Yes, There’s Even an App for THAT: Menstruation and the Quantified Self

Do you have a cell phone? Do you use apps to do things you used to do with paper and pen? Chances are, you do. Maybe you even use an app to keep track of your period.

A recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that more than 80 percent of adults in the U.S. are cell phone users, and fully half of them have installed apps on their phones. Games are more popular than lifestyle apps, but women appear to use apps as much as men do–more than men in some categories. It’s unknown how many of those apps are health-related–such as those for exercise, calorie-counting or tracking specific conditions such as diabetes, migraine and bipolar disorder–much less how many are menstrual cycle apps.

Whether you use an app or not, there are clear benefits to menstrual tracking, such as using the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) of family planning–that is, paying systematic attention to physiological markers of fertility such as waking temperature, vaginal sensation, position of cervix and cervical fluid, as well as dates of menstrual flow. Knowledge of those markers can be a tool for both contraception or facilitating conception, as books by Laura Eldridge, Katie Singer and Toni Weschler illustrate. Additional benefits to women and girls from charting menstruation include increased awareness of their bodies and of their own unique cycles and taking note of potential gynecological problems such as vaginal infections, abnormal bleeding, cervical and ovarian cysts, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, PMS and gynecological cancers.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recognized the menstrual cycle as a vital sign of endocrine health, bone health and reproductive status, and recommended that physicians encourage patients to chart their cycles.

Meanwhile, there is an explosion of voluntary sharing of personal data by those involved with the self-tracking or “quantified self” movement. You may be on the fringes of this movement if you’ve ever counted calories, recorded your daily weight or blood pressure or tracked your progress as a runner or weightlifter. If you own a Fitbit, a Nike Plus, or a Zeo, you’re probably part of the movement. Some quantified-selfers are fitness enthusiasts, others got into it for the pleasures of using technology or tracking statistics and some are managing chronic health conditions. All share a core belief that monitoring personal data can help them make better choices about their health and behavior–or as they say in the computer business and the quantified self movement, “One cannot change or control that which one cannot measure.”

The first annual Quantified Self conference was held last year in Mountain View, Calif., where quantified-selfers shared databases, gadgets and strategies. Most were tracking health or biological data, including calories consumed, heart rate, weight, blood pressure, minutes of REM sleep, blood-sugar levels and even frequency and quality of sexual interaction.

However, in scouring numerous media reports of the movement and the conference, I have seen few mentions of tracking menstruation. The most in-depth discussion was a single sentence about self-tracker and bio-engineer Joe Betts-LaCroix, who “has data detailing his wife’s menstrual cycle for 10 years.” Lisa Betts-LaCroix reported that, instead of holding her hand during their son’s birth, Joe sat nearby recording the time between contractions on a spreadsheet.

I’m not surprised that the most detailed discussion of menstrual tracking was about a man, given the abundance of available apps for men to track women’s periods: PMS Buddy, Code Red, PMS Monitor for Men, iAmAMan, PMSTracker, uPMS, PSM Meter, MyMate, PMS SOS and Track My Bitch, to name the most visible. Persistent stereotypes of PMS and female hormones keep these apps popular, although it is doubtful that these novelty apps effectively track any woman’s period–at least without her active input–or are very useful in coping with PMS.

I am surprised that women aren’t more often identified as users of menstrual apps, though, because menstruation is so easily and frequently tracked–with pen and paper, let alone with the dozens of websites and apps made for women to track their own cycles. Some scholars believe that menstrual tracking gave rise to the first calendars and to the development of mathematics, based on markings that correspond with lunar calendars found on bones and antlers from the Paleolithic era. Menstruating women are experts at self-tracking!

Yet menstruators seldom share this information the way quantified-selfers do, with personal websites devoted to their reproductive history or lovingly hand-crafted charts detailing the ebb and flow of their flow. Nor do they post their menstrual status on social networking sites. My own admittedly small sample from Facebook shows Zuckerberg’s Law of Information Sharing in action. I regularly see posts about how far someone ran today, complete with links to maps and a specialized running app my Facebook friend used to track his mileage, for example. I’ve begun to see status updates of pregnancy progress, with data such as “at nine weeks, my astonishing baby has doubled in size and now has a heartbeat of 145-165 bpm,” accompanied by alien-looking fetus cartoon images. However, I have yet to see a status update with a link to an app such as Period Tracker or a site such as My Monthly Cycles that says, “Woo-hoo! Ovulating today!” or, “Whew! What a relief–period started this morning.”

When Penelope Trunk announced on Twitter three years ago that she was miscarrying during a business meeting (and expressed relief, since it spared her three weeks of dealing with bureaucracy to obtain an abortion), it caused a media uproar. She was called out for being “disgusting” and “inappropriate,” but mostly for not being ashamed. She wrote in response,

[There] are thousands of miscarriages in progress, at work, on any given day. That we don’t acknowledge this is absurd. That it is such a common occurrence and no one thinks it’s okay to talk about is terrible for women.

Throughout history, the way women have gained control of the female experience is to talk about what is happening, and what it’s like. We see that women’s lives are more enjoyable, more full, and women are more able to summon resilience when women talk openly about their lives.

Despite the openness enabled and promoted by social media, and increasing societal openness about pregnancy, and to a lesser extent, menopause, menstrual shame and shaming is still strong. It’s acceptable to post the contents of one’s uterus on Facebook but not to report that it’s empty. The Quantified Self movement provides an ideal avenue to change that.  I say chart your cycles in public and own that data. Chart your cycles and claim them! Like miscarriage, menstruation happens at work, too. From the factory floor to the board room, women are bleeding on the job. And sometimes women need or want to talk about it. Maybe to seek support. Maybe to request a bathroom break to change her pad or tampon. Maybe to lie down for an hour until the cramps subside. Maybe just to know she’s normal. What’s “disgusting” isn’t the menstruating or the miscarrying, or even the talking about it, but the shaming of women for doing so.

Photo of iPhone from Flickr user geoffeg under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Screenshot via Penelope Trunk’s Twitter page




Elizabeth Kissling is a professor of women’s studies and of communication at Eastern Washington University, with interests in women’s health, sexuality, embodiment, and feminism. She is especially interested in how these issues are represented in entertainment media. She is the author of Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation and scholarly articles about communication and menstruation; body image and dieting; sexual harassment; and folklore surrounding menstruation and menarche.