Menstrual geeking: getting started

I was surfing around on Vagina Dentata which I stumble across periodically (most recently in our last linkspam) but have not quite got to feed-reader-adding yet. This is poor form I admit — I’ll go right off and add it after writing this — but does mean that I can enjoy a number of posts at once. Today I spent some time on periods. Periods. PERIODS. P.E.R.I.O.D.S. and Time to talk periods and thought other folks of the menstruating kind and/or the geeky kind might enjoy a bit of related geekery.

My official menstrual cycle education essentially boiled down to, if I recall correctly, that there was a time when one bled, a longer time when one didn’t and that at some point during the longer time ovulation occurred. And there were was certain amount of practical information regarding pads and tampons, which largely came down to a few diagrams and “beware Toxic Shock Syndrome”. Only in my mid-twenties, looking only to fill, I think, idle geek time, I found out about the follicular phase and the luteal phase, about fertilisation taking place in the Fallopian tubes and implantation occurring only around a week later, about the fairly short lifespan of the ovum and the fairly large corpus luteum cysts that ovulating women develop each cycle. (I had an early ultrasound of my current pregnancy, while the cyst was still presumably secreting progesterone, and it was a fairly big black circle on my ovary.) As best I understand, and I’m very much a layperson when it comes to the science of menstruation, Wikipedia’s article on the menstrual cycle is a good place to start reading for your menstrual geeking initiation.

I learned this when on the recommendation of another woman geek I picked up Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It’s a Fertility Awareness guide, about using a combination of basal body temperature, cervical mucus and cervical position to identify fertile times in your menstrual cycle in order to either get pregnant or avoid it. (This is not necessarily a religiously inspired practice, and it’s more effective as a contraceptive than you’d expect: much of the dubious reputation of cycle-based methods of contraception comes from use of strictly calendar based methods. Fertility Awareness requires a fairly good working knowledge of the signs and the use of either barrier methods or abstinence at fertile times though, with failure modes you can imagine.) I can’t get as excited about the idea of taking my temperature every morning of my fertile life as Weschler can, and I’ve never charted a cycle to the extent that would satisfy a Fertility Awareness educator, but I have tracked my temperature through a couple of cycles in order to observe the basic signs. I’d recommend this book if you’d like to do some serious observing of your menstrual cycle from, as it were, the outside.

Vagina Dentata also has a promising pointer to the re: Cycling blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle research, and you might be interested in (note: photos of cervixes at link… as you’d expect) the Beautiful Cervix photos taken throughout various people’s cycles.

If you have a geeky interest in menstruation and related things, what are the coolest facts you know, and what are your favourite sources of info?

Someone is going to make a bingo card about my notes to commenters some day, aren’t they? Today’s note is: remember that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

39 thoughts on “Menstrual geeking: getting started

  1. Brenda

    lets talk about them… haven’t had one for 40 weeks now. guess why :-)

    i recall a history teacher mentioning roman women using rolled up sheepwool as tampons. no idea if it’s true.

    1. Mary Post author

      The Museum of Menstruation speculates that in pre-20th century Europe and America women didn’t use anything to absorb their flow and simply bled onto the underlayers of their clothing.

      1. Melissa

        That does not sound pleasant at all.

        Well, nor does the sheepswool tampon to be honest. Not too sure they’d be good for the system with the lanolin (which would mess up the soaking process anyway) and whatever other muck hand-processed wool of that day would have had in it.

        The theory is right up there with the intestine condoms — which did actually happen — so who knows.

      2. Jonquil

        That’s *really, really* unlikely. I’ve seen chemises (the one underlayer women consistently wore) and they simply aren’t thick enough to absorb heavy flow, even when supplemented by petticoats. Furthermore, this solution assumes that every woman had so many chemises that she could get through seven days of flow *plus* have something else to wear on laundry day. That’s an unwise economic assumption.

        More likely, women in that period used rags, just as is attested in the 19th century. (Note! Important fact that is often elided about Lizzie Borden. She was on her period and had a bucket of discarded menstrual rags in the closet. Some theorists now think she could have disposed of anything blood-soaked in that bucket and have had the detectives much too delicate to investigate. This is not an urban legend; I’ve seen references to it in very reputable sources.)

        1. Mary Post author

          seven days of flow

          I am not a clothing geek at all (thanks for the info) but is this really the mean/median length of a menstrual bleed? Mine is about four days, two of which are very light… and two of which are very not.

        2. Jonquil

          A hasty Google gives me (on a tiny sample) an average length of 5.2 +- 1 days.

          And I really really envy you the short length. Mine does run the 7 days I quoted, which is a bit over average but not a lot.

        3. Mary Post author

          Speaking of length, I was reminded off-blog to make the distinction clear between menstrual bleeding and withdrawal bleeding. The latter is what you get if you’re a hormonal contraceptive user and you take the seven days of sugar pills that’s included in most varieties (or the week in which the NuvaRing is taken out, etc).

          The two are quite different for me: withdrawal bleeding is considerably longer but lighter than menstrual bleeding following a (presumed, I don’t often check the signs) ovulatory cycle.

        4. Mackenzie

          Seven sounds reasonable. I go 6 at least of actually bleeding and then one or two more of “well…there’s a bit left in there…don’t give up panty-liners yet.”

  2. pfctdayelise

    OMG, someone else started a conversation about menstruation. I must take the opportunity to mention Menstrual cups! Reusable long-life products worn internally to catch and discard of one’s menstrual blood.

    I learned about them on Livejournal, but I think that makes them niche, not necessarily geeky :) Although some come with measurements so you can attempt to measure your flow, that’s getting pretty geeky.

      1. Jonquil

        This has always been the marker for me of Feminists Going Waaaay Too Far, given that this is a body fluid we’re talking about, one that (A) smells increasingly unpleasant with time and (B) is not stable over time, so the art may or may not last. Your feminism may vary.

    1. Jonquil

      I’ve always wondered — how do you wash out the cups when you’re in public? Do you carry them out of the toilet stall and wash them in the communal sink?

      1. cofax

        They can be dumped in the toilet and reinserted, if you’re not too squeamish. Or, yeah, go rinse in the sink and go back in the stall. But they’re supposed to be good for 8-12 hours, so one doesn’t need to do that so often.

        Me, I tried them and couldn’t handle it: too uncomfortable and messy for me. But I am fully in support of the technology.

      2. Skud

        On the occasions where I’ve needed to change mine in public, I used a restroom that had a basin inside the room/stall/thingy — some disabled toilets are set up this way, as are many toilets in restaurants etc, at least in — and given it a quick rinse before reinserting. I know there are issues around TABs using disabled stalls, so I should probably note that I’m also making an effort not to inconvenience anyone who needs it more than I do.

      3. Julie

        I empty mine into the toilet and then clean out with some toilet paper if i’m in a public toilet then reinsert, the i’ve only had to do that once, usually i just empty first thing in the morning in the shower and last thing and night before i go to bed and then steralize it by boiling it on the stove top in water after my period is over… although i’m currently 4 months pregnant so haven’t had to use it in a while

    2. K

      Yeah for menstral cups.

      I have been a very happy menstrual cup user for over 10 years. I first learned about them at Concordia university. It was so empowering to have a different way to deal with menstral flow. Tampons are toxins with all the bleach and chemicals – pads are just messy.

      If you have never tried the are so worth it.

      I don’t “measure” my flow though – seems to be going to far.

  3. Rory

    Its funny you brought this up, as menstruation cycles and the related topic of infertility is something I really geeked out on, when I had problems getting pregnant a few years ago. My geekyness did come in handy when dealing with my endometriosis and infertility, as I did a ton of research on it. This gave me the confidence to carry on knowledgeable conversations with my fertility doctors at my clinic about various treatments, and even to catch some minor mistakes they made during treatment. I think I was the exception, as I don’t think most people knew all the information I did about my cycle, endometriosis, and infertility treatments. One book I would recommend is ” The Infertility Cure: The Ancient Chinese Wellness Program for Getting Pregnant and Having Healthy Babies” by Randine Lewis. Lewis, a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, believes infertile couples should turn to Chinese medicine as an alternative or as as supplement to Western treatments. This book contains fascinating information about how acupuncture, herbal treatments, and changes in diet and lifestyle can all help to deal with infertility. I did adopt a lot of the diet recommendations, accupuncture, etc, but I never did get pregnant. (we eventually adopted).

  4. Carrie

    Weschler’s book is super cool, even if you’re someone like me who has no interest in getting pregnant now, nor in using FAM as a method of contraception now. It’s such a neat reference. I have considered seeing what my temperature does on the pill, actually — does it hold steady? Does it change during the off week? Theoretically it should always act as though I had already ovulated, that being the mechanism of the pill, but data would be cool.

    Here’s a question I’ve wondered about. What other species menstruate?

    1. Xyzzy

      Well, my mother informed me after being given a female purebred pup that they menstruate intermittently, and that some aspect of their genitals hangs outside the body for at least part of puppyhood. I can’t say if it’s all dogs, just small spaniels like her, or what, though — one of the rare vet topics that have made me too squeamish to do any research. :)

      1. Laurel

        Dogs’ estrus or heat cycles aren’t the same as menstruation.

        Menstruation is mostly a primate thing–us, the great apes, Old World monkeys, a few lemurs and, depending who you ask, a weird mixed bag of critters including some hedgehogs and bats and the elephant shrew.

  5. Jonquil

    Heh. Be glad you missed out on “Growing Up … and Liking It.” And sanitary belts. God, those were a pain. And the horrible “sanitary panties” (scroll down). Don’t miss the Museum of Menstrual Health for a tip down memory lane.

    The coolest fact I know? Mmm. That a nasty, nasty shock for many nuns in the 1960s was entering the convent and finding out that they still used the pre-19th-century solution of washable “menstrual towels”. And that some members of the male hierarchy thought it was awesome when a nun hit menopause, because it proved she had given Christ all she had to give, namely her fertility. (Yes, I have a Nun Thing. They are absolutely fascinating women, and much more complicated than the stereotypes would have you think. The Vatican has a visitation going on to American nuns right now to rein them in; one of the specific patterns the visitation is looking for is “failure to promote” the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, the male-only priesthood, and Catholicism as the only way to salvation. )

    Agh! I’ve derailed to nun-geekery!

    1. Jonquil

      I misremembered. The memoir I read actually complained about “menstrual diapers”, and said they looked just like you’d expect from the name.

    2. Mackenzie

      Eep! That’s awful. How would you sleep? There’s only room for one pad, and those don’t appear to have pads going from front to the rear waistband, just to fairly low on the rear. I didn’t even think about how bad it’d be in the days before you could sticky two pads end to end to make up for it. Though seriously, why don’t they just make overnight pads 6 inches longer? Then when you sleep on your back and gravity takes effect, you don’t end up with blood on the sheets where your buttcrack hits the bed.

  6. Jonquil

    Oh, one more comment. I’m mostly interested in the sociology of menstruation. Modess was a pioneer by printing out ads a woman could give to a store clerk (back before the self-service supermarket) so that she wouldn’t have to say the dreaded word “napkins” out loud. I have to say, as a teenager, if I could have bought menstrual stuff without *any* human contact, including the checkout clerk, I would have been a happy happy girl.

  7. Elizabeth Kissling

    Thanks for the shout-out to re:Cycling! We welcome discussions of all things menstrual – come geek out with us.

    Also, Jonquil, Kotex developed the “the silent purchase” before Modess by placing coin containers in drugstores near the display of discreetly wrapped boxes of pads, so that women could just put money in the container and take the pads without having to ask for them. But neither was the first to sell disposable femcare products – Johnson & Johnson tried to market disposable menstrual pads in 1896 (“Lister’s Towels”), but the social mores of the day prevented explicit advertisement of them.

    Quite a contrast to how Tampax and Always are marketed today.

  8. Laurel

    My “menstrual cycle education” consisted of being herded off to the elementary school library to watch Freddie Moore’s famous 1946 cartoon on the subject. This was in the mid-70s. I don’t know when they retired that film, but surely nobody was still using many of the products recommended at the end of it by then.

  9. Kimberly

    My period education, despite being raised by health care professionals, was woefully inadequate. “You’ll get a period once a month, make sure it doesn’t smell up the laundry and trash,” was pretty much all I got. But, as a geek, I sought out information. I asked my doctor lots of questions about things I read in books and magazines — even in the drug info packet which came with the pill.

    Sadly, not even my doctors could give me well-informed answers. Two gynecologists nearly swore that no other drugs could affect the efficacy of the pill — but a broken condom while taking both the pill and an antibiotic proved them both wrong. Anyway…

    What about those of us geeks who hate their periods? Let’s talk about about period suppression! Many doctors are still against continuous use of the pill (and none can cite reasons why) despite the pill being repackaged and sold in various 3 and 6 month configurations. I know two women using IUDs with great success for period suppression. For me, after five years of using the pill to suppress periods, I decided to get a uterine ablation. Five months post-surgery, I’ve only spotted once! It’s wonderful to be period-free and not have to work about taking the pill.

  10. Mackenzie

    I’m curious about the mention of using cervical position to determine fertility. Is the average woman aware of where her cervix is on any given day? Or does this require daily ultrasounds? Best I’ve got is “it’s somewhere inaccessible.”

    1. Mary Post author

      Caution: I’d suggest that people do some reading rather than rely on this comment, but for info only, here goes:

      If you choose to do it, you generally do it squatting or in a similar position in order to be able to find it. Basically the progression is: low and open during menstrual flow, low and closed early in the follicular phase, and it becomes higher and softer (inaccessible to some) and begins producing mucus as ovulation approaches. After ovulation it closes and drops again fairly quickly.

      I don’t know if in some people it’s always high enough to be inaccessible throughout a cycle.

      If you were going to use daily ultrasounds (obviously a bit outside the capability of most) I think you would just look directly at the state of the cysts on your ovaries as they do in IVF cycles.

      1. Mackenzie

        On some people it’s always in accessible simply by virtue of being internal :) So yeah, you confirmed that it does, in fact, require access to the inside of one’s vagina.

        1. Mary Post author

          To clarify for anyone thinking of using FAM (although as noted, I in fact never did) the cervical position is in fact an optional sign. The core two are body temperature soon after waking, and cervical mucus which can be obtained from the vaginal entrance rather than the cervix.

          There’s some info that seems to correspond with Weschler’s book at

  11. brainwane

    I wrote a guide to provide simple explanations of the pros and cons of pads, tampons, cups, and similar women’s products several years ago. My thinking at the time was that a guy or an alien could read it and understand how all the menstrual consumer products worked. Over time, as I saw the referrer logs show me that people were getting to that page by searching for basic information about menstruation and tampons, I added links to TeenWire and “if it hurts, see a doctor” notes.

    Scary implications in those referrer logs. I remember one query about putting multiple tampons in at once.

    1. Jonquil

      That’s not terribly unusual; I’ve had friends with really heavy flow who had to go that route.

  12. Erigami

    Today’s note is: remember that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.

    Who else menstruates?

    I had a scare in my teens when I discovered irregular lumps in my chest, and then learned that men could get breast cancer. Mixing teen angst with an insufficient knowledge of medicine led to a lousy couple of weeks.

    1. Mary Post author

      Who else menstruates?

      When I wrote the warning, I was thinking of people who are transsexual men, genderqueer or other gender identities, with female reproductive organs. (As with anyone with female organs, they might not ever have menstruated, might have ceased doing so, might suppress menstruation in various ways, might have the organs removed, or they might menstruate.)

  13. maia

    there are some incredible photos of women’s cervices – through one whole menstrual cycle, before and after penetrative sex (with a male), during pregnancy, that kind of thing.

    also, i found out recently the 40-week gestation period is a lie – it’s actually 38 weeks of gestation, plus two weeks from start of last period (i.e. enough time for the mother to become fertile).

    1. Mary Post author

      I don’t know that it’s a lie so much as a potentially confusing style of measurement: pregnancies are dated from the mother’s last menstrual period (LMP) even though (in an average cycle) the mother won’t ovulate for two weeks after and implantation might be as much as another week after that. But I don’t know of a lot of material that is actively intending to deceive women about what’s going on, although there’s probably a bit of assuming that people know already and thus and omission going on. The measurement style is because a period is a reasonably reliable observation (reasonably reliable, not perfect) whereas ovulation and implantation aren’t easily observed.

      In actual fact the average length of pregnancy is not precisely 40 weeks (38-ish from fertilisation), it’s a little longer. Exactly how much longer varies a bit by geography/ancestry and is a little hard to measure given how many providers like to induce pregnancies that go past 40 weeks. There’s a graph for Norwegian women that has some info.

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