The FemGuide: Issue 3

Vaccines + periods, the importance of female data collection, and renegotiating physical boundaries in the post-pandemic era

Hello! Thanks for checking out the third issue of The FemGuide. As we (hopefully) begin to move into a new era of normal, I want to reflect on two important takeaways that we can learn from the pandemic: 1) the importance of female - specifically, menstrual - health data and 2) the ability to reflect and renegotiate boundaries about physical touch. For a quick recap on the previous newsletters and where to find them:

  • Issue 1: PMDD, opportunities in the condom industry, and female athletes

  • Issue 2: Ovulation, the subsequent race to build novel fertility-tracking technology, and the detrimental impact of Sigmund Freud’s work.

I am already anticipating next month’s newsletter, which will include a big startup reveal *and* highlight some wild research that impacts the men in your lives. If you have any friends who would be interested in this, please share below!

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Science: Periods and Vaccines

The COVID-19 pandemic unveiled significant flaws in society. We’re now cognizant of how much women shoulder the majority of household responsibilities and how often they are the first employees to get fired. We’ve finally started to discuss racial discrepancies in health risks and healthcare. And, we’ve finally come to recognize the consequences of not including sex-specific health data in medical research (i.e. - things that only affect females or affect females differently). Recently, we have become especially aware of how this is true for menstrual health.

As many individuals began to do their part to end this pandemic and receive the vaccine, a curious anecdotal finding arose: women started reporting irregular period symptoms and shifts in their menstrual cycle. A main catalyst to this widespread awareness was a tweet by Dr. Kate Clancy about her own period changes, asking if anyone else had experienced the same. The tweet received so much traction that Dr. Clancy created a study about it. (If you have received the vaccine, I encourage you to participate in the study, linked here!). I’ve personally been asked about this topic dozens of times in the last few weeks.  

First and foremost, I do not believe this finding is a valid reason not to get vaccinated. Research demonstrates that the risks to one’s period health by contracting the virus or even living through a pandemic are greater than the risks associated with the vaccine. Also, and I can’t believe it is even necessary to clarify this, it is impossible for one’s menstrual cycle to be influenced by other people getting the vaccine. 

Yet, the fanfare around this subject reveals a massive oversight in medical research and clinical care: we have almost no baseline data on menstrual cycles. Moreover, there are essentially no established protocols for assessing the menstrual cycle or related symptoms. This is even crazier to think about if you reflect on all the other, rare, less relevant things that are tracked in the stacks of paperwork you fill out at the doctor’s office. Without this data, it is virtually impossible to assess if or how the vaccine may be creating an effect.

In the absence of established scientific inquiry, females are resorting to other ways to document their symptoms, such as tweets, Reddit threads, or even emojis on The Skimm’s Instagram page. We deserve the scientific method, not the same methods we use to respond to our friend’s engagements or product giveaways.

When I first recognized the extent of this issue a few years ago, I resolved to focus my research on assessing menstrual symptom data. I reached out to the scientists at St. Mary’s University who, in partnership with STRAVA, had created the largest global survey of active women. In their first study, this research team created the Menstrual Symptom index (MSi), a novel way to assess symptoms. I utilized this dataset and the MSi to analyze how variables such as exercise, diet, and sleep affect menstrual symptoms.  

Excitingly, a research team at Harvard, in partnership with Apple, essentially replicated this research, which they announced in a press release in March (I can’t help but have a tiny bit of pride that our survey was still slightly larger). With new initiatives such as Apple Research focusing on women’s health data, or Oura Ring trying to fill a similar need for baseline pregnancy data, there is hope for eventually filling this female-specific data gap. I aim to contribute by focusing my own research on assessing best practices for standardizing cycle-tracking data.

While it drives me crazy that “it took a pandemic to get people to talk about menstruation”, I hope the silver lining of this potential vaccine connection catalyzes more funding and awareness surrounding the importance of this issue. When it comes to the relationship between the vaccine and period health, a connection is certainly plausible given that menstruation is an inflammatory process related to the immune system. Also, women’s anecdotal experiences often precede scientific discovery by quite a large margin (and historically have been dismissed). Thus, this collective reporting of symptoms should hold significance, even when done via emoji. I will continue to share updates here as the scientific evidence materializes. Until then, here are a few articles I recommend for further reading:

Startups: On hiatus

The other two sections are quite extensive this week so I’ve decided to opt out of highlighting a company this month. Given next month will include a big startup reveal, let’s build anticipation for that! If you are really devastated by this lack of content, please take the time you would spend reading to fill out the post-vax period symptom survey here.

Social Change: The Gendered Psychological Burden of Physical Touch

I cannot remember the last thing I read that moved me to tears, but this piece sure did. It had such a profound impact on me that I’d like to consciously sidestep away from female bodies to the lived experience of those who identify as women - regardless of their sex hormones - and highlight this incredible essay by Melissa Febos. 

The article is an excerpt from Febos’ larger work of essays, titled Girlhood, which is next in my reading queue (let me know if you want to join me and chat about it!). In this essay, Febos depicts her personal journey unpacking and understanding her relationship with physical touch and the inherent and explicit negotiation of boundaries around it.

My initial intention for this newsletter was to summarize the works I highlighted, in order to peak interest and provide the spark notes for skimmers. But I’ve decided this essay is so particularly articulate that it deserves to be read as written rather than demoted to an abridged recap. So, I will leave you with a brief excerpt and encouragement to make the time to read this in full. 

“During the pandemic, I have been happy to live without the inevitable close-talking men at literary or work events. I do not miss shoulder squeezes, back pats, draped arms or even handshakes. Of course, plenty of people don’t tolerate touch they feel ambivalent about or actively abhor, but I suspect that a majority of them live in male-identified bodies.

This year, at home with my partner, Donika, has been the first in which I have experienced only touch that I enthusiastically want. This has left more space for me to relate to my own body, to understand when I need to retreat or when I crave touch and what kind. These signals have been like a song, forever broken by the static of other people’s wants, that I have been able to hear uninterrupted for the first time.”

What else I’m reading