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My Journey with Birth Control: the Good, the Bad, the Skin Whirlwind

Jordan Kanegis is the founder & creative director of Netta, a limited-edition swimwear brand inspired by nature. 

When I was 16, my boyfriend and I decided it was time to take our relationship to the next level. As soon as I became sexually active, I was bombarded with questions that I realize, in retrospect, I didn’t have enough information to adequately answer: “Have you considered the pill?” (my gynecologist); “What form of contraception are you using?” (my mom); “The last thing you want is a teenage pregnancy!” (my sister). 

When my gynecologist recommended I start taking the pill, I took her word as gospel. She was the keeper of all wisdom in my family; she delivered both my sister and me, and was my mom’s go-to person for anything that might be going on “down there.” So, when she wrote me a prescription for hormonal birth control, I eagerly filled it without asking any further questions.

Like many women, I assumed hormonal birth control, often known simply as “the pill,” was right for me because so many people I knew were taking it, and because society had taught me that it was the easiest way to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. I didn’t think to ask about the possible side effects or alternative forms of contraception I should consider. While I would eventually learn to advocate for myself and my health, that initial, ill-informed decision launched an eight year struggle that I am only now beginning to understand. 

When I began my first pack of Tri-Sprintec, I felt like I was finally a woman. Better yet, a month later, I started growing breasts, something I had never had much luck with in the past. I remember thinking, “What is this miracle pill?” I could sleep with my boyfriend without a condom, I could finally fill a 32A, and my skin was as clear as ever. 

Four years of Tri-Sprintec bliss later, I began developing adult onset cystic acne. I had never in my life struggled with my skin, and now I felt like a walking pimple. Despite my extroverted nature and passion for school, I didn’t go to social events and started skipping class. I sacrificed my savings and dinner out with my closest friends to pay for monthly facial treatments. I tried every skincare hack under the sun and even changed my laundry detergent, but nothing worked. 

Eventually, I went to see a dermatologist who started me on a topical antibiotic gel called Clindamycin Phosphate. The gel helped a little, but not enough to offset the fact that it dried out my skin like crazy. When my doctor began to talk about starting me on Acutane, an oral form of Vitamin A with known side effects including dry skin and an increased risk for depression, my mom insisted I see my gynecologist in a last-ditch effort to solve my skin crisis. 

My gynecologist said it was possible that my hormones were imbalanced and she suggested I switch my birth control from Tri-Sprintec to Yaz. Twenty years on the planet, and this was the first time I heard that hormones could be a potential cause of my skincare issues. 

A couple of months after making the switch, my skin was finally back to normal. Along with clear skin, however, came an influx of issues. I began feeling monotone — like I had lost my joie de vivre. On top of that, I had little to no sex drive and having sex with my boyfriend began to feel like a chore. Whenever I was close to getting my period, I would have debilitating headaches to the point where I could not get out of bed. I knew instantly it was the Yaz. My gynecologist had not prepared me for this. 

Feeling frustrated and worried that I wasn’t going to get the answers I needed from my gynecologist, I went on a journey of self education. What I learned shocked me. I discovered that birth control had been manipulating my hormones for years during the most developmental stages of my life. Its artificial influence could cause headaches, mood swings, decreased libido, and increased anxiety. I felt like I was reading a personal manifesto of all that I had dealt with for the past few years.

It took me four years from the time I began experiencing serious side effects to finally make the decision to go off the pill. Taking it felt like second nature, while the decision to stop felt like a radical move. But in early 2020, I was finally ready. I was no longer in a serious relationship and the world had come to a halt due to COVID-19. When I realized I probably wouldn’t be meeting anyone new or seeing anyone outside of my family for some time, I decided it was as good a time as any to stop taking the pill altogether. 

After the end of my first period off the pill, I began experiencing shifts in my mood, my appetite, and my overall outlook on life. Simply put, I felt at peace. Situations that I would normally feel triggered by or have an exaggerated reaction to no longer fazed me. I never knew that something the size of a lentil could have such a big effect on my health. 

I started to break out again, but the pros of being off the pill definitely outweigh the cons for me. Not only did my headaches stop, but my sex drive increased and I began to feel more in tune with my body. I wasn’t in a relationship, so a condom was the obvious form of contraception. (Yes, condoms suck, but in an era of cancel culture and casual sex, not using one is just flat out stupid). 

At the age of 25, I am now five months off the pill, my skin has cleared thanks to a little cream called Tretinoin, and I feel stronger and healthier than I have in a very long time.

Going through this experience showed me that there is a fundamental lack of awareness in America surrounding hormonal and sexual health. This is especially problematic given that there is such a deep connection between these aspects of women’s health and so many other facets of our bodies, including our skin. The onus is placed on young girls to prevent unwanted pregnancy, yet no one teaches us about the conversations we should be having with our gynecologists. Women are responsible for this burden, yet aren’t given the tools to properly address it while also putting their health first. 

I know everyone’s health needs and experiences are different. I have friends who rely on the pill to manage certain conditions, some who are in long term relationships and use it as their preferred method of birth control, and others for whom it just simply works. The decision to go on or off the pill is a personal one and should be made by each woman for herself. But she should make it knowing that she has had access to all relevant information. 

Looking back, I wonder how I was supposed to make an informed decision about something I knew so little about. My eight year struggle was tumultuous to say the least, but I am grateful for what it taught me about my body and how it empowered me to take my health into my own hands. Now I know that, while going off the pill can be scary, there is nothing more terrifying than covering up your true self.

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