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How Birth Control Affected My Body Image, & Why I Stopped Taking It

Just over a year ago, I decided to start taking the birth control pill

It wasn’t even a question, really — my sister has been on the pill for seven years, so I didn’t think it would be a big deal. Plus, most of my friends on the pill didn’t report any major side effects. For women in our society, starting birth control feels like a rite of passage, and it was my time to start.

I heard from my sister that birth control can temporarily change your body, but I wasn’t aware of the extent that it could — I was much more focused on its primary uses than the way it might alter my body. Plus, my doctor never informed me of any possible side effects (other than the risk of blood clots and breast cancer), so I figured it would be fine. It was convenient, easy, and relatively familiar with my sister having been on it, so I thought, why not?

Initially, I was on a low-estrogen pill for a few months, but moved to a higher-dose pill because I experienced breakthrough bleeding. This came as a total shock, because I didn’t even know that could happen, and was never informed of the possibility by my doctor even though it’s pretty common. I was worried about switching pills, because I knew higher estrogen meant more changes — and more hormones that I didn’t really need. But, because an IUD was too daunting for me, I decided to try it — leading to various changes in my body, and ultimately, my body image. 

Unlike a lot of women, I didn’t have any emotional side effects — such as depression, anxiety, anger, and irritability — however, my physical changes did cause a lot of distress. And now that I’ve stopped taking it after a full year on the pill, it’s time I talked about the changes I endured, and share the things I wish I knew before starting.

Birth control made me gain weight — and I’m not the only one.

This may just be a big coincidence, since it hasn’t been long enough for me to notice any changes post-pill — but birth control made me gain weight. 

Although it occurred in more than just one place, the most notable change I noticed was in my breasts. I moved up from around a 34D-DD to a 34DDD — which, let me tell you, is a bigger increase than it sounds like. A change as simple as my breast size drastically shifted so many parts of my life and my body image, which I didn’t consider beforehand. 

And I’m not the only one who has experienced weight gain, particularly in my breasts. In a 2014 study conducted in northern Italy that surveyed 545 women about their perceptions of birth control, 74% reported weight gain as a symptom, and 51% reported increased appetite. And if that isn’t enough, another study reported that one of the most common reasons for dissatisfaction with the pill is weight gain — along with mood swings and not wanting increased hormones. Although there isn’t much research about this side effect and why it happens, it’s common for both doctors and patients to report weight gain on birth control — women have even taken to TikTok to share their side effects. But nobody seems to talk about the effect this has on women’s body image.

Having large breasts took a major toll on my confidence.

It took me a while to admit this, but I’ll say it now: I hated, and still hate, what birth control did to my boobs. I used to hardly think about my breasts, and now, not a day goes by where I don’t get annoyed or frustrated by them.

This annoyance started pretty early in my journey with birth control, because I was taking it right in time for summer. I noticed that none of my bathing suits from the summer prior fit me anymore, so I had to buy all new ones, and I couldn’t wear so many of the tops I used to love, either (particularly crop tops, which I never wear now). Not fitting into clothes and bras I used to rock, and looking at this new person in the mirror — it all shocked me.

If you looked at me before and after, you may not notice a major change — but I certainly did, not only when it came to fitting into clothes. There was also some back pain and general discomfort. I always felt, and still feel, like they’re “in the way.” It even came to the point where I considered getting a breast reduction

In the span of a few months, I went from feeling confident about my breasts to hiding them as much as I could. I went from proudly wearing crop tops to being told I dress conservatively. My relationship with my body took a turn for the worse, and I was full of confusion, sadness, and honestly, regret.

I learned the hard way that society isn’t as body-positive as it should be.

My weight gain opened my eyes to some serious issues that exist in the fashion industry. When looking for new clothes, it became so much more difficult to find anything that fit my new body and style. I used to shop at stores like Aritzia and Garage, but I can’t anymore because they tend to market their clothes toward skinnier girls with smaller chests. I’d walk out of the stores I used to love feeling defeated, like I should’ve been able to fit in at least one of the many items I’d tried on. 

I remember one day in particular that angered me the most. After fitting into a size 6 without a problem at Dynamite, I went to Aritzia, my favorite store pre-university. I stood in the fitting room, a pair of shorts at my thighs, thinking, no way these are a size 8. I left the store and vowed to not buy anything from there again.

It took me a long time to find stores that sell clothes that actually fit me, such as La Vie en Rose (which does the best job at body positivity that I’ve seen so far). But even now that I know about these stores, I’m still disgusted by the closed-off nature of the stores I used to love (and please, don’t get me started on one-size-fits-all sizing). Sometimes, it felt like I was being openly rejected by society, which further made me feel like my body isn’t normal.

For a long time, I had no idea why my body was changing.

I know it sounds obvious now that my weight gain was from birth control, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t make the connection before. 

It wasn’t until I went to the dentist (not what you were expecting, eh?) that I realized birth control affected me way more than I thought. After cleaning my teeth, the dental hygienist (who I’d never met before) asked me, point blank, if I was on birth control. When I said yes in a confused tone, she said she could tell because my gums were inflamed. I went home and said, “Enough is enough. It changed my body, now it’s changing my teeth — it’s time to stop.”

All of these factors — my changing body, my diminished confidence, my issues with the fashion industry, the fact that birth control affected me in so many ways — led to my decision to stop taking the pill. At the end of the day, the cons outweighed the pros. It was time to move onto something different, something that didn’t affect my body and self-esteem the way the pill did.

Let’s open the conversation about the effects of birth control.

Now, I don’t want you to run away from the pill because of me — just understand what it can and may do. Also, remember that the pill isn’t the only form of birth control, and there are multiple other options that may work even better — such as the IUD, implant, or injection. Just make sure to do your research!

In my case, it may not even be that my body changed so drastically, but that so much pressure is put on women’s bodies that I’m noticing little shifts so much more than I should — but either way, all of the changes to my body image were emotional and real.

Unfortunately, it’s not easy for women to talk about these issues because there is still a stigma around birth control. People gave me weird looks when I brought it up, as if it’s too personal to talk about nonchalantly, and I felt embarrassed taking my pill in public, for fear of judgment. But it’s time we start discussing our experiences so that the topic can feel less taboo, and so that others can learn about the impacts it has on not only our bodies but our perceptions of ourselves.

However, the onus shouldn’t only be on women to talk about their experiences. Women’s health is an under-researched topic; not enough information is shared with us about our own bodies. I mean, it’s a problem that I had no idea about breakthrough bleeding before experiencing it, and my knowledge of birth control side effects consisted solely of my friends’ testimonies. It’s also up to professionals and educators to make this information more accessible to young women, through comprehensive sex-ed, easily digestible and fact-checked Internet resources, and full transparency at doctors’ visits. Until then, we won’t be able to make informed choices about our bodies, and more women could face body image issues like I did.

Hey! I'm a second-year Global Business & Digital Arts student at the University of Waterloo, a National Writer for Her Campus, and the Senior Editor for HC Waterloo. When I'm not writing, you'll probably find me reading the newest Taylor Jenkins Reid book, watching The Office, or eating pizza.
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