Want to get pregnant? There’s an app for that. Want to not get pregnant? There’s an app for that, too (and no, it’s not condoms). Want to know why you’re so damn moody? There’s—yep—an app for that. They could be considered the Our Bodies, Ourselves for the tech-savvy women of the 21st century: iPhone applications that inform women about the workings of their bodies without actually engaging with flesh and blood.
Currently, there are more than 20 applications available to users either anxious to conceive or hoping to avoid being the next featured woman on TLC’s I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. Period Tracker Lite (free) enthuses that “[it’s] the SIMPLEST period-tracking app and now, it’s CUTER than ever!” FemDays ($6.99) “stores all your womanly observations in one place.” iPeriod (currently on sale for $1.99) markets itself as perfect for “a busy woman.” And iMensies ($1.99) bills itself as a “stylish app” that allows women to “look at an entire year of your menses, moods, and symptoms with the touch of a finger.”
The apps generally work like so: You enter the date of your last period and your estimated cycle length. A calendar appears with a series of markings and codes, depending on which app you’re using, as well as places to note your flow, temperature, mood, and even “love connections.”
(It’s unclear if this last is a euphemism for sex or just for making eyes with someone at a bar.) Petals ($1.99), whose parent company, eNATAL, is an Internet-based prenatal care system used in many U.S. hospitals, organizes your information with fallen petals to indicate menstruation and a full bloom to let you know you’re ovulating. iPeriod uses hearts and stars to designate where you are in your cycle, and yellow faces with smiles or frowns to guess how the hormonal shifts have you feeling. (The mood-awareness features of the apps, it’s worth noting, don’t allow for the user’s personal descriptions—rather, you’re prompted to pick from a list of options, including “angry,” “exhausted,” and “weepy.”)
These applications are essentially all technologized versions of the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), one of the oldest forms of family planning. Instead of using pills, patches, or rings, with fam women count the days of their cycles with cycle beads (check your mother’s—or grandmother’s—closet) and/or charting on a calendar changes including cervical position, mucus, and basal body temperature. FAM offers numerous advantages: It’s nonhormonal, can be used by individuals with religious concerns about contraception, and—perhaps most important—makes women aware of their fertility patterns. (That said, FAM has disadvantages, too—charting cycles requires significant time and effort, and it doesn’t protect against STIs.)
So are these friendly, smiley-faced, flower-bedecked technotools a women’s-health revolution on par with the Pill, allowing us to manage fertility cheaply and easily? In theory, maybe. But there are several practical and theoretical drawbacks, starting with functionality.
When I downloaded an app called Fertility Friend, for instance, it crashed my iPod Touch (the non-AT&T-user’s iPhone) and refused to open for three days, leaving me guessing where exactly I was in my cycle. It then returned as Free Menstrual Calendar, which perhaps should indicate something about its usefulness as a fertility friend.
Futhermore, for the applications to be as accurate as possible, a woman needs to know the length of her menstrual cycle and luteal phase (the second phase of the menstrual cycle, which occurs after ovulation). Several apps, including iPeriod and Period Tracker, assume a luteal phase of 14 days; though that’s the average, for many women it can range from 10 to 16 days. Thus, if your luteal phase is shorter or longer than the app’s average, the ovulation days it predicts won’t be correct. The only way for a woman to
truly know the length of her luteal phase is to understand things like basal body temperature and “egg-white” cervical mucus—assessments that, at least for now, are best taken with a thermometer and a clean finger, respectively. And indeed, apps that claim to offer “everything you need!” for charting and tracking your cycles are awfully quick to shrug off their technical shortcomings. Nurtur, which is happy to be a “fast and efficient” program that “won’t get you bogged down with details,” nevertheless disclaims that its fertility predictions “should be used for educational purposes only.”
None of which is likely to tamp down the enthusiasm of users like MillvilleMom, who gushes in her review of Free Menstrual Calendar, “I love this app. Got pregnant in two cycles with it.” It’s as though the application itself was responsible for her pregnancy, and she’s relinquished her own agency in the process.
Nor are the inherent technical shortcomings likely to stem the tide of menstruation-predictor apps that have an entirely different audience: men. Yes, there’s a whole new crop of apps that use the mood-predictor features of menstrual apps to clue men in on just how whiny and irrational their ladies will be at any given time. Though PMS Buddy is marketed to men and women, its tagline (“Saving relationships, one month at a time!”) is a clue as to its target demographic.
Meanwhile, Menstrometer is targeted specifically to men as the “most significant invention since the invention of screw-top beer,” given that it lets men know when, as its creators write, “Aunt Flow [sic]” is coming. The description for Menstrometer on the iTunes site bills it as the “secret weapon to understanding and pre dicting the mood of your partner,” but issues a “safety warning” that under no circumstances should you “reveal the Menstrometer” to your partner. You know, because women on the rag are crazy and will cut you.
Menstrometer user David indicates in his featured testimonial just how useful it can be for men to understand their relationship based on something as traditional (and misogynistic) as blaming women’s menstruation: “For me, the Menstrometer started out as a funny little app, but I soon found myself consulting it frequently to find out whether I had actually done something wrong. It’s a life saver [sic].” A review of PMS Buddy by another chap further reveals how these apps perpetuate the myth that menstruation makes all women moody and irrational: “It is a huge advantage being able to anticipate a womans [sic] emotional times at home and work. Works great and is easy too.… The longer I’ve had this the more I appreciate the heads up it gives me!”
When it comes to these apps, we can’t throw the digital baby out with the bathwater. Some of them do work for women who want to avoid pregnancy, think more consciously about their bodies, and have more informed conversations with their partners and doctors. But it’s worth wondering if handy period and fertility trackers are just another example of women’s bodies becoming more technologized at the expense of actual women having actual knowledge, control, and understanding of them. In turning the female reproductive system into little more than a collection of numbers, symbols, temperatures, and moods, these apps commodify natural processes and suggest (despite their legal disclaimers) that busy women don’t need to bother with listening to their own bodies.
It doesn’t help that the companies who create the majority of these applications have nothing to do with women’s health. Winkpass Creations, for instance, the company responsible for iPeriod, offers such apps as Knot Guide (step-by-step directions for creating 78 different knots), Dog Dodge (a game in which you steer a virtual pooch around fire hydrants and cats), and “Beer Run” (an app that guides you to the nearest suds shop). Given that Winkpass promotes itself as the creator of “innovative apps for tomorrow,” it’s a wonder they haven’t combined some of these apps. Of the hundreds of reviews of apps like iPeriod and Fertility Friend, very few of them mention the body; the majority of posts concentrate on the wonders of being able to predict the arrival of one’s period without any comment on how the prediction occurs. They may be useful tools, but in order for these apps to offer the freedom and agency they promise, it’s up to users to look at what’s behind the petals, hearts, and smiley faces.
Bree Kessler is a PhD student in environmental psychology, and an adjunct professor in urban studies at Hunter College.
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