Women Biohackers Take Root in Silicon Valley

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Photo: Mads Perch

Before Ubering to work on a recent Friday, Megan Klimen matter-of-factly rattled off her biohacks — a definition that may or may not include her My Little Pony hair colors (two tones of aqua blue). There’s the paleo and Atkins diet and sometimes Soylent. There’s the butter-loaded Bulletproof Coffee to help, with intermittent fasting for a few hours, “IF” for short. She orders Modafinil from an online pharmacy to stay alert — one of the brain-enhancing drugs known as nootropics. She’s toyed with biphasic sleep, where she’ll wake after four hours, work for a while, and sleep another four. She’s in the middle of taking hormones to freeze her eggs. What else …

“Oh, and then there’s the magnet in my finger.”

She lets me press it. She finds a bobby pin to demo picking it up. It tingles when the microwave is on. “It’s interesting to have another sense,” she says.

Amid the #timeisprecious crucible of start-up-landia, wellness culture has created a movement pitched to knowledge workers, applying their love of disrupting traditional systems to the human body — as one start-up puts it, “the next big innovation platform.” While the most fervent among them wait for Elon Musk’s neural lace to compete with artificial intelligence or implant LED lights in their hands, everyday biohackers are subverting the body’s tendency to get tired, foggy, or flabby with chemicals and tech and diet. The goal is to become self-realized, productive, and profitable human — an Alpha class. But Klimen, a biologist and start-up founder, has found that not all biohacking intentions are considered equal: “I think there’s totally a different hue, being a woman,” she says. “There’s an understanding men are doing it for health optimization, and women are doing it for aesthetics and dieting. I just think there’s a lot more stigma, and it’s dismissed a lot more.”

Strange, because many would argue women are the original bodyhackers. There’s an eye-rolling sense in some quarters that the male acolytes hail the male gurus of the movement — Bulletproof Coffee’s Dave Asprey, The 4-Hour Body’s Tim Ferriss, Fat-Burning Man’s Abel James, Soylent’s Rob Rhinehart — as revolutionaries when in fact they just repackaged long-time female pursuits of dieting, SlimFast, and hormone treatments (i.e., birth control), then made a fortune selling to an audience that skews as male as Silicon Valley itself.

And women have long been performing the hallmark of the “quantified self” movement — counting — with menstrual cycles, calories, or weight, for ages. Now they are finding they must count again: Supplement dosages and fasting regimens are often calculated for the male body — leaving women to work out their own modifications. “’Biohacking for women’ has TERRIBLE SEO results and no matter where I look, I can’t find a single woman to model my biohacking practices after,” says 25-year-old Vanessa Menchaca.

Before Juliet Starrett turned to the fitness industry, she was an attorney, and she saw countless conversations about how few women advanced to partner. Now a Bulletproof ambassador who owns a CrossFit gym in San Francisco, Starrett says she was surprised to find the same dynamic in the wellness sphere. “There’s not a ton of space for women’s voices yet in this world.” There are exceptions: Starrett herself will be onstage at next month’s Bulletproof Conference in California, where the speaker lineup will have roughly equal numbers of men and women (Asprey is “doing a great job; others not so much,” Starrett says). She estimates that conference attendees, on the other hand, are about 70 percent male.

Starrett says drinking coffee with a huge lump of butter and following a high-fat ketogenic diet “may freak out some dieters,” after years of mistaken conditioning that fat is women’s biggest weight-loss foe. “I think, sadly, most women want to have a skinny little body and culturally we’re still told that’s what’s good.” There’s also the proverbial pipeline problem: Nutritional supplements and performance pills are associated with burly weightlifters. Add that to the factor of the tech bros who dominate biohacking, and you start to understand why some women end up turned off.

And not all women have gotten the memo that what they’re doing has a new name: When I messaged a friend who nibbles nootropic TruBrain Focus Sticks at her start-up, she typed back, “I have never heard of that term, LOL. I don’t think it’s biohacking, but maybe that’s because I don’t want to identify with tech culture.”

Nootrobox found its first customers by posting in male bastions like Reddit and Hacker News, but they want to appeal to more women (the company has one woman employee among its 13-person staff). “We’re doing everything we can to make it androgynous and palatable,” says co-founder Michael Brandt. “How do we be futuristic without an inherent masculine tone to things? One thing we’re trying to unpack is how to make it for everyone.” One answer has been the company’s “GO CUBES,” square gummies equal in caffeine to a half-cup of coffee. Gummies don’t seem as hard-core as pills — more candy than pharmaceutical — which may explain the 50-50 male-female split among customers.

Like their male counterparts, many women biohackers are techies too. The hacking jargon resonates; many said they liked the focus on chemistry and academic studies and calculating their “stack” or combo of supplements — divorcing dieting from the emotional baggage.

Yet the world has yet to catch up to women putting their bodies in such terms. Menchaca recently attended the Bulletproof convention in London, where she estimates there were 15 men for every woman. Menchaca recalls that Asprey “swallowed eight pills in front of everyone. Everyone was like ooh ahh, and saying, ‘Modafinil.’” Menchaca had taken most of the same supplements that morning, but says “there’s a lack of showmanship among women about it. We’re not as eager to put ourselves out there as lab rats because we get a lot of backlash.”

Unsurprisingly, the scrutiny facing any female pursuit has entered this futuristic one as well, and women biohackers reel off a list of double standards: Male biohackers are tweaking their brain; women are neurotic about what they eat. Men are fasting; women have an eating disorder. “If you’re like, ‘There are all these studies about oxidative stress,’ they’ll be like, ‘That’s a really good excuse you have for being anorexic,’” says Klimen, the one with the magnet in her finger.

The assumptions go on and on: Women biohacking are just trying to hang out with the boys. (“I really don’t like when people call me one of the guys; it’s a way to demean my efforts to be a better me,” one woman says.) That a woman is being judgy about what you eat, because she eats differently. (“It’s hard for people to not hear what you’re doing as a criticism of what they’re doing.”) What about your future children? (“What if I’m doing things that have nothing to do with my reproductive system? Back up!”)

Envious of the energy level of the women I’d been talking to, I called my doctor to schedule blood and hormone labs — the first step to create a biohacking regime. Mostly, I was looking for a way to be less tired in the afternoons, having always suspected my post-lunch coma was a bit extreme. The receptionist on the other end asked the inevitable: “Are you trying to get pregnant?” “Nope!” I replied. “Just trying to feel better and less tired!” She said she needed an actual ailment to put as the reason for the visit, and decided on “exhaustion.”

Not finding a lot of understanding from traditional doctors, most head to the mainstream biohacker-community blogs, Slack channels, Facebook groups, Reddit threads (sample topic: “Do magnets have to be gold plated to be inserted into your fingers or will nickel plating work?”). Menchaca, the blogger who complained about the bad SEO results, is now that SEO result, writing a blog on the subject while working toward a masters in development studies in London. She talks quickly and excitedly (“I feel giddy all the time”), saying biohacking turned her from a sickly child constantly in the hospital into a weightlifting hobbyist who backpacks around Asia. Along with being gluten- and dairy-free, she takes four daily supplements, including Modafinil a few times a week: “It makes me feel like I got 12 hours of sleep, ate a huge salad, and could punch the sun, in that order.”

The more affluent biohackers call Dr. Molly Maloof, a San Francisco doctor and nutritionist who creates regimens that go by names like “Brain Optimization” and “Executive Wellness.” Maloof is an avid biohacker herself, posting selfies on social media alongside information about her latest supplement experiment. Maloof says there is reason for caution: The risk of biohacking veering into eating disorders is real — especially if patients have a history with them. The long-term effects of nootropics aren’t known. And women are not built to fast like men are.

Still, a handful of women show up each week to Nootrobox’s WeFast Break Fast at a San Francisco restaurant, where many eat for the first time in at least 24 hours. (“Whenever anyone talks about female reproductive hormones, the men in the group mostly don’t have any interest,” one woman there told me.) One stood out: Stephanie Haughey, one of a few women but the only one who stood a willowy six feet tall with naturally occurring white hair and futurist purple-tinted glasses.

When she walked in, Haughey recognized the young male co-founder of Ample, a meal shake she’d donated to on Kickstarter. She took a photo with him, and he handed her a bottle out of his backpack. She call her regimen “healthful living,” not biohacking — the same thing she’d been doing via yoga and organic eating and fasting as long as the Nootrobox founder chatting with her had been alive.

But it’s all for the same end: “I want to be able to feel good when I get up, and, as Dave Asprey would say, ‘Kick ass!’” Nootrobox’s co-founder laughed, and Haughey raised a fist to punch the sun.