Tracking Your Period? There's an App for That.

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When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s new tablet computer earlier this year, there were plenty of snickers about the menstrual undertones of the name “iPad.” Our own Kate Dailey advised the blogosphere to grow up. Now it turns out that the device—and its mobile cousins—are actually useful for, uh, tracking periods.

Period tracking, of course, is nothing new. In 1934 a graduate student at the University of Minnesota named Esther Doerr began a project that was radical at a time when few scientists thought about studying women’s health. Using specially printed cards, she recorded menstrual cycles for about 500 women, most recruited from physical-education classes or sororities at the university as well as the Minneapolis YWCA (where she found what a later research paper would describe as “a somewhat more mature age group”). Her attempt to define normal menstruation earned Doerr a master’s degree—not a small achievement for a woman in the 1930s—but, more important, it led to the creation of an important repository of data on menstruation, the TREMIN Research Program on Women’s Health, now housed at Penn State.

One of Doerr’s advisers at Minnesota, Dr. Alan Treloar, built on her research by following 2,702 women for 30 years. Initially, he had to hand-tabulate most of the data before moving on to computer punch cards in the 1960s. But even with those primitive methods, Treloar and his colleagues were able to create an invaluable research tool that has helped demystify monthly periods.

Imagine what Doerr and Treloar would say about the dozens of apps you can now download to track women’s menstrual cycles, making calculations in nanoseconds that might have taken the TREMIN researchers hours to accomplish. But while the TREMIN project shed light on what happens during menstruation, the apps might do more to illuminate some disturbing gender stereotypes.

Most, quite naturally, are aimed at women. You can tell because they feature the kind of pastel-infused graphics you might expect in a preschool classroom. They also tend to use corny euphemisms like “love connection” for intercourse. Period Tracker, which appears discreetly on your iPhone home screen as P Tracker, features a pretty scene of a tree branch that sprouts and displays flowers on the days users are predicted to be most fertile. Pink Pad is set up like a girlie day planner, with tabs for flow, spotting, libido, and mood, as well as weight and basal body temperature. There’s a forum section where users can join in threads on topics like “Trying to Conceive,” “Dating, Divorce & Breakups,” and “General Postpartum.” (There are also apps aimed at specific groups of women. The Mikvah App allows Orthodox Jewish women to track their cycles so they can follow religious traditions regarding menstruation.)

A few apps are aimed at men only, and the general theme is that women are such volatile creatures that guys need to track hormones for self-protection. Code Red prompts users to enter the first day of the lady in question’s most recent period (“Ask nicely,” it warns, “just in case the answer is NOW!”). After you press a button labeled “Start your new life,” a calendar appears with a colored dot for each day. Blue means “smooth sailing alert,” a good time to break bad news, the app advises, or leave the toilet seat up. At the other end of Code Red’s emotional spectrum are Dark Orange days, which are PMS alerts. The advice: “INCOMING! It is time to prepare for the storm ahead.”

Then there’s PMSBuddy, which also reinforces the message that hormones make harridans. The goal, according to the Web site: “to keep you aware of when your wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, daughter or any other women in your life are closing in on ‘that time of the month.’ ” One of this app’s selling points apparently is that guys can monitor more than one woman at a time—or as a user who identified himself as “Blake Adams” wrote on the iTunes site: “This app is dope, now I can keep all my hoes straight. Peace.”

Social commentary aside, apps for women could be useful in some contexts. Phyllis Mansfield, a retired Penn State professor who ran the TREMIN project, says that the study participants “reported consistently that keeping their records was empowering.” Not only did they learn more about their bodies, she says, but they also found the records helpful when they visited the doctor.

Unfortunately, the apps don’t always reflect the current state of knowledge about menstruation. TREMIN proved that women’s cycles vary a lot, not only from woman to woman, but even for the same woman, from month to month and year to year. Doctors now know that cycles are particularly erratic during the teen years and again when older women are heading toward menopause, and more predictable between 20 and 40. Stress, as well as too much exercise or weight loss, can result in skipped periods. That information apparently hasn’t trickled down to the creators of these apps, many of which automatically predict periods based on the long-discredited idea that all cycles run for 28 days.

Doctors also caution against relying too much on apps as birth control. “You really have to be careful with them,” says Dr. Scott Hayworth, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Mount Kisco, N.Y. “The truth is that a woman can get pregnant any time during her cycle. A woman can even ovulate during her period. These apps may tell you when you’re most likely to be fertile, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get pregnant at any other time.”

But apps still could be helpful to science because they’re easier to use than paper charts. “It’s a great idea for future studies by others,” Mansfield says, “because I think women would be more likely to participate if the task was less onerous.” Elizabeth Kissling, a professor at Eastern Washington University and the president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, agrees. “Some are very detailed and continue to adapt the more you use it,” she says. “They might help doctors diagnose health problems like PMS or pain from fibroids or endometriosis, which require three months of data.” Daily notes also provide much more reliable information; research shows that most people remember pain in retrospect as being worse than it was when they experienced it.

The apps for men have fewer redeeming virtues, in our view. Gender-blind studies of PMS show that men’s and women’s moods are equally erratic. “Men always want to excuse away any responsibility if their partner is grumpy, so they say it must be PMS,” says Julia Saunders, a sex educator who runs the site sexloveintelligence.com, “when it could be that [the men] are just irritating.” Maybe it’s time for a female developer to create an app just for us to help track the guys. Any ideas for names?

With Katie Maloney

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