's naivety in believing that anyone can just ditch the pill. Believe me, I've tried.
While much pill-mongering focuses on the negative side effects of the pill and the freedom that comes without it, I wonder what my alternative is. Every time I open TikTok, there's someone telling me that I'm risking infertility by being on the pill. That the pill is changing my personality and stopping me from knowing my true self. But I know, when I tried going off the pill, my hair was falling out in chunks, I developed cystic acne and according to my GP, risked reentering my 'Exploding Ovaries' era.
Every time another PillTok creator comes up on my feed, I'm forced to engage in psychological gymnastics, grappling with the fact that I'm being indirectly shamed for making a health decision that isn't really even a decision for me. While pill shaming used to almost exclusively affect the mental health community (which is equally horrible), it seems as if TikTok has subbed in an alternative, and it's bad news for everyone who chooses to take the contraceptive pill.
I'm sick of hearing about other people's pill-free success, soaked with condescension and faux-empathy. I'm angry at being constantly reminded of how much the pill is damaging my body, even though I have no viable alternative. I'm done with pill-mongering. Guess what: I'm sick and tired — but it's not the pill that's causing it.