I tried tracking my period and it was even worse than I could have imagined
Women have been tracking their periods for virtually as long as they’ve had them. Today, many women (who have periods) track them for a variety of reasons: to know when to pack sanitary supplies, to plan their vacation or important life events, to help get pregnant, to help avoid getting pregnant, to otherwise prepare themselves for the potential emotional and physical symptoms, or just because they are curious.
And yet period tracking apps themselves tell a very different story. Many of the pieces I’ve read about period tracking over the years point out that “gender neutral” technology often gets coded male. Apps explicitly for women get coded more “female,” and apparently female means pink, flowers, and babies. Period apps (such as the relatively new Clue and Glow mobile apps) assume not only that you’re tracking your period to either get pregnant or avoid getting pregnant, but also that you even can get pregnant (in your relationship situation and in general).
These assumptions aren’t just a matter of having a few extra annoying boxes on the in-app calendar that one can easily ignore: they are yet another example of technology telling queer, unpartnered, infertile, and/or women uninterested in procreating that they aren’t even women. It’s telling women that the only women worth designing technology for are those women who are capable of conceiving and who are not only in a relationship, but in a sexual relationship, and in a sexual relationship with someone who can potentially get them pregnant. Read: straight, sexually active, partnered, cis women with enough money for a smartphone to run the app.
Personally, I’ve opted out of using dedicated period tracking apps because of the terrible reviews. As a queer woman not interested in having children, the fertility focus makes me uncomfortable. However, I also think I could benefit from period tracking. I’ve had an irregular period lately and I’m interested in tracking my mood in relation to my cycle. So despite what I’d heard previously, I decided to bite the bullet and try out a few apps. I figured the apps couldn’t be THAT bad and that I could probably just ignore the pregnancy stuff. But I was wrong. Even the onboarding process was very frustrating and I felt that my identity as both a queer person and a woman with irregular periods was completely erased. Here are some of my thoughts as I tried out the apps Clue and Glow.
I decided to start with Clue. The onboarding process was straightforward and only marginally objectionable. First, I was asked for the date of my last period (so far so good… I know when that is). Next I was asked how long my cycle and periods are and when I have PMS (if at all). I was mostly able to adjust these to my needs, although at this point I couldn’t specify that I experience PMS-like symptoms during other parts of my cycle. After I was told a bit about the Clue “approach” to tracking and asked to configure notifications (which I opted out of), I was taken to the main dashboard of the app:
The first thing I noticed about the dashboard was that my period and my “fertile window” overlapped and it didn’t look pretty. My cycles are short and Clue absolutely could not handle that. The second thing I noticed was that I had a fertile window. Why the fuck do I have a fertile window? It would take a miracle of biblical proportions for me to conceive with my current partner. This makes even the idea of a fertile window completely irrelevant to me.
I tried to find a way to turn the fertile window off, but couldn’t. I poked around the app a bit more, thinking that maybe the calendar part of the app would be useful and I could still track my mood and periods. But the calendar aspect was cluttered and challenging to decipher at a glance.
I decided to move on to the Glow app, thinking that maybe I’d be able to turn the fertility tracking off or they’d at least have a system that’d be easier to interpret. But Glow’s onboarding process was awful. While Clue was only marginally heteronormative, Glow was off the charts. The first thing I was asked when I opened the app was what my “journey” was:
The choices were avoiding pregnancy, trying to conceive, or fertility treatments. And my “journey” involves none of these. Five seconds in, I’m already trying to ignore the app’s assumptions that pregnancy is why I want to track my period. The app also assumes that I’m sexually active with someone who can get me pregnant. How is it that there are email applications that make fewer assumptions about my needs than this period tracking app?
But for the sake of completing the onboarding process, I selected “avoiding pregnancy.” Next screen. “Tell us a little about yourself!”
What’s my method of birth control? Well, I don’t use (or need) birth control, so I guess I’ll check none. But wait, I also need to tell this app my weight?!? I have no idea what my weight has to do with me wanting to put some dates on a virtual calendar. But I can’t continue to the next screen until I enter both a weight and a height. Ten seconds in and the app is already categorizing me with a flawed and outdated metric about my health.
I’m already pretty fed up with this. At this point I was curious as to how much worse it could possibly get, so I begrudgingly entered a weight and height value. On the next screen, I’m asked to enter my average cycle length:
And I literally cannot even enter my actual cycle length. My cycle length is shorter than 22 days right now. The Glow app seems considerate enough of people who have cycle lengths of up to 90 days, and yet I’m out of luck. In three screens and fifteen seconds, the app has made numerous assumptions about my identity and health. The app is also worthless to me if I can’t figure out how to adjust my cycle length.
I kept going at this point despite how frustrated I was because I at least wanted to see the main screen. I had to create an account because you can’t use the app without one, so I did that and finally got to the main part of the app:
And the damn thing tells me to “snuggle away.” Because I can only make a decision to snuggle because my period tracking app has given me permission to do so. Now the app’s taken away my agency, too. Awesome. I’m then encouraged to invite my partner to the app so that we can share the responsibility of avoiding pregnancy together. Great! I’ll get right on that.
Next I try the logging feature to see what sorts of information I can save. And then I get smacked in the face with the fertility stuff again. The very first question on the logging questionnaire asks me if I had sex, and if I did, what form of birth control I used:
I responded to the log questions that I had sex that day without birth control (take that, Glow app!). The app seems to misinterpret what I’ve said, but still manages to “shame” me into using birth control more consistently by citing a statistic on unintended pregnancies:
Fuck this shit.
At this point, I tried to turn off whatever features I could and see if the app was salvageable. In fairness to Glow, I did discover that I could turn some of the logging questions off (such as those prompting me to check my cervical mucus), and the app could predict my future cycles when I manually entered in the dates of a few previous periods. But I could not turn off the fertility tracking or references to birth control. I looked around in the app store for alternatives, but everything I found was pink with hearts or flowers and had a strong fertility component. I decided to give up on my period tracking experiment fifteen minutes after I started it. I feel too disgusted to ever want to tweak one of these apps to fit my needs (if that is even possible).
Trying these apps out myself (and being erased by them) strengthens my belief that improving self-tracking technology for women not only involves having more of us to the table and designing for ourselves, but also moving outside the “babies/no babies” dichotomy. We aren’t just here to be skinny, have sex with men, and make babies. Yet somehow “our” tracking apps seem to think otherwise. A woman’s health is not just about a (potential) child’s health and it is also not anyone else’s business. It’s time our technology started reflecting that.
Quick note on possible tracking alternatives: I did try out the My Monthly Cycles website that was linked to in this Atlantic piece and I found it to be a much more flexible period tracking system, albeit without the more rigorous app experience that I was hoping for. I’ll likely use that for now or stick with Excel. Update: the apps Period Plus and Period Tracker Lite have been recommended to me as less judgey, but I have not tried them out myself. Update Two: I’ve started using Groove and enjoy it so far.
Another note: Women are also not the only people who have periods. The coding of period tracking technology as feminine, cis, and straight is also harmful to other people such as trans men with periods. Period tracking technologies should focus on providing resources for their users, not on making judgements about them.