Period Tracking: A Long Held Practice
In 2008, Sandi Toksvig wrote an incredible (and now famous) article for The Guardian about female invention. One of the more well known quotes from the article that did the rounds on Tumblr and X (Twitter at the time) was about the first known calendar.
“ Years ago, when I was studying anthropology at university, one of my female professors held up a photograph of an antler bone with 28 markings on it. "This," she said, "is alleged to be man's first attempt at a calendar." We all looked at the bone in admiration. "Tell me," she continued, "what man needs to know when 28 days have passed? I suspect that this is woman's first attempt at a calendar."
She is of course, referencing ‘The Ishango Bone’, the fibula of a baboon that is more than 22,000-28,000 years old. Discovered in the Congo region in 1957 it is something that historians and archaeologists can only really theorize on as there is no conclusive way to prove which of the sexes created the calendar.
However there is something that tugs at my heartstrings at believing a Paleolithic woman was tracking her cycle in the same way as I do, centuries later.
Historically, different cultures use different ways to track their menstrual cycle.
The Suri people of Southwest Ethiopia keep track “by counting the days with knots or beads on a small rope worn beneath their clothing. Each knot or bead represents one day and the number and kinds of knots and beads signify the different phases in their menstrual cycle. Every day, they untie one knot, and start the process over on the first day of their period.” (Campbell, 2021)
In the Americas, other cultures made notches on sticks to track their cycle, with a new stick for a new month. The Yurok tribe would place a stick a day into a basket and once becoming pregnant would place one every month until reaching ten sticks when it was presumably time to give birth.
Nowadays, the modern day menstruator uses an app to track their cycle. Most period apps allow you to record your symptoms, your sexual history and even your moods. Although a helpful tool in keeping on top of things in a more fast paced world (and especially useful if you need to track fertility) , many of these digital trackers have come under scrutiny for hiding a more dangerous purpose.
“Many of the services provided by these companies are technically free for users — as in we aren’t charged a subscription to use them. However, we are indirectly paying for these digital services with one of our most valuable assets — our data that is collected while using a given service.” (Crosby, 2023)
The claim is that this data goes towards personalized marketing but the safer assumption is that the data goes towards whoever is willing to pay for it.
The OAIC claims that “A business can only handle your data under the Consumer Data Right if they are accredited by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).” Generally businesses must follow strict practices surrounding data including destroying and de-identifying data if it is no longer needed.
However with a rise in Australian based data breaches there should be a healthy based skepticism when using an online based service, especially platforms where the services purpose is literally to track your data, like a period tracking apps would be.
If this is making your anxiety rise and you’re about to make a vow to switch to physical tracking, set the Amazon search for Paleolithic bones aside for now. Apps like ‘Flo’ have created an ‘Anonymous Mode’ to fight privacy concerns such as this.
When the US Supreme Court overturned ‘Roe V. Wade’, which made the legality of abortion uncertain in each of its 50 states, many users of the app were concerned that their menstrual data could be used against them.
“They were worried about the implications of continuing to use period tracking apps like Flo,” Cath Everett, vice president of product at Flo, told The Verge. “So we knew that we had a user problem and a real issue that they wanted us to solve.”
At the end of the day, it's up to you on how you want to track your menstrual cycle. Whether you mark it in your diary through a code known only to you as was the trend during the regency period or maybe you shop around for an app that doesn't link your menstrual data to your digital identity. You’re still carrying on a tradition that predates any written language.
A blood spun invisible string that connects you and billions of other women over the centuries.
(Or you could just forget about it until next month like me)