Overseeing Your Health
Did you know that 84 percent of period tracking apps share your information with third parties? The Organization for the Review of Care and Health Apps (ORCHA) found in a 2022 study that almost 70 percent of these apps share all your bloody and unbloody details for marketing and legal obligations alone. Only about 40 percent use this data for research. How do they get away with this? They include “consent” for these permissions in the tiny, tedious scripts of the terms and conditions. You either agree to these conditions or you have no access to the app. The study of 21 apps found only two apps that they believed to have somewhat ethical practices: Fitbit and Natural Cycles.
However, the surveillance of female presenting and menstruating bodies extends beyond the realm of the technocrats. It seeps into doctor’s offices and bathrooms, homes and schools. In a post-Roe Texas, I feel haunted by the first question they ask when you settle down on that sticky pleather bed with that crackling sheet of paper: “When was the first day of your last menstrual cycle?” Is this question for my health or my alienation? Do my vaginal eruptions frighten doctors?
It is very possible, especially with the current laws in Texas surrounding pregnant bodies that restrict what doctors can and can’t suggest, that doctors are scared. The period question takes on a new meaning in a land where abortion is practically entirely outlawed. The presence of blood acts like a marker on a door declaring you are safe from the Church’s wrath; the blood’s absence, whether from conditions like PCOS or from actual pregnancy, nominates you into this in-between state where you are neither fully subject or object but instead suspect.
Did you know that humans and some bats are the only animals that have monthly periods the way we do? Menstruation occupies a mysterious and poorly understood space/time in the human body, an event that can induce, even in medical professionals, a complete misrecognition of the person menstruating. This knowledge gap, in part, has to do with the lack of resources dedicated to understanding female bodies rather than just trying to control them. The day after my 21st birthday, after an evening of being disgusted by a few sips of grapefruit vodka and devouring coconut shrimp with newfound sophistication barely passing as more than silliness, my boyfriend at the time and I developed intense stomach pain. He was shitting liquid that morning and I journeyed across the sea wall to retrieve remedies. The daze hit me more slowly, but by the afternoon, as we rocked on a tall ship named Elise in the Galveston harbor, I began heaving towards a heaven I couldn’t enjoy. There was nowhere that was dry land for either of us. We took turns using the toilet and the shower at the hotel. Chunky rivers expelled from every end of me.
Finally, we went to the emergency room when we couldn’t take it anymore. I had to be wheeled in as I could not walk due to the dehydration. My boyfriend and I had both gone into the hospital with similar symptoms; we came out, however, with very different diagnoses. He was assessed to have acute gastritis and given pain pills and antibiotics. The male doctor asked me the first day of my last period, which I identified as two days before my birthday. I was still on it. His professional opinion: my diarrhea and vomiting was a result of “womanly problems”. No treatment necessary. All they gave me was a 2000 dollar bill that my insurance would not pay for.
Again and again, female pain is dismissed, morphed into a narrative where biology is destiny. Bitches bleed, so we just need to suck it up. Various studies have shown that women and men are treated very differently in emergency rooms and that male pain is taken more seriously (“Gaslighting in women’s health…”). This issue of invalidation is the most dangerous for Black uterus owners [and other people of color] when their bodies are denied any sensation of pain at all by medical providers (Hoffman et al). A 2016 study found that doctors were far more likely to be medically careless (underestimate pain, prescribe the wrong medicine, ignore symptoms, etc.) when the patient was Black (Hoffman et al).
This is not destiny or science; this is simply bias and the resulting dehumanization. No wonder marginalized people are less likely to trust the medical industry and rely on alternative methods; it was not built for our healing but instead for our exploitation. Menstruation then becomes redefined, not as a sign of health but as a hasty generalization for malady. In this system where you are suspect, your doctor is not defective; your body is.
Policing the Bathroom
Menstrual stigma has always been a source of social invalidation. However, for trans men and trans women, this invalidation seeps painfully across the scarred lines of sex and gender. Earlier in Jack Halberstam’s career, he wrote an essay attempting to uncloak the bathroom problem, something he addressed even before he came out as trans. His book Female Masculinity includes his own struggles of surveillance in the female bathroom and sexualization in the male bathroom, and the challenges faced by other trans men and butch lesbians. He writes of one masculine woman:
“… the bathroom represents a limit to her ability to move around in the public sphere. Her body, with its needs and physical functions, imposes a limit on her attempts to function normally despite her variant gender presentation” (23)
Biology becomes an unnatural barrier for safe access and free expression in patriarchal society. For trans women, it is the lack of periods that make their bodies suspect in gender policing; for trans men, it is the presence of periods that make them vulnerable.
The lack of menstrual product trash cans in men’s restrooms makes it impossible for trans men to safely dispose of the suspicious object in a crowded restroom. Many trans men face potential violence in the men’s restroom, especially around this time of month. The trans man as consumer is also questioned. On store shelves, menstrual products are still displayed visually as feminine products. Trans model Kenny Jones says of his experience:
“‘Having a period already causes me a lot of dysphoria, but this dysphoria becomes heightened when I have to shop for a product that is labeled as a “women’s health” and in most cases, is pretty and pink’”Trans model Kenny Jones
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 75 percent of trans men avoided using the restroom in the past year for fear of confrontation compared to 53 percent of both trans women and nonbinary people. Undeniably, a distrust, even fear, of masculine menstruation exists. Whether it is the threat of sexual assault in the men’s restroom or having security called on you in the women’s restroom, the reality of harassment and violence that trans men face for simply taking care of their body’s needs is disproportionately unjust.
In the next blog post, we will address biopower and how it trickles from the medical industry into homes and schools in the form of menstrual censorship! Bleed well and take up space!
“84% of period tracker apps share data with third parties”, ORCHA, 21 July 2022, https://orchahealth.com/84-of-period-tracker-apps-share-data-with-third-parties/
“2015 US Transgender Survey”, https://www.ustranssurvey.org/reports
Atkins, Chloe. “For transgender men, pain of menstruation is more than just physical”, NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/transgender-men-pain-menstruation-more-just-physical-n1113961.
“Gaslighting in women’s health: No, it’s not just in your head”. Katz Institute for Women’s Health, https://www.northwell.edu/katz-institute-for-womens-health/articles/gaslighting-in-womens-health
Halberstam, Jack. Female Masculinity. https://transreads.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-06-08_5cfba24a7c20f_judith-halberstam-female-masculinity-2.pdf
Hoffman, Kelly M, et al. “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites, Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, vol. 15, no. 113, 4 April 2016, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4843483/.
Johnston-Robledo, Ingrid, and Chrisler, Joan C. “The Menstruation Mark: Menstruation as Social Stigma”, The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, 2020.
Pylypa, Jen. “Power and Bodily Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body”, https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/arizanthro/article/viewFile/18504/18155