With the rise of big data studies and the assumptions of what big data as sociocultural artefacts (Lupton, 2015) can predict, improve and provide us with, it can be difficult to justify an interview study when investigating onlife (Floridi, 2015) traces. From a critical perspective, however, it is important to try and understand the motives and needs behind these digital traces and methodologically to dive deeper into the everyday lives of the people producing the data (boyd & Crawford, 2015). Thus, my research focus is on exploring why women use apps for tracking and which purposes these apps might fulfil but also who benefits the most from these self-tracking practices. Today’s femtech3 industry provides numerous products, services and solutions focusing on women’s health through data and algorithms. Some of these solutions are period apps for keeping track of menstruation and fertility. The industry claims that engagement in these self-tracing practices reveals the mystery of the female body and provides the self-tracker with certainty, control and empowerment. In academia, the view of the engagement with self-tracking apps is slightly more precautious. Scholars (e.g. Lupton, 2014; Thomas & Lupton, 2015) have argued that these apps promote a specific kind of subject – a white, heterosexual woman – and raise questions about privacy, gendered labour and a tech industry capitalizing on the female body. Throughout history, the menstruating body has been stigmatized and its leaking fluids connected with a lack of control (Chrisler, 2011; Chrisler et al., 2014; Grosz, 1994; Shildrick, 1997). Scholar Jane Ussher has empirically shown how women’s experience of premenstrual syndrome leads to self-policing, self-silencing and blaming the body (Ussher, 2004; Perz & Ussher, 2006). Prior studies on women’s attitudes towards menstruation have shown that menstrual shame affects young women’s decision making when it comes to sex (Schooler et al., 2005) and that they have negative attitudes towards their reproductive functions, experiencing shame connected with both menstruation and breastfeeding (Johnston-Robledo et al., 2007). Another study on young Western women has indicated that their attitudes towards menstruation are formed by either their mothers or their schoolteachers (Beausang & Razor, 2010), pointing to menstrual stigma as being transmitted through some of the major socialization agents in our culture, such as family and school (Johnston-Robledo & Christler, 2007). A survey study from 2004 indicated that self-objectification and negative attitudes towards menstruation reduce as women age (Roberts, 2004), and another survey study of 72 American woman suggested that body appreciation and attitudes towards menstruation are linked (Chrisler et al., 2014). A study from 2002, in which participants interacted with a female colleague who accidentally dropped either a hair clip or a tampon, showed that, when reminded of a woman’s menstrual status, the negative evaluation increases; when the woman dropped a tampon, she was evaluated as being less competent and the participants avoided sitting next to her (Roberts et al., 2002). Drawing from these studies, this article’s ambition is to examine which needs period trackers fulfil, how they intersect with menstrual stigma and concurrently what kind of questions they potentially foster regarding privacy. To explore the latter, I will draw on privacy from a feminist and historical perspective as well as looking into the history of shame connected with the menstruating body. Situating these historical perspectives on the female body and privacy within a study of the usage of self-tracking technologies constitutes an original contribution both to the field of (female) self-tracking and to the sense making of small data in a big data era (Kitchin & Lauriault, 2014). Based on a study of semi-structured in-depth individual interviews with twelve Danish women aged 26 to 49 who use apps for tracking their menstrual cycle, I examine the practices of monitoring the female cycle and discuss how matters of privacy and shame intersect with the menstruating body – both the fleshly, analogue body and the datafied one. Self-tracking (Lupton, 2016; Nafus, 2016; Nafus & Neff, 2016; Selke, 2016) can be studied both as small data and as big data to try and make sense of onlife traces. The (small data) interview-based approach was chosen as it makes room for the sensitivity and depth related to the topic and my overall focus on exploring why women use apps for tracking and which purposes they might fulfil. Furthermore, the interview-based study allows me to explore how women use these apps to make sense of their everyday (on)life, as opposed to a big data approach, which would only show the data traces that they leave behind (Kitchin & Lauriault, 2014). In the following, I will introduce privacy as a feminist objective to situate privacy in the period-tracking practice. Then I will consider how shame has been connected to the menstruating, female body throughout history and how these historical traces of blood relate to the way in which menstruation is experienced today and in connection with the use of period trackers. Secondly, I will present the methodology behind the study and discuss the findings in relation to the existing research found at the intersection of menstruation, shame, privacy and self-tracking.
Privacy: A feminist approach
Privacy has always been a feminist issue, perhaps most strongly emphasized in the often-cited slogan “the personal is political” (Hanisch, 1970), which challenges the dichotomy between private and public life as well as the notion of the subject being self-governing. Instead, feminist scholars have claimed the opposite by outlining theories of the non-sovereign, relational subject (Hanisch, 1970; MacKinnon, 1989; Pateman, 1989). This dichotomy seems crucial when studying how self-tracking practices are embedded in the everyday lives of women and emphasizes the importance of the concept of privacy in this regard. In addition, how does privacy undergo changes in terms of the subject moving from offline to online spaces but still intersect with concepts of control and empowerment (Richardson, 2011)? In Western culture, the concept of privacy has been associated with the private sphere connected to home. The home is where a man has his private belongings under complete and utter control (e.g. his materialistic goods, his children and his wife). From an early feminist perspective, privacy has been seen as a possible cover up for repression, abuse and violence happening in the household, where women were bound and controlled by their husbands without interference from the public – the outside (MacKinnon, 1989). On one hand, it has been difficult for women to find a room of their own – as described in Virginia Woolf’s (1929) famous essay A room of one’s own – even in their own house. On the other hand, total interference from the state in the private and intimate sphere of women’s lives was not a wanted alternative (e.g. governmental control of reproduction and birth control). Using apps for tracking menstruation involves giving away personal data about one’s body. A woman commits to the idea of generating data for an algorithm to process and translate that data into quantifiable outputs. It is like being part of a feedback loop – between the woman and the app – and it is personalized self-tracking technologies in a nutshell; the more information is put into the app, the more precise the feedback that will be received (Xu et al., 2011). It takes a certain amount of personal data to predict a user’s cycle: when she ovulates, when she is most likely to experience PMS and when her next period will arrive. In other words, using self-tracking technologies to gain knowledge about one’s own body entails giving away access to data generated from that same body. This blurs the boundaries between who controls, processes and produces the data. In a perfect world, the self-tracker is able to build a software system that allows her to keep the raw data, process and interpret the produced data herself and thereby substantially minimize the interference in her onlife. However, the average self-tracker does not possess these skills. She will have to trust both the data controller (app provider) and the one processing the data – and more importantly to know and understand the machinery behind her smart service to be able to make informed decisions regarding the disclosure of her private data (Lindqvist, 2018). Research on women’s everyday off-life sharing and disclosure of issues related to their reproductive function and health has shown that societal norms play a huge role in these choices. Even though mothers are advised to breastfeed for as long as possible, it conflicts with the norms and conformity in their workplaces, which involve negative attitudes about maternal bodies (Gatrell, 2007). Breastfeeding mothers either give up breastfeeding or force their maternal bodies to subjugate to the norms of workplace by only producing milk after work, privately (Gatrell, 2007). Scholar Elisabeth Grosz hypothesized that “[…] women’s corporeality is inscribed as a mode of seepage” (Grosz, 1994: 203), and by this she emphasized how women’s bodies have been viewed as contagious and uncontrollable – as opposed to men’s. In the following, I will examine the taboo that historically has been connected to the female, leaking body.
Menstruation: A history of shame and blood
Females make up half of the world’s population and will inevitably experience menstruation in their lives from menarche to menopause. However, even though menstruation is natural and vital to the reproductive process, it bears with it a resilient cultural taboo4 (Chrisler, 2011; Chrisler et al., 2014; Delaney et al., 1976; Phipps, 1980). The strong historical and cultural link between women’s bodies and shame is far from insignificant. While the male body is described and positioned as the gender “neutral” and “normal” body, women’s bodies are positioned as deviant and sometimes even pathological. This bias has leaked into everyday understandings of female bodies and made menstruation an anomaly of normal experience (Dolezal, 2015). The female body is relational; it is the other (Beauvoir, 1989). The quantification of the female body and in particular monthly periods was founded in antiquity. In ancient Greece, Aristotle and the Hippocratics determined the health of a woman by quantifying her period: “The number of days continued to be the most flexible of ancient criteria in determining whether a woman’s period was healthy or not” (Dean-Jones, 1989: 181). The healthy period was quantified by the length, two to three days of heavy bleeding, and by the amount of blood: a pint, which is eight times as much blood as we know today is reasonable. If a woman bled – and evidently many women did – differently from the number of days decided as normal, she was considered either pathological or infertile (Dean-Jones, 1989). Menstruation was seen as a phenomenon corresponding to changes in the moon, and the moon played a significant role in Aristotle’s and the Hippocratics’ attempt to understand the rhythm of menstruating women (Norgaard, 1999). The assumption was that women menstruated synchronically and that the womb would release the blood at the coldest part of the month during the waning moon (Dean-Jones, 1989). It is most unlikely that the women of the fourth or fifth century b.c. bled more heavily than the women of modern Western society. These “scientific” thoughts were produced in the contours of the cultural constructs of the female. However, I find it fascinating that the quantification of the female body (e.g. the amount of blood and the number of period days) has survived until today, when women may not menstruate following the waning moon but instead following algorithmic impulses provided by an app for tracking their cycle. Throughout history, the female menstruating body has been connected with both hysteria mystery and taboo. Aristotle claimed that menstruation blood was impure and that women were to be excluded from participating in activities influencing the community. The uterus was believed to cause hysteria by literally wandering around inside the body and blocking the heart, which was thought to be the key to reason and thought at the time (Dean-Jones, 1989). The only way to avoid or at least to ease the hysteria was for a woman to be with a man: to have sex and give birth. The monthly blood was – and in some cultures still is – a symbol of failure of life. Menstruation has in fact been described as “the uterus crying” – shaming the woman for not conceiving. Today, modern Western women may not think of menstruation as shameful; however, Western culture and society think otherwise. Western feminist philosophers have argued that bodily fluids related to women’s reproductive functions have been connected to disgust and a lack of control of bodily fluids (e.g. breast milk leaking and menstruation blood spilling), which subsequently means a lack of self-control (Gatrell, 2007; Grosz, 1994; Schildrick, 1997). Grosz argued that, “[…] by the process of reproduction, all women’s bodies are marked as different from men’s (and inferior to them) particularly at those bodily regions where women’s differences are most visibly manifest” (Grosz, 1994: 207). The question is how women of today cope with this sense of being different. Various forms of shame connected to menstruation appear among women of today: the shame of bleeding, when all they may want is to become pregnant, the shame of having an irregular cycle, the shame of experiencing certain emotions in relation to menstruation and the shame of bleeding days visualized on a calendar for colleagues to see. Shame is an emotion involving the self, a negative self-evaluation by the individual or by others (Kasabova, 2017); it is different from guilt in terms of being connected and equalized to the subject. Shame can only survive in the dark; if we talk about shame it disappears (Brown, 2015). In the following, I will present and discuss the sampling and methods used in the interview study on which this article is based.
When studying women’s use of period trackers, individual in-depth interviews are able to embrace the sensitivity and sensemaking surrounding the topic as well as identifying the experiences that are often hidden (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2007). The interviews were carried out in Denmark during 2017. My initial aim was to explore how digital menstrual cycle tracking is embedded in the everyday lives of Danish women. I want to understand how women experience tracking their cycle with an app, what kind of necessities the app might fulfil and how this fulfilment potentially differs from keeping track of menstruation in an analogue way or via an online calendar. Inspired by prior studies on period apps from a user and design perspective (Bretschneider, 2015; Epstein et al., 2017), I also aim to find out how period tracking with an app corresponds to the experience of the menstruating body in a socio-cultural context: what does it mean to digitize the body, and is it only a matter of controlling reproduction that encourages women to use period apps? Twelve Danish women who use apps for tracking their menstrual cycle were recruited via Facebook and Twitter using a purposeful sampling technique; interviewees were recruited until data saturation was achieved and no new themes emerged. They ranged in age from 26 to 49 (M=32.5) to avoid very young women just experiencing menarche and to come as close as possible to menopause. This sampling strategy was also carried out to secure a relatively broad representation of what I would refer to as “experienced menstruators”5: women for whom menstruation has been part of their everyday lives for several years. Furthermore, since prior studies (see the introduction) have focused on young women and suggested that negative attitudes towards menstruation decrease with age, this choice of segmentation made sense. Furthermore, I wanted my interviewees to be a mix of parous and nulliparous. All the women were Caucasian, and, even though sexual orientation was not considered to be important in the recruitment, some of the interviewees referred to their partner during the interviews. (One of the interviewees referred to herself as homosexual, seven referred to a male partner and four did not mention their sexuality or a partner.) Narrative semi-structured in-depth interviews (Kvale, 1994) were conducted with open-ended questions, and the interviews were framed like a dialogue to increase the reciprocity and rapport (Hesse-Biber & Leavy, 2007). Interviews were carried out in the private homes of the interviewees (two interviews), at the university of Aarhus (three interviews), at a private space within the workplaces of the interviewees (two interviews) and in a research apartment in Copenhagen (five interviews). The interviewees were given the choice of deciding on the interview setting to accommodate the sensitive nature of the topic as well as practical issues. I aimed at creating an intimate atmosphere of trust and comfort, escaping the sense of formality to ease the interviewees and make them feel as safe and comfortable as possible. Every interview opened and ended with small talk on more general topics to maintain that atmosphere. However, only during the actual interview was the recorder switched on. Due to ethical concerns and respect for the interviewees, this was a deliberate strategy. No names were mentioned, only age and profession, and, during the coding process, I used numbers as a reference scheme to separate the interviewees from each other. However, to ease the reading process of this article – and to emphasize the fact that the interviewees are human, not just data, each interviewee has been given a “fictive” name (see the table below). The duration of the individual interviews ranged from 30 to 85 minutes.
Overview of the sample
|Nana||40||Office assistant||Clue||2 years|
|Maja||37||PhD fellow||Clue||2 years +|
|Susan||28||BA in drama||Woman’s Log||2 years +|
|Sonja||32||BA in nutrition and health||My Days||5 years|
|Sandra||26||MA in media studies||Clue||1 month|
|Donna||26||Consultant||Clue||1 year 3 months|
|Eve||31||MA in natural science||Woman’s Log||6 years|
|Dea||49||State attorney||Clue||1.5 years|
|Judith||36||CEO in PR company||Clue||4 years|
|Ruby||29||PhD fellow||Clue||4 months|
|Freya||28||MA in Scandinavian languages||Natural Cycles||¾ years|
|Silvia||28||MA in aesthetics and culture||Clue||2 years|
All the interviewees were recruited using the snowball sampling technique, being aware that one downside to snowball samples is that they can quickly skew to one type of group or demographic (Tracy, 2013). Looking at the sample for this study, it clearly shows that the majority of the interviewees are highly educated, white and heterosexual. Future research could benefit from expanding the sample size and including a broader variation of demographics to approach more conclusive findings. Throughout the transcription, each interview was coded with different themes for further analysis. The coding process was inductive as the themes were derived from the data: from the words of the interviewees and from my observations. I asked the interviewees to show me their period tracker to see if it was placed on the front screen or in a hidden folder and to observe how they navigated the app. It made sense to have the materiality of the app present. The themes appearing in the first-cycle coding and refined and strengthened in the second-cycle coding (Tracy, 2013) were privacy, shame and reassurance.
Main reasons for use
|First-cycle coding||Second-cycle coding|
|To navigate days of pain, to avoid menstruation being used against you, to hide reproductive labour.||Shame||→ menstrual stigma, reproductive shame, shaming others, shamed by culture|
|To compare length of cycle, to explain unstable emotions (PMS) and physical symptoms (pain, cravings), to gain reassurance.||Reassurance||→ the app as reassurance, coping with negative emotions, PMS|
This ongoing process made it possible to locate similar narratives among the interviews and develop them further. Major interrelated themes occurred: shame related to privacy, shame and privacy related to menstruation and shame and reassurance related to one another. Regardless of age, profession and sexual orientation, these themes were common among the interviewed women and formed the process of analysis. In the following, I will consider how the interviewees experience privacy in connection to period tracking.
Privacy is a twofold matter
[…] yes, I probably have, so they might own my blood. But, really, it is just my period. It is fine by me.(Maja, 37)
It is pretty innocent data for me […] I wouldn’t categorize it as sensitive data.(Nana, 40)
[it] is not something that I care so much about. [I would have done so] had it been my bank account.(Susan, 28)
If I was using my outlook calendar, I would use some sort of code that didn’t say period […] but said something else that I knew meant period.(Eve,31)
I made marks in my calendar but that was also too obvious […], it just seems a bit embarrassing, I guess […]. I mean […] it is private to me. I have this friend and I have recommended her to use the app because I saw on her refrigerator that she had a calendar where there were little crosses […] and I was like isn’t it better that you have it on your smartphone so it isn’t that obvious?(Sonja, 32)
[…] but it is also because the calendar is often shared with someone else, there can potentially be several people seeing it, so in that way it is possibly also a bit taboo for me […]. If I am to look at it objectively […] well, then I guess it is because I don’t want other people to see that I have my period?(Ruby, 29)
I assume that when [the app company] share my data and use it for their big data analysis, then it is anonymized and that I kind of disappear in the crowd. This was suddenly very one-to-one.(Judith, 36)
When sharing data is separated from the body, it feels anonymized, and Judith felt like she disappears in the abundance of data. Allowing someone in our everyday life to see when we ovulate or menstruate is far more private and intimate and can lead to negative evaluation and objectification, as prior studies have shown; it suddenly becomes very “one-to-one”, as Judith explained. Privacy in that sense becomes a twofold matter for the interviewees; they instinctively distinguished between onlife and analogue privacy, between the datafied and the analogue body. In their analogue life, they can (and are prone to) control and hide what they consider to be private, related to their female cycle. In their onlife, however, the situation is far more complex. What they are offered by the app as a private room can potentially be accessed by others. Nissenbaum argued that the right to privacy should be the same online as offline, as onlife is social life (Nissenbaum, 2011); however, it is difficult for the interviewees to claim that right in their onlife. They cling to the notion of being anonymized, disappearing into the crowd and referring to their data as just being data traces of their blood – divorced from their bodies. The urge for privacy is strikingly different when it relates to their datafied bodies than to their analogue bodies. This makes room for an industry that capitalizes not on the female body but rather on the societal and cultural stigma associated with the female body, offering women an opportunity to escape the stigma created by society.
Period trackers as normative standards
I have two friends, one has just given birth and the other one recently lost (...) and we just sit there together with our phones and Clue6 realizing well your cycle is strange too (laughs). That is really calming.(Donna, 26)
The fact that I menstruate […], I don’t want that to be part of my work life […]. I don’t want it to influence their (colleagues and superiors) review of me and what I do […]; maybe they will think that I am premenstrual or something, and I prefer to be in control of when I think that is relevant. [Self-tracking] can be a sort of confirmation to myself that it is okay that I feel the way I do […] so in that sense it can reassure myself. I guess there is something in it […] something like it is true that I am tired […] it reassures me […] apparently, I need to have something that can reassure me in this.(Dea, 49)
Organizational and institutional attitudes towards the menstruating body might vary; however, it is striking that women seek comfort and reassurance in an app because it is too stigmatizing to disclose feeling stressed or exhausted due to period-related pain. Regardless of their workplace, the interviewees from this study collectively expressed the perception of a culture that does not support or embrace the female (reproductive) body (Gatrell, 2007) and taking precautions to avoid being subjected to negative evaluations by colleagues or friends based on their menstrual status. This corresponds to prior studies on how negative evaluations of women are related to their menstrual status (Johnston-Robledo & Chrisler, 2003; Roberts et al., 2002). These precautions materialized among the interviewees in hiding their period in creative ways to keep the fact that they bleed every month hidden from their surroundings. I found that they experienced relief in being provided with a solution to engage with their menstruating bodies in private and that this solution is far more valuable than the risk of leaving substantial onlife traces to be accessed by others.
In this article, I have examined the motives and needs embedded in the usage of period trackers to explore how digital traces from datafied bodies transmit meaning to the everyday life of women who use these trackers. Based on twelve individual in-depth interviews with Danish female self-trackers, I have suggested that period trackers serve not only as digitized management tools to keep track of bleeding days but also as private scopes to engage with the menstruating body: a place to find reassurance and to escape menstrual stigma in everyday life. This indicates that menstruation (still) bears a string of taboos as something one needs to keep hidden and reaffirms prior studies on menstruation and feminist thoughts on the female reproductive body as being leaky and volatile (Chrisler, 2011, Chrisler et al., 2014; Grosz, 1994; Schildrick, 1997). Thus, is using a period tracker just a new digitized way of subjugating and self-policing the female body? The interviewees experienced the period tracker as a way of reclaiming the body – using algorithmic predictions to make sense of their everyday life, be it by individual engagement with the app, by sending screen dumps of PMS notifications to a partner or by comparing unstable cycles with peers. These findings constitute an original contribution to the underresearched field of female self-tracking by situating the usage of self-tracking technologies within a framing of privacy as a feminist objective and historical perspectives on the female body. When the female body is datafied, the interviewees expect to disappear in the abundance of data, which emphasizes why privacy continues to be such an important issue for feminist theory, beginning with the attack on the public/private divide and progressing to an ongoing investigation of privacy related to the female body in off- and online spaces. Questions to pursue in future research could concern data regulations (i.e. GDPR) and how they fit with the IoT and self-tracking practices (Lindqvist, 2018). Self-trackers become prosumers – both consuming and producing data (Lupton, 2015) – which means that we must be aware of the power balance between us (the users) and the industry: what are we giving and what do we receive in return? What kind of knowledge is produced through the self-tracking practice and who benefits from that knowledge? Thus, at the same time, the needs that are potentially formed by societal norms and structures, motivating the datafication of our bodies, are acknowledged. There is much more to these intersections of privacy, datafied bodies and menstrual stigma than can be subsumed in a small interview study. With this article, however, I hope to point towards a more destigmatized dialogue about the female body – in the interplay between digital technology, personal data and issues of ownership and privacy.
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