by Sara De Benedictis

This post is based on a talk I gave in July 2019 for a live recording of The Blobcast Podcast at the Life Rewired Festival at the Barbican. Thanks to everyone at The Blobcast for putting on the event.

When I was asked to speak about hacking periods my first thought was to think through what ‘hacking periods’ means. In my mind, on one level, ‘hacking periods’ speaks to the increasingly digitised and consumerist way that we are thinking about menstruation, mainly in the Global North.

It speaks to the explosion of apps that have emerged that enable us to track periods and our bodies more generally. Or how we might wear certain smart technologies that measure bodily functions – like watches or jewellery that promise to tell us about when and how menstruation happens. The sociologist Deborah Lupton calls these mHealth technologies, which she has researched in her aim to produce critical digital health studies.

Period hacking promises to teach us about how our own bodies work.

If we’re thinking more broadly about what the phrase means then, it suggests that to hack is to solve and the issue to be solved is menstruation.

Imogen Tyler notes that for some time bodies that are thought to menstruate and birth (noted with a caveat as not all women do these things and not all people who menstruate or birth children may identify as women) have been problematised in Western culture against male bodies that have been put forward as the norm.

Menstruation (and menstruating bodies) has long been positioned as a problem, issue or inconvenience. And further the narratives of menstruation that have historically occupied the public sphere tend to favour certain subjects (see for example Louise Lander’s great book). So period hacking might be seen to step in to temper the ‘problem’ of menstruation and promise to enlighten experiences and knowledge of menstruating bodies.

These are points that come to mind when I think about what period hacking offers and I’ll be thinking about them today, but within this there are broader questions that came to mind when I was thinking through the cultural politics of period hacking.

I am proudly what Sara Ahmed would call a ‘feminist killjoy’ and so I will be bringing feminist critique to bear on the idea of period hacking.

First, societally period hacking is being put forward as progressive for women and is often marketed through a feminist discourse of empowerment. So my first set of questions are around which subject is being spoken to through such a cultural imaginary? What is being promised by ‘period hacking’? And how might this link and speak to broader societal changes?

Second, within this idea of being able to solve the problem of periods, I wonder what new social inequalities might be manifesting through the call to hack periods.

Third, I want to think through what the potentials of period hacking might be and what might need to change to realise these.

The ideal menstruating subject?

There are a number of underlying assumptions that I want to unpack around who is called to hack their period.

If we think about period hacking, then the first thing that needs to be acknowledged in my mind, no matter how progressive and empowering hacking our periods might seem, is that period hacking is opening a new market.

This market seems to operate in two obvious ways. First, we are asked to buy products to hack our periods. Second, in tracking periods we are producing and giving away data that can, and, in ways that we might be unaware, will be used and sold by and to large corporations.

Already this positions the menstruating subject as someone who has the ability to buy such products (apps, high spec phones, wearable technologies). It also positions them in ways that makes individuals responsible for their own bodies, asks them to increasingly track and regulate them and be individually aware of any potential issues around menstruation or reproduction that might emerge. It positions subjects as wholly responsible for their own menstrual and reproductive health.

This idea chimes with broader notions about culture, neoliberalism and social inequalities that many academics have explored, such as Catherine Rottenberg, Ros Gill and Christina Scharff, Francesca Sobande to name only but a few, noting how market ideas (like quantification, regulation, commodification) intrude and shape the contours of our cultural and psychosocial lives. In this vein, Deborah Lupton makes a more specific point that we can relate to period hacking. In her research into tracking apps for sex, fertility and ovulation she notes that those aimed at women recreate a long history of women self-tracking ovulation and fertility. However, she states that these types of apps increase and intensify self-surveillance, packaging this in playful, empowering and progressive ways. Within mHealth technologies, knowledge is assumed to only be valid if it produced through data and can be quantified as she notes:

Many of these self-tracking apps seek to impose order on otherwise disorderly or chaotic female bodies, using data to do so. Here again quantification and the supposed benefits of neutrality offered by digital data are promoted and valued over people’s own embodied knowledges of their bodies. The rhetoric used to promote the apps and in the text of the apps themselves suggests that the apps allow women to achieve a greater level of knowledge about their bodies than they otherwise might through observing and recording their bodies’ signs, symptoms and sensations using ‘data science’.

So we can see that the ideal menstruating subject who is called upon to hack their periods is someone who can afford and wants to track and quantify menstruation over and above any knowledge they might have about their own bodies. Someone who can and wants to control reproduction (and indeed who will reproduce in the future, which is another story entirely around the linking of menstruation to reproduction and how this might reinforce ideas about gender and reproduction). She is also someone who willing trades this information for reasons that are currently a bit hazy…Period hacking, therefore, could be seen as part of what Shoshuna Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’, an ‘uncontested’ form of ‘Big Power’ that ‘is constituted by unexpected and often illegible mechanisms of extraction, commodification, and control that effectively exile persons from their own behavior while producing new markets of behavioural prediction and modification.’

As Deborah Lupton also points out, the concern around these apps is that it is unclear how private and anonymised the tradeable data that is produced is. To which she cites an example of FitBit accidentally leaking data in 2011. But she also argues that such apps change how we engage with our own bodies as we see them as things to track, monitor and regulate in line with broader shifts: we experience our bodies and selves through, to quote her, ‘algorithmic subjectivity’.

What social inequalities might manifest through hacking periods?

This brings me to my main concern in hacking periods as I wonder what social inequalities these might reproduce. Although a menstruation tracking app such as Clue may be free to download, the products needed to use such apps and ‘more accurately’ track menstruation are costly. For example, the cheapest iPhone currently sells for around £449 and wearable technologies that promise to track elements of menstruation such as Bellabeat necklaces or Garmin watches sell for around £99.99 and £149.99 respectively. If period hacking is commodified then that means only certain people can participate – arguably the most privileged in society.

So I wonder why is it that we are seeing period hacking emerge at the exact time that we are seeing ‘period poverty’ take up more of a societal and cultural spotlight?

Imogen Tyler has written extensively about motherhood, pregnancy and class. She argues that through various types of representations of motherhood new middle-class norms are created which place women as responsible subjects who consume the right products, participate in the labour market and ‘postpone’ pregnancy to engage in the market and not ‘drain’ the state. These ‘good’ subjects set a bar against which ‘bad’ subjects are defined: as unable or unwilling to fulfil these new norms. This sees new types of social inequalities materialise based on such contemporary sociocultural dictates.

I see the same process happening through period hacking and its ‘other’: the subject of ‘period poverty’. Those who hack are constructed as successful, controlled, progressive and forward-thinking subjects. Those who can’t hack are positioned representationally as unable (or unwilling?) to use products that allow them to control their periods. They are created as unsuccessful, abject and uncontrolled subjects. In my research for The ‘Period Poverty’ Project points out, the ‘bad’ menstruating subject who fails through ‘period poverty’ is often represented in news coverage as working class, black or brown girls.

This is how social inequalities are (re)ignited through contemporary discourses around menstruation and more research is needed to understand how such ‘bad’ subjects might be created as ‘aberrant and deviant’ to create the ‘good’ subject who hacks their period.

But the issue might not only be representational. If certain types of people are called upon or are able to use products to hack their periods, and the data is used in turn to inform medical research (which I read is increasingly happening), then potentially only certain groups might benefit from this increase in ‘knowledge’.

What we must also ask and probe then is how is this data being used because if it is only used to help certain groups then I’m not sure how progressive period hacking can be. It may reiterate a much longer history that Louise Lander discusses whereby working-class girls and women’s experience of menstruation are ignored in discussions of menstruation in the public sphere.

The progressive potential of period-hacking?

So where does this leave us in relation to the potentials of period hacking? I am going to leave you today with three points:

  • In my mind, period hacking can only be progressive if everyone has access to the technology, we have control over our own data and the positive health changes that may emerge from this type of period hacking is available to all. We need to think together about ethical ways in which we can do this for a more just and equal society.
  • Related to this point, as Deborah Lupton persuasively argues, it is important that shifts such as period hacking are not the only source of menstruation health that we are gaining as a society. We need to open up what we see as valid knowledge about our bodies. Yes, we might gain some types of knowledge from period hacking, but this knowledge shouldn’t be controlled by corporates and it is not the only type of knowledge we have. We know a lot about our own bodies too!
  • Which brings me on to my last point. My talk today has been based on academic writing and my own research but there will be alternative discourses and perspectives circulating about period hacking that I am unaware of or can’t speak to. So it’s important to speak to people from different social groups to understand who is hacking their periods, what benefits they may be gaining, what need it might be fulfilling and who is left out of the equation before we can claim the progressive potential of period hacking.

 

Thanks to Kim Allen for her amazing comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this blog post.