Your Body’s a Wonderland: Underpinnings

Dear Millicent,

There has been a lot of shock at the recent report that teens are using the rhythm method as a form of birth control.  The CDC reports that 17 percent of teens report using the method, up from 11 percent in 2002.  There has been criticism about how teenagers define the rhythm method, the likelihood that they are actually taking basal temperatures and checking their cervical mucus, and how abstinence-only education could be responsible for the upswing.  These are all good points, but I write in defense of the rhythm method, and to suggest it can do that thing that Gossip Girl can’t: empower teenage girls.

Here’s why: the amount we don’t know about our own bodies is astounding.  I am a 29-year-old woman who actively researches women’s health.  I have a poster about the menstrual cycle on my office wall.  I had the luck of attending school in counties where comprehensive sexual education was part of the curriculum. I have access to knowledge, resources and healthcare.  And for 15 years, I thought I had a monthly yeast infection.

How? Okay, after the initial shock at 14 of realizing that tampons go in an entirely different hole than the one we pee out of (it was like the first time you notice there is a pocket on the inside of the blazer you have owned for  years), I took to heart all of the health class info.  We were told to not wear wet bathing suits too long because being a lady meant one day buying Monostat 7.  “Discharge” was a newly relevant and terrifying word. Hell, it still is, and is way too vague.  The idea of menses was alarming enough, but at least I knew what blood looked like.  And it’s not like you can show your dirty underwear to your friend and say “does your discharge look like this?”  And then there were pantyliners.  I understood their purpose, but could never tell if real ladies wore panty-liners every day, or what (like, were they for your period, or for your dirty dirty dischargery?).

So, you are on the watch for a yeast infection which is described as itching with the infamous “cottage cheese like discharge.” This again is really abstract, and again, terrifying. And, vague.  Sometimes it might not itch, sometimes it might be another kind of infection, and sometimes it might go away on its own.  Sometimes Monistat might make it worse. Sometimes it might hurt. Sometimes you might never know you have a yeast infection.  And if you think you do but aren’t sure, you should go see your doctor, which means the hassle of a pelvic exam just to figure out what the eff is going on down there, because something is going on down there.  So, for the majority of my reproductive life so far, I thought I had a strange mysterious appearing and reappearing yeast infection or vaginitis. Turns out I was just a reproductive age female doing what I do: ovulating.

Here is what nobody ever told me, or at least ever told me in a way that I understood: something is always going on down there.  I knew about ovum and fallopian tubes and all that. But I never knew about cervical mucous.  I didn’t know that as you near ovulation, your estrogen levels rise and make this mucous.  More estrogen means more mucous.  I also didn’t know that without this mucous, sperm doesn’t have a chance in whahoodle to make it to the egg.  Sex does make babies, but mucous is the real moneymaker. At our most fertile, this mucous looks like egg white, and if you put it between your fingers, it should stretch to 3-5 inches without breaking.  This happens every month! We have superstretchy goop every frickin’ month, and nobody ever told me!

I found this out by reading Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility.  TCOYF is a revamp of the rhythm method, and looks at how to use the info to both avoid and accomplish (is that the right verb?) pregnancy. If you prescribe to her regimen, you take your temp every morning before waking up, and also note the state of your delicate flower. The range of adjectives for cervical mucous was a life changer for me:

dry, nothing, sticky, tacky, crumbly, gummy, creamy, lotiony, cloudy, milky, eggwhite, stretchy, clear, watery

There’s another set for “vaginal sensation”:

dry, nothing, sticky, wet, moist, gooey, cold, lubricative, slippery, humid

It all changes every day as you near or retreat from ovulation! It is never the same! We have stuff coming out of us practically all the time!

And it’s not just about knowing what you make. It’s about knowing where you are in your cycle, and what your chances are of getting pregnant.  It’s about knowing how your hormones are acting, if your headaches are cyclical, what the great circuit of being female means specifically to you.  It means I actually feel empowered, and it has nothing to do with my politics or family planning intentions.  It has to do with I actually understand what the hell my body is up to.

And this is why I am for teenagers taking on the rhythm method.  I hope it’s not their only form of birth control, but if all girls had this kind of personal knowledge, I think they have a better chance at sexual autonomy.  I was just at Women Deliver, a conference on maternal healthcare (which pretty much means the economic, social, cultural, and physical injustices that need to be addressed to help less women die from preventable deaths). On a panel on modern contraception, Ward Cates, the President of Research for Family Care International, referred to The Standard Days Method (basically the rhythm method) as “an underpinning at the least…letting women know about their cycle.”  It seems that this knowledge is missing even in developed countries, and if it could exist as an underpinning of our own sexual health knowledge, teenagers and old hags like me are lucky to have it.

I want to crack a joke here about John Mayer and mucous, but I like my mucous too much.



3 Responses to Your Body’s a Wonderland: Underpinnings

  1. Ms B-US says:

    Such a great post, thank you! I was wondering if you could comment on the idea that “PMS is an American disease.”

  2. Carla Fran says:

    hey Ms. B-Us!
    My first thought about PMS as an American disease comes from my entanglements with Traditional Chinese Medicine. I started going to acupuncture for PMS, and learned that it’s not exactly considered normal to have bad cramps and headaches and all that. In TCM, you are way out of whack if experiencing those things, and it’s not a case for Midol at all. But I don’t know much about presentations of PMS in other countries and cultures? Do you?

    I do think that understanding the body through temp tracking etc. does make the symptoms make more sense (for example, if I know when my estrogen is high, I understand that I am more prone to a headache or heightened sense of smell) and it doesn’t seem like a disease or problem anymore–it gets redefined as a process…will chew on this more…thanks for the great question!

  3. Carla Fran says:

    Also just in: what is on TCOYF is not the same as “the rhythm method.” From the TCOYF website:
    “The Fertility Awareness Method is NOT the Rhythm Method. The Rhythm Method is nothing more than an obsolete, ineffective guessing game that uses past cycles to predict future fertility. The Fertility Awareness Method, on the other hand, is a scientifically-validated, effective, and natural method that involves charting three primary fertility signs on a daily basis, so that a woman’s fertility can be accurately determined.

    The three primary fertility signs are waking temperature, cervical fluid, and cervical position. The method is based upon the functioning of estrogen, progesterone, luteinizing hormone, and the corpus luteum. Unlike the Rhythm Method, whose contraceptive effectiveness cannot be taken seriously, the Fertility Awareness Method, when used properly, is 98% effective.”

    So I am ultimately not advocating for the rhythm method, but am an advocate of the Fertility Awareness Method. Must now look into the history of the term “rhythm method.”…

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