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HEALTH

Somebody at Fitbit needs a lesson on the menstrual cycle

The health-technology sector overlooks women – and their bodies – constantly, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

How long was your longest period? Eight days? Ten days? Two weeks?  A month? It’s the “how long is a piece of string” of the female body, isn’t it? I’ve had periods that have lived, like a Mayfly, for a single day. In 2016, I had a period that lasted the entirety of the Rio Olympic games. I’ve had blackberry periods; brown, rusty periods; periods so red they could be MAC lipsticks. To quote Calvin Harris: I get all the periods, I get all the periods. And, while this used to worry me and make me feel disgusting and defective, after 15 years of talking to other cisgender women (and other people who menstruate) about their periods, I realise it’s all very normal. That most periods, however insane, are, in a way, normal.

I get this. You get this. Technology, I’m afraid, does not get this.

Twitter user @Stephanenny noticed that her Fitbit didn’t allow her to log her period if it carried on for more than 10 days. When she tried to amend this, she was greeted with a handy notification: “Periods should be between one and 10 days”. There are two options: “OK” and “cancel”.

Naturally, I find this kind of hilarious. Ah, I won’t change my Mooncup – the phone says I’m not having my period. I won’t even bother checking that warm, sticky feeling in my underwear – the app says it can’t be happening! No, sir! There’s something amusingly philosophical about the whole thing: if a period continues for over 10 days in the forest, and Fitbit doesn’t log it, did it every really happen?

Fitbit, as you probably already know, is the most successful health technology in the world. Since 2010, it has sold more than 75 million devices worldwide, and has over 25 million active users. The “female health” tracking features were only added in June of this year, which is kind of astonishing, given that women are thought to have been using menstrual calendars for roughly 20,000 years. Yet despite their lateness, the app is pretty comprehensive: helping you chart your flow, PMS symptoms, discharge, etc. In effect, the app feels like it has been taken from WebMD, rather than the experience of a human woman. Patronising screens that read, “Your period is the bleeding phase of the menstrual cycle”, and, “The typical length is two to eight days, but everyone is different”, feel more at home in Mizz magazine than they do in a tracker for adult women. 

Fitbit isn’t the only tech giant to have big gaps in their understanding of women’s lives. Journalist Alexandra Heminsley noticed that neither Apple Watch nor Fitbit let you log pushing a pram as exercise, despite the fact that everything from barre to Zumba was there already. Jogging prams are absolutely everywhere now – my sister points out the Bugaboo Runner Complete covetously everytime we spot one in the wild – and yet, according to Apple and Fitbit, it’s not happening.

This stuff is small. I get that. It’s not something that’s going to ruin your day or make you march on Silicon Valley, but these gathered oversights do amount to strong evidence for a case. The case being that, despite the huge earning and spending power that women represent, we are still being treated as “other” by the people we are turning into billionaires. Let’s not forget that, when Apple launched their health app in 2014, they did so without including any references to menstruation at all – but glucose and inhaler use were all meticulously charted.

Not only is this frustrating, but it’s part of a wider trend in product design. For years, crash-test dummies were based on male bodies, meaning that statistically, more women were dying in car crashes. And when I say “for years”, I don’t mean “until 1975”. I mean: “until 2012”. Yes. 2012. The first female crash-test dummy was made by the Swedish designer, Anna Carlson.

According to AI technologist Kriti Sharma, the world of artificial intelligence is rife with sexist design. "Early voice-recognition software didn't always recognise female voices,” she says. “None of the developers had been female and no one thought to test out the technology on women.”

What I’m saying is, while it’s easy to think of period trackers as inconsequential, we simply can’t afford to overlook the fact that every level of product design is dangerously male-dominated. It’s even reflected in university rates. Central Saint Martins, which boasts a 70% female design course, has only 30% female designer-work on its curriculumOnly 40% of professional designers are women, according to a Design Council survey. You take a step back from all of this and you realise that if we’re ever going to live in a world where women have as much social and economic currency as men, we have to start with how our world is built. And more importantly, who is building it.

@Czaroline

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