Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Menstruation according to Apple

March 14th, 2013 by Breanne Fahs

Screen shot from GP International LLC

The repetition of all-things-pink=all-things-related-to-women’s-health has started to seriously irritate me. First, we had pink containers for birth control pills, followed by the pink repackaging of Prozac (renamed Sarafem) to treat “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” (PMDD).” Then we dealt with the reductive and ferociously popular pink ads, logos, banners, and yogurt containers of the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation. Next came special dye that “restored” women’s so-called natural pink color to their labias (“My New Pink Button”), reminding women (especially women of color) that their brown and grey and flesh colored labia are not…pink enough? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the most popular menstruation apps for the iPhone and iPad—Period Tracker, iPeriod, Period Diary, and Monthly Cycle—have a similarly pink, flowery, and “girlie” vibe. Anything designed for women’s bodies apparently has infantilize women by looking like Strawberry Shortcake and Barbie, regardless of how adult we may get. But my issues with these apps do not end there.

Having used Period Tracker now for several years as a way to predict my period, I am most familiar with its particular brand of what it means to menstruate. Much like the messages featured in advertisements for pregnancy tests—which emphasize women’s longing for pregnancy and their sheer and utter joy when finding out the news of their pregnancy—Period Tracker also frames the purpose of the app as a sort of fertility monitoring tool even though reviews of the app suggest that most women use it to do what the title says: to track periods. The assumptions that women want to become pregnant extend into many features of the app: when a woman ovulates, flowers appear on the otherwise-barren tree, reminding her that she should get it on with a sperm provider; during menstruation, the app starts a “countdown,” allowing women to tick off the number of days they have “endured” their cycle; green dots appear for the days women can get pregnant; and, finally, the app features a tool where women can track “intimacy.” (Apparently, the word “sex” is too gauche for the world of period tracker apps, leaving “intimacy” as a code for sexual intercourse).
Further, Period Tracker has a variety of built-in ways to attach menstruation—and the menstrual cycle in general—to shame and negativity.

The app allows women to track a variety of symptoms throughout their cycle, but every single one of these has negative connotations of pain and misery. Acne. Backaches. Bloating. Bodyaches. Constipation. Cramps. Cravings (Salty). Cravings (Sweet). Dizziness. Spotting. Headaches. Indigestion. Insomnia. Joint Pains. Nausea. Neckaches. Tender Breasts. In the list of moods one can track, the first two listed are ANGRY and ANXIOUS. Period Tracker also alerts women to the start date of their period, but it does so by referring to it as, simply, “P” (implying that, if someone saw that we had a period start date alert on our phone, it would shame us). (Note that the app, iPeriod, has similar features, as they call sex a “love connection,” allow three options for mood—normal, sad, and irritable—and construct pregnancy as the ultimate goal of tracking the menstrual cycle.)

All this emphasis on pregnancy, menstrual negativity, and the “monstrous” symptoms of PMS obscures the fundamentally important (and feminist!) work of tracking one’s menstrual cycle for positive and decidedly non-fertility reasons: most obviously, to anticipate our period’s starting date, but less obviously, to understand and track the body’s rhythms, to actively avoid pregnancy, to know ourselves more deeply, to appreciate our cycles, to better predict menstruation and how it coordinates with our schedules, to accurately assess whether we have experienced a drastic change in our “normal,” to track a female partner’s cycles, to signal the start of menopause or irregular cycling, to keep an eye on heavy periods versus light periods, and to feel more in tune with our bodies (among others).

Why can’t a period tracker allow women to celebrate the menstrual cycle or see the arrival of menstruation as joyous or positive? Why can’t we track positive bodily changes like “Increased Libido,” “Elevated Mood,” and “Heightened Sensitivity”? I want a period tracker that dumps the hot pink color, the swirling flowers that only bloom during ovulation, the adamantly pro-pregnancy angle, the sex phobic language, the heterosexism, and the shaming of women’s menstrual cycles in favor of a radically reimagined, positive, celebratory mode of menstrual charting. Knowing what our bodies are up to has long roots in our feminist past—let’s find a way to have our technology reflect that!

How to Make Sure Your Period is Never “Late”

November 20th, 2012 by Kati Bicknell

Have you ever been concerned because your period was late? I know I have. But I’m not anymore! And you don’t have to be either! And since I’m sure you’d rather not spend several days every month nervously pacing and counting dates backwards on your hands while glaring at the general vicinity where you guess your uterus is, I’ll tell you how.

It’s simple:

LEARN ABOUT YOUR BODY!

Your period is not a Rolex watch; it was not specifically crafted in Switzerland to accurately tell time. A woman’s reproductive system is designed to … wait for it … reproduce! It takes into account all kinds of things when determining whether or not “now” is a good time to try and have a baby, and not ONE of those things is what day it is.

“Oh rats! I’m late for … uh … me ….”  This is something your period will never say. Think about it for a second. Your period is late? For what? For itself? Do you see how insane that is?

Whether or not, and when, a woman gets her period each cycle depends on a slew of hormonal events, which can be influenced by many things, such as diet, environmental and emotional stress, and on and on.

So let’s take things from the top and see why you think your period is “late,” shall we?

To begin, there is a theory that all women used to cycle with the moon. They would ovulate at the full moon, and they got their period with the new moon. But there is some evidence that suggests that the amount of ambient light in your bedroom while you’re sleeping at night can influence your cycle, in the same way that the moon supposedly did.

So if we are basing the notion of a “standard 28 day cycle” off when we used to cycle with the moon, we’re all pretty much screwed! Think of your bedroom — your alarm clock, a charging cell phone, a streetlamp, a light from under the door because your roommate is on another ‘Friday Night Lights’ bender: most of us do not sleep in a room where the only light is moonlight.

To further confuse matters, women who are on the pill “get their period” at around the same time every month, but anyone who knows anything about the pill knows that is not an actual period. It’s a bleed caused by the body’s withdrawal from progesterone on the week of placebo pills.

So we’ve got these two things that mislead women into thinking that their cycle should be 28 days.  One of my colleagues who has been teaching the Fertility Awareness Methodfor years says that she’s never had a client whose cycle was the same exact length every single time.

Sample chart for Example 1
© Kindara, used with permission


Period not arrive when you thought it would? Let’s take a look at your chart, it could be several things:

If you actually learn about what is going on in your body each cycle, and chart your fertility using the symptothermal method, you will be able to see and understand what is actually happening with all your heretofore “mystery bits.”

1. You haven’t ovulated yet, which means that a period is a ways off.  You might experience breakthrough or withdrawal bleeding later, but this would not technically be a true menstruation.

 

Sample chart for Example 2
© Kindara, used with permission

2. You ovulated and are currently in your luteal phase, which appears up until now, to be of a normal length.  Depending on how long your luteal phases typically are, you could have a better idea of when to expect your period, and if that day passes with no period, let’s see what’s behind door number 3.

 

 

 

 

3. You ovulated and are currently in your luteal phase, which appears to be longer than normal, which could indicate pregnancy.  (Or in very rare cases, a luteal cyst.)

Sample Chart for Example 3
© Kindara, used with permission

You see, there is always a reason that your period has not come yet, if you’re waiting on it. Certainly, you could say I’m just arguing semantics, but the truth of the matter is that your period is never “late,” it is doing exactly what your body is telling it too. The trick is to understand your body, rather than blame it and stare wistfully up at the moon, hoping it will work its sweet, sweet magic on your uterus.

 

Chart your cycle, and you’ll always know what the deal is.

Doooooooo it.

Editor’s note: Click on images to view at full size.

Fertility Charting Is the Way of the Future!

August 29th, 2012 by Kati Bicknell

The Quantified Self is the idea that by tracking things about your body you can live a happier and healthier life. Hardware devices like the Fitbit and Withings scale measure your daily activity and weight respectively so people can set and reach activity and weight goals. Apps like Lose It are tapping into this idea using a software-only approach: Lose it helps you lose weight, not by putting you on a diet, just by having you keep track of everything you eat. Every day you enter all the foods you eat into the app, and it tells you how many calories you consumed. You can also put in how much, and what type of exercise you did each day, and Lose It tells you how many calories you burned.  The result is you can see the amount of calories you burned, relative to the amount of calories you took in.

I have several friends who swear by this app. Lose it isn’t telling you anything you don’t know (eat less, and exercise more if you want to lose weight), but what it is doing is making it very easy for you to see how your actions are affecting your weight in a specific way on a daily and even moment by moment basis. In addition to achieving goals, quantifying the self leads to a sense of confidence and control where before there was confusion. And in doing so it makes us feel better.  This is the crux of the quantified self movement. Recording and analyzing everyday data can help us win at the game of life!

As my friend Lauren Bacon has pointed out, fertility charting fits right in to the Quantified Self movement. Women who chart their fertility record their waking body temperature, cervical fluid viscosity, and other data each day, and over the course of each menstrual cycle get a detailed picture of their reproductive health, and sometimes more!

Kindara Screen Shot © Kindara 2012

Cervical fluid viscosity is a proxy for estrogen level. Basal body temperature is a proxy for progesterone.  And as any high school student can tell you, hormones are powerful influencers of how we feel, think and act, and why our bodies do the things they do.  Just imagine if your menstrual cycle, and all the fluids, feelings and fluctuations that went along with it were no longer a mystery.  Imagine knowing just what was going on, and why.

By recording your daily fertility signs a whole world of possibility opens up for you! While it’s true that fertility charting can be, and often is used to achieve or prevent pregnancy, the benefits of it don’t stop there. Fertility charting can answer important questions about our ovulation, luteal phase, cycle health, thyroid function and more.  I have friends who have finally figured out the root of several food allergies, from charting their fertility.  I myself have learned that a diet high in animal fat keeps my cycles regular. One reason I’m so excited about what we’re doing at Kindara is that as more and more women start quantifying their fertility, we’ll start to generate new knowledge about fertility for the benefit of humankind, creating a virtuous feedback loop that will help each woman feel calm and confident with her fertility in her specific situation.

I envision a future where more and more women are taking an active role in their own health care with fertility charting.  How about you? If you’re currently charting your cycle, tell us in the comments what you’ve learned so far, and how it’s changed your life!

Bring on the Fat!

July 31st, 2012 by Kati Bicknell

I’ve been doing research on my own menstrual cycle for almost four years, charting my cycle using the Fertility Awareness Method.

 

Photo by Pete&Brook // CC 2.0

My cycles have always been wacky. I got my period when I was 11  but bled only a couple times a year, until, at my doctor’s suggestion, I went on the pill at 18, to “regulate” my cycle.  At 26 I learned that the birth control pills didn’t actually regulate my cycle, they just covered up the real issue.  I was determined to let my body find its own natural cycle, so I went off the pill. I wanted the option to have my own children someday, and with my dubious state of fertility, I needed to give myself a head start on having a healthy cycle.

I didn’t find much information about cycle health for a while, but when I was finally introduced to Toni Weshler’s book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, I felt that  I had found the key!  I was fascinated to learn that with just a few simple actions each day I could get a clear picture of my cycle health. I started charting right away and did my best  give my body a shot at having a “normal” healthy cycle, exercising, eating healthy, trying different herbs and foods. But nothing seemed to make a lasting difference.  I would still only get around four periods a year.

This year in February I went to China, so Kindara could take part in the Haxlr8r start-up accelerator program. I was shocked when within two weeks of arriving in China, I ovulated, after not having my period for six months. I don’t generally ovulate in the winter, so I thought maybe this was just the end of that drought, being as it was March. But then I ovulated again in April, and in May, and in June.

The only thing I could point to that I was doing differently from what I had ever done before was eating lots of weird meat. In China it seems that no part of the animal is wasted. I had countless meals consisting of mostly bones and/or animal fat. In fact the regular “meat” that I was used to in the States didn’t seem to exist.  Everything was either bones, organs, or fat. This was pretty unnerving to me at first, but I slowly got used to it. So I kept it up. When we came back to the states in mid-June I made an effort to eat meat at least several times a week, the fattier and weirder the meat, the better!  And that’s hard to find here. But my efforts seem to be working, I ovulated in July as well!  This makes five months of regular cycles, for the first time in my life.

This is incredible, and I never would have had such a front row seat on the action if I wasn’t charting my cycle. I seem to have cracked the code on what my body was missing. And this means that I should have an easier time getting pregnant, if and when I decide I’m ready. My procreative power is now in my own hands, and I love it!

Adventures in Building a Fertility Awareness Charting App

June 20th, 2012 by Kati Bicknell

I’m obsessed with fertility charting, and in my search for a Fertility Awareness app that met my needs, my husband and I created one.  The most important thing to us are our users, and their feedback is gold. We learned the hard way that women want to chart on their phones, not their computers. We want to avoid the mistake of thinking “we know best” again.  So what our customers say to us is taken very seriously. But sometimes they ask for things that we don’t want to give them!

I received a question from one of the women who downloaded our app, asking me if there was a way to enter temperatures measured to the 1/100th of a degree, (like 97.34).  She didn’t want to round to the tenth of a degree (97.3)  and risk throwing off her chart.  We thought we understood her concern.  If you’re taking your temperature every morning, you want that exact temperature to go in your chart! Rounding seems like it might throw off the chart. Right?

Well that depends on if you’re measuring in Fahrenheit or Celsius.  If you’re measuring in Celsius you must measure to .05 of a degree to catch the temperature shift.  In Fahrenheit you only need to measure to tenth (0.1) of a degree. Measuring to the hundredth (.01) of a degree is too small of an increment to make any important difference on your chart.

When charting basal body temperature (BBT), the bi-phasic temperature pattern over the course of your cycle tells you if you’re ovulating, when you’re ovulating, and the length and health of your luteal phase.  Post-ovulatory temperatures are usually around 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the preovulatory temps.  0.3 is larger than 0.01 by a factor of 30. This means that measuring to hundredths of a degree is not necessary to catch the temperature shift.

Typical Rounding Scenario

This graph shows a typical bi-phasic temperature pattern, clearly confirming ovulation.  The red line was graphed using temperatures that were accurate to the 1/100th of a degree.  The blue line is graphed using those same temperatures rounded to the 1/10th of a degree.  As you can see, the difference between the two lines is not enough to obscure a temperature shift on a chart.

We had a moment of deliberation… do we tell our user to just get a different thermometer?  Do we tell her to round her temperatures?  That didn’t seem like great customer service.

We realized that the solution is not to simply tell this woman why what she was concerned with didn’t matter.  From her perspective, rounding temperatures is a pain in the ass and she doesn’t want to do it!  THAT “pain in the ass” factor is the problem that we have to solve.  So, with this realization we decided to add the ability to chart in hundredths to our development plan.

Even though measuring to this accuracy isn’t necessary, if adding the second decimal place on our data screen makes it easier for women to get their data into the chart, we’ll do it!  We want all women to have access to the yummy benefits that are to be had from charting one’s cycle, and we are committed to removing the barriers to that, however it must be done.

 

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.