About a month ago, I was at a party listening to some women I didn’t know very well evangelize their favorite period tracking app, Clue. At the time, I used an app called Pink Pad to track my own period, but I eavesdropped with interest as these women extolled Clue’s many superior virtues. For one thing, it wasn’t immediately obvious as a period app, ambiguous in name and avatar design (most period apps, including Pink Pad, are both very pink and very obvious). Clue also provides a truly comprehensive array of data-collection options, offering users the option to track up to 31 possible categories, including cravings, digestion, hair, skin, emotions, motivation, sex, and, somewhat curiously, one called “party.”
I downloaded the app immediately, and instead of using it as a replacement for Pink Pad, I began using both. On Clue, I only enter data for 8 of the available 31 categories (my partner is a woman, which lets me eliminate a good seven or eight items dedicated to pregnancy and birth control), but still, between both apps, I hand over a lot of information. And while I’ve found them helpful in knowing when to expect my period — and likewise the PMS that precedes it — I’ve started to wonder whether they might give me a bit too much information in return.
My friend Katie, also a journalist, told me recently that she’d stopped using her own period-tracker apps because they made her feel too, well, hormonal. “Once I was tracking every week, I stopped feeling like I could trust my feelings, because you’re either PMS-ing or ovulating or on your period,” she said. Many period apps are designed to highlight the predicted fertile window, PMS window, and menstruation window in various colors and designs, leaving very few days that appear completely untouched by our cycles. And even if that information is technically accurate, that doesn’t mean we necessarily want (or need) to attribute every passing mood or symptom to our biology. “[Using a period tracker] made me feel kind of like a mammal, not a human,” said Katie. “It made me second-guess myself. I wanted to be like, maybe my boyfriend is just being a dick.”
I, too, have experienced the righteous indignation of the PMS-haver who wants her maybe-PMS-heightened feelings to be considered legitimate in their own right. Sure, it may be true that PMS makes me irritable and impatient, but must that also mean that my girlfriend isn’t walking annoyingly slowly? While period apps (at least, the ones that I’ve used) don’t actively tell users their feelings aren’t valid or more complicated than PMS, they might contribute to our overestimation of the effects our periods have on our daily lives by suggesting so many potential consequences.
“I think [my period tracker] makes me overthink a lot of what’s happening around my fertile window or PMS, because there are so many specific symptoms listed that there’s a weird psychosomatic effect in my brain,” says Nicole Nguyen, a technology reporter at BuzzFeed News who has written about period trackers in the past. “I’ll be like, ‘Maybe I am feeling a little bloated in my face!’”
From a gynecologist’s perspective, though, these apps do more good than harm. “Menstrual tracking is something we gynecologists have recommended for years, even before smartphones and apps,” says Lisa Agustines, an ob-gyn at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles. “Apps just make it easier to do. You can review them more easily with your gynecologist.” It is, of course, much easier for me to rattle off the first day of my last period at a doctor’s appointment now that I can look it up on my phone. But most period apps track far more than menstruation itself, and not always accurately — one 2016 study found that only 4 of the top 53 period-tracker sites and apps accurately predicted a woman’s fertile window.
“Period apps strike me as an ‘overteched’ solution for something that could be done with a Google form or a journal,” says Nguyen. The problem, of course, is that most women will find it much easier to consistently use an app than a journal, and getting accurate information from either one depends on consistent use. “[These apps] don’t work unless you’re engaging with them every day,” says Nguyen. And even then, they’re neither perfect nor clairvoyant.
“I think it’s a good idea to track these things, but I think it’s wrong to say, well, historically the next seven days are when I get more irritable, and therefore I’m going to be more irritable,” says Agustines. Human beings are suggestible creatures: Being told to expect certain side effects to a medication, for instance, makes it more likely that we will experience them. It’s easy to see how Clue’s depiction of users’ predicted PMS windows as a series of stormy gray clouds could create an expectation of gloom and turmoil. But it doesn’t have to, necessarily. The important thing to remember is that you control your period app; your period app does not control you.