What if an app could tell you when you’d be sad? Grumpy? Have acne? What if it even claimed to be able to tell you when you were fertile? Catriona Dickie explores the rise of hormone tracking and fertility apps…
Fertility apps are getting people pregnant and we’re no better off using them than practicing the Rhythm Method, a medieval way of knowing when it’s safe to have sex or not based on the moon. Those of us who have been duped by clever marketing and sucked into the fem-tech cult of Natural Cycles would be better off scoring off some days in the middle of a calendar month when we think we might probably be ovulating based on some averages and hoping for the best.
Not quite. It’s true that Natural Cycles’ marketing department have a lot to answer for. The algorithms at large on Facebook and Instagram have recognised me as a target consumer and adverts for the period-tracking app come contraceptive have been popping up on my feeds for months. And it’s true, I am the target market: a twenty-seven year old woman in a stable relationship who works regular hours, which means I wake up at the same time most days, and am relatively organised (or at least I can be when it matters). Also, for almost ten years, I struggled with the pill. I tried all the big names; Microgynon, Yasmin, Celeste and more – all of which came with their own litany of side effects, from moods so low they resulted in stretches of time that I couldn’t bring myself to get up in the morning and ultimately missed a chunk of college, to insomnia to constant headaches. The mini-pill wasn’t much better, leaving me with constant breakthrough bleeding that galvanised its contraceptive properties; period sex loses its novelty when unwanted bleeding becomes the norm. For years I thought that suffering the tiresome and at times debilitating side effects that come with hormonal contraceptives were part of being a woman. So when I found out about the Fertility Awareness Method and how it could be supported using an app I was thrilled. It was a friend who told me about it. She introduced me to Taking Charge of Your Fertility, a textbook by Tony Weshler that was a lot more accessible and easy to digest than its heft lead me to believe. I read it, and then read it again. I underlined things. I bookmarked pages. I read it in bed and when I was eating. You could say I became slightly obsessed, but the idea of being liberated from the pill made me determined that this could work for me.
After downloading Kindara, an app developed to work together with Taking Charge of Your Fertility, I began tracking my cycle. This involved recording my basal body temperature every morning and monitoring my cervical fluid. The whole process takes some getting used to, from the beep of the thermometer in the morning as it announces your temperature to the words ‘cervical fluid’. Seriously though, once you start to be at one with your cervical fluid, it becomes second nature to notice it change throughout the month. It started to occur to me what incredible organisms our bodies are, and I began to embrace my reproductive system rather than resenting it. My body can tell me when I’m ovulating, when my period is due, when I might be ovulating soon.
One major advantage of being in touch with my hormones was that my mind was at ease with changes in my body. During my decade-long journey with multiple different types of contraceptive pill I’d experienced fluctuations in my bodies natural rhythms: breakthrough bleeding that made me convinced I had at least one STI if not all of them, cervical fluid that left me paranoid I was unclean even though it was perfectly normal. And then there are the hormonal signs: mood swings, anxiety, low moods, tiredness. By tracking my cycle I can now connect these changes in my body and mood with the stage I’m at in my cycle. I thought I was a complete hypochondriac, but it turns out that there was just a lot going on with my body that I was unable to explain. I appreciate that this may not be everyone’s experience and that not all bodies are alike, and cycle tracking is not a miracle cure for real physical or mental health issues, but for me it helped me to identify what was normal for my body, and this should in turn allow me to catch anything unusual. I am also fully aware that this is based on my own experience and will not work for everyone, especially those with an irregular cycle or erratic routine.
What it doesn’t tell me is whether I’m fertile or not. And how could it, really, with enough precision when it’s such a new method of tracking fertility? This is where Natural Cycles is different, and what I found alarming about it as an interface. Those constant adverts got to me eventually and I downloaded a free trial to see if it might be an improvement on Kindara. However, I quickly deleted it after discovering that it seemed immediately able to tell me I was ‘Not Fertile’ based only on when my last period was and my average cycle length. Averages. It didn’t say ‘you’re not likely to be fertile’, which would be acceptable, and correct – my own chart on Kindara and the knowledge of my own body that I’d gained over the past eighteen months told me that I wasn’t ovulating or about to – but objectively Not Fertile.
Sadly, I wasn’t surprised when a few weeks later I started seeing articles all over the media about women who had fallen pregnant through using Natural Cycles, which the FDA has just approved as a contraceptive. At the time of writing, Natural Cycles has been blamed for 37 unwanted pregnancies in Sweden alone. This Guardian article includes case studies of women who have been mislead by the Natural Cycles app and become pregnant as a result. Founders of the app Elina Berglund and Raoul Scherwit insist that the data that defines the app as 93% affective is robust, although the figure has been criticised as “inappropriate and misleading” by a reproductive health expert.
I am furious on behalf of the women who were mis-sold this app and trust it to tell them when they’re ovulating. These women have put their faith into something that has been marketed irresponsibly. Aside from unplanned pregnancies, the greatest shame is that this is going to turn people off the Fertility Awareness Method entirely. A method that trains women to be more in tune with their own bodies, and thus giving them more control over them. No more questioning whether you’re depressed, or suffering side effects; no more wondering if breakout bleeding is a sign of something more serious or just the new normal for you; no more medical professionals telling you that the litancy of side effects are part and parcel with controlling your body. But the method is already not popular and in my experience not something that GPs often recommend or even have much knowledge of. In my eyes, the problem is that the app itself is not a contraceptive. The app combined with training over time and the individuals ability to interpret the relationship between their cervical fluid and their basal body temperature could be considered a contraceptive. But even if you need to turn to good old fashioned condoms to keep your life baby free for longer (or forever), there is something undeinably valuable about being in tune with your own cycle and understanding cyclical shifts and changes.
Words: Catriona Dickie
Illustration: Livi Wilson