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.