My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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omg girls’ bodies are fascinating: embracing the gendered side of quantified self

Ever since I broke my neck as a teenager, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my body. Truth be told, I’d much rather be a cyborg or a brain on a stick. I prize my brain, but the rest just tends to get in my way, break down, or reach annoying limits that irritate the hell out of me. I know, I know.. this is a terrible way to think about it – and doesn’t actually make any sense given that the brain isn’t separable from the rest of me – but this is my sci-fi fantasy. So shhh.

Two years ago, when my body went to hell and I spent months in a whirlwind of migraines, vertigo, fatigue, and all-around misery that doctors couldn’t diagnose, I turned to tools and techniques coming out of the quantified self movement in an effort to get some form of insight. I got obsessive about tracking every substance that went into my body, experimenting with what types of food had what affects on my health. I tracked the symptoms I was experiencing, my menstrual cycle, and my weight. I used a Fitbit to keep tabs on every step I took and to monitor my sleep. (I also did a genetics map through 23andme, but purely for curiosity.) I started seeing patterns in my health and found the patterns really helpful as I experimented with non-invasive, non-chemical solutions to my various body woes.

As I explored different services and tools out there, I found myself resisting two classes of quantified practices: 1) anything that got framed around “dieting” and calories; and 2) anything that got described as being about fertility. In short, I wanted nothing to do with the practices that were gendered feminine. Y’see, one of the manifestations of my feminist-y anger with our body image-obsessive culture is to want nothing to do with calories or dieting or other activities that position the female body in an objectifiable state. I used to rebel against these norms by shaving my head and drinking 2 liters of Mountain Dew a day, but both of those practices mysteriously lost their charm in my 20s. Odd, right? ::groan:: Meanwhile, fertility just seemed alien to me. Completely unfairly, I associated fertility tracking with aging women desperate to get pregnant and I didn’t want to frame myself as such.

When I moved to NYC, I did a physical with a new doctor and described what I was tracking and the mysterious illness that had plagued me. She asked me why I was using tools designed for fertility tracking to track menstruation, moods, acne, and other symptoms but not ovulation, hormone surges, and cervical fluids. Not wanting to explain that I had a cognitive block against being what I had constructed in my mind as “that girl,” I let her explain how female body cycles are more nuanced than period/not-period and that I’d probably get a lot more insight out of seeing the whole cycle, irrespective of my interest in getting pregnant. She told me to go buy a special thermometer and read up on fertility tracking and see what I found.

In yet another effort to not address my neuroses, I decided to self-delude and position this activity as a science experiment. I read through countless pages dedicated to fertility, describing charting with basal body temperature to see the ebb and flow of estrogen, progesterone, and luteinizing hormone. Truth be told, I liked having something else to monitor because so many of my quantified self practiced had gotten so routinized as to be boring. And I didn’t even realize that my temperature might change over time unless I was sick. But the bigger surprise was how right she was. Once I started identifying ovulation and hormone surges, I started seeing how other symptoms lined up. Even my zits seemed to realize there were complex hormones cycling through my body. They were paying attention, even if I was ignoring what they were telling me.

I still want to be a cyborg. I’d still much rather not have to deal with my period, food as fuel, or the crazy chemicals that seem to dictate so many things. But, given that I’m stuck with this body, I really wish that I had started tracking the chemical and hormonal cycles two years ago when my body was all out-of-whack. Heck, I wish I had started monitoring these patterns a decade ago. I get why monitoring hormones is associated with fertility – and I suspect that most people who ever monitor such things will be looking to conceive – but I wish that the practice weren’t so laden with the cultural associations that prevented me from looking in the first place. And I wish that the quantified self movement would recognize hormone tracking and not see it – and fertility writ large – as an othered category.

I’ve learned more about how my body works by diving into its strange cycles than I ever learned in the first 35 years of my life. I can’t help but think how much better it would’ve been to dive into my patterns in high school instead of trying to make sense of weird drawing of the reproductive system. There’s something so enticing about trying to make sense of personal data. So, ladies, if you’re curious about your body, try measuring your temperature and looking for patterns in your hormones. It’ll be hard to read up on all of this totally divorced from the fertility conversation, but so many other patterns in our bodies are connected to these patterns. And seriously, it’s totally fascinating.

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20 comments to omg girls’ bodies are fascinating: embracing the gendered side of quantified self

  • Hi! This is remarkably topical for me. I got interested when my fiancée (now wife) got interested a year ago, and now have an iPhone app for tracking this stuff in the final stages of testing before submitting version 1.0 to the App Store. If you (or any of your readers) are interested, I’d love to have some more testers give me feedback. Version 1.0 means I’m just starting, really, far from done.

    Some more information about Selene. At the moment, it’s still iPhone-only.

    There are already a bunch of other apps out there for fertility tracking. Most of them are terrible, and I thought the best one my wife could find was okay, but, user-interface-wise, still pretty bad. Not enough screen space devoted to actual information, and too much tapping and swiping to do even simple things. If you or anyone reading this is interested, please let me know.

  • Matt

    Ever since I broke my neck as a teenager, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my body. Truth be told, I’d much rather be a cyborg or a brain on a stick. I prize my brain, but the rest just tends to get in my way, break down, or reach annoying limits that irritate the hell out of me. I know, I know.. this is a terrible way to think about it – and doesn’t actually make any sense given that the brain isn’t separable from the rest of me – but this is my sci-fi fantasy. So shhh.

    This strikes me as so sad. I’m an ABD PhD student in statistics, and I worry that this kind of attitude is what’s required to want to live the kind of life required to make it in academia these days…

  • Mary P

    Thanks for posting this danah. I learned all about hormonal tracking in a class with my husband (I know, I know…). But after the class we were both like, “how can more people not know about this?”. Being a bio geek who has a degree in Biology, and I still didn’t realize how it affected me (sure I knew about the hormone surges and all, but didn’t really make the detailed connection to my specific situation). It has been fascinating for me as a scientist and I feel it has been really empowering for me as a woman as well. I think more women should learn about it, regardless of whether they want to conceive or not. I feel like a lot of it has been written about by mainly religious folks (who use it as a means of birth control), but I think anyone could benefit. I look at it the same way I’d look at any health issue–if I couldn’t figure out why I was always getting migraines, I’d start writing down what I ate, what I was doing, etc. to uncover the cause. I’d bet there is a lot of confusion and misdiagnosis of all sorts of problems that could be attributed to hormones. More information is a good thing! Again, thanks for the post.

  • A.

    I’ve been tracking my fertility for years, since a bout of awfulness of my own surprisingly similar-sounding to your “whirlwind of migraines, vertigo, fatigue, and all-around misery that doctors couldn’t diagnose”. In an effort to fix myself, I went off the pill and started charting as extra paranoia against unintended pregnancy.

    Like you, I wish I had learned this stuff in high school, because watching myself ovulate every month has added an entirely new dimension to my life. It’s *so cool*. I wish I could talk about it in more than occasional hushed tones with women who usually eye me with an air of slightly put-off skepticism. I haven’t paid very much attention to the quantified self movement, but everything I have seen has been male-centric and completely ignores fertility tracking.

    (Along with charting, the other gendered inventions that have transformed my life as a woman are the IUD and the menstrual cup. It took me a long time to get over the scariness of both. I wish they had been introduced as “normal” in high school.)

  • Elizabeth

    You may be interested in Kindara for cycle charting — it’s marketed for fertility charting, but it’s just as effective for charting for contraception ( a legitimate method of birth control, even if you’re not Catholic, by the way — check out the Fertility Awareness Method, taught by programs such as Justisse. See also There’s even an app for THAT at Ms.

  • Eleonora

    I have done some charting myself for part of my life. Now I am a mother but I still badly want to be a cyborg :) Why exactly do you assume that period, mucus, ovulation, food are not for cyborgs? Would Motoko Kusanagi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_in_the_Shell ovulate? Open for discussion :)

  • I’m a long time fan of your work. How awesome to encounter this post, which intersects with what I do for a living! I’m an assistant professor of biological anthropology and study women’s health. I have been moving in an increasingly biocultural direction for exactly the reasons you describe here: as much as I love the quantified self movement, and rely on it for my research, I find it interesting how different research participants interact with what I ask them to measure. For the most part participants agree to do my research because it gives them insight into their bodies and how they work, and, importantly, whether they are “normal.” Because the othered stuff you’re talking about here — this is also very limiting. Many women have learned from doctors, health class, and culture that if their bodies don’t conform to a particular set of standards (which includes menstrual cycle length and their experience of their periods) then they are abnormal. But because our bodies are adaptively responsive to environment, normal is a pretty inappropriate term to use. Normal is bounded by your ethnicity, your development, your location, your socioeconomic status, your education… and even then is wildly variable.

    So anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

  • tz

    The common medical practice is to just take the birth control pill and try to flatten things out to fix symptoms instead of finding what is going on. Or run expensive tests. I wonder at this too when everywhere else everyone seems to want organic or natural. This is basically NFP and what Mother Theresa’s nuns teach to Hindus, Muslims, and Catholics in India instead of going the pharma route.

    I think the cyborg part is to not have the brain affected by the endocrine system so you have to fight to have reason dominate the passions.

  • Margaret

    Erm… _women’s_ bodies are fascinating. Girls don’t have all these hormone changes.

  • Great post Danah! This is one of the reasons we created Kindara – http://www.kindara.com – My wife and co-founder Kati and I have been using fertility charting as a means to avoid pregnancy for over 3 years now and we love it. Not only because she doesn’t have to be on the pill, but because we’ve learned so much about what our bodies are doing. Most of our users are using Kindara to get pregnant, but there is a strong minority who are using it to avoid pregnancy or better understand their bodies. In my opinion fertility charting is one of the best quantified self technologies, because it gives so much information that is otherwise hidden, with a minimum of inconvenience. Our mission at Kindara is to bring fertility charting into the mainstream so more women and men can understand and feel calm and confident around their fertility.

  • Also, we’re trying to give Cervical Fluid a more euphonious appellation! – which is causing some hearty debate: http://menstruationresearch.org/2012/09/25/the-quest-to-give-cervical-fluid-a-name/

  • Joerg Ruch

    Brain on a stick is brilliant – as funny as sad! And an unexpected lot of selfobservation for a cyborg…but then, I’m only human…

  • Mitchell Porter

    “I still want to be a cyborg”

    How about an android? An android with a period.

  • Sara

    I found this really fascinating, and while I came onto danah’s page to learn more about media literacy (if anybody’s got resources or links to share I’d greatly appreciate it!) I found this post to be REALLY on topic for me!! I’m also going through a whole bunch of body changes that I just can’t explain and, as a result, have cut out a whole bunch of foods (meats and dairy) but never thought of quantifying myself.

    I want to do this. How do I get started? What special thermometers do you speak of and where can I get the stuff I need?!

  • Hi Everyone,

    Love this thread! darah, thanks for opening the conversation. Colin, your story is similar to mine! I’m curious if you checked out Kindara before you developed Selene. Let’s chat. :)

    Sara, come on over to http://www.kindara.com and we’ll get you started! A digital basal body temperature thermometer is the type you need, and you can get them at most pharmacies. You’ll need a thermometer with two decimal places for C, but just one decimal place if you’re charting in F.

  • CLS

    danah, your health issues seem so close to what happened to me. Around the same age. I am 34 now and a little over a year ago, began having vertigo, migraines, fatigue, etc…Still no answers. Have you been able to find relief or treatment since tracking your body? I think it would be fascinating as well, but still curious if there’s anyway to get better! Your work amazes me.

  • Luis Alberto

    Hey, danah, how about completing your blog with whether you were able to solve your vertigoes and those other issues? What did you do?
    My wife seems to have the same problem now and I would like to help. But just getting a bunch of physiological data in itself does not seem helpful.
    On another note, could you write a blog on what you define as queer?
    Thank you

    Luis

  • zephoria

    The vertigo and migraine issues got addressed by doing a serious amount of cleansing. No alcohol, caffeine, corn syrup, gluten. No medications (especially hormonal ones and antibiotics). To maintain it, I need regular exercise and regular sleep. This is what the tracking really helps me see so when I’m feeling awful I can see if something in my patterns has changed and it usually has. There are other triggers that I track which I’ve not overcome including high levels of pollution and altitude.

    As for my queer identity, check out this blog post from 8 years ago. Much of it still stands: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2004/12/09/my_queer_identity.html

  • Partha Chakrabarty

    For me, independent thinking, seems to be the goal of your rebellion against gendered conceptions & practices. Crucial to independent thinking is not caring who or what has practised forms of thinking before. Ideological curtains obscure the fruit of independent thinking. Sometimes the tools used by the “enemy” are the most effective in a given situation.

  • Sara

    I have been learning a lot about the thyroid and how integral it is to our general feelings of well-being and how much havoc it can wreak on seemingly random bodily functions when it’s out of order. If you haven’t looked into your thyroid levels, I highly recommend doing just that. Best wishes.

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