How Fertility Awareness fights body ignorance

body ignorance, fighting body ignorance, fertility awareness fights body ignorance, how fertility awareness corrects body ignorance,

We live in a unique time as women. Thanks to a plethora of femtech options ranging from cycle tracking apps to wearable thermometers, and from qualitative (giving a ‘high’ or ‘low’ reading) to quantitative (giving a specific number) at-home urinary hormone test kits, we’ve never had more “data” about our female bodies at our fingertips (though, of course, data is only helpful when we have the understanding to make sense of it). And yet, we also live in a time of tremendous ignorance of the female body, amongst women, society, and even many healthcare providers.

This lack of education and awareness undoubtedly leads to shame and a generational perpetuation of ignorance about female bleeding, cervical mucus, the less-than-glamorous aspects of childbirth, and more. A progressive reporter for The Seattle Times recounted observing a new father beaming as he introduced his newborn daughter at a party and pronounced his wife a “champ.” But he covered his ears when she mentioned the placenta. The reporter opined, “This is centuries’ worth of an attitude that, though conception might be a biological miracle, it’s also a gross one, filled with pudge and sludge that — la la la la la! — decent people are allowed to run screaming from.” 

For my doctoral research (described in depth for Natural Womanhood here), I interviewed women who suffered from infertility and sought out care from healthcare providers trained in NaProTechnology [1]. They shared with me their own levels of knowledge regarding fertility, their perceptions of society’s ignorance of the realities of the female body, and their negative interactions with healthcare providers inadequately educated about the female cycle and fertility. But my research didn’t just serve as a gloom-and-doom status update on our collective body ignorance. My research participants celebrated the hope and empowerment they gained from learning fertility awareness during their NaPro care experience, and becoming active participants in their own healthcare.

Ignorance of the female body’s design is common amongst women and in society, and sometimes even amongst healthcare professionals

In my doctoral research, the theme of body ignorance came up over and over again. 16 of the 21 women interviewed shared that prior to learning how to chart, their fertility cycles were unfamiliar, foreign and even confusing terrain. What surprised participants was not only the discovery of their own fertility patterns through charting, but also the serious levels of ignorance in society about women’s menstrual and fertility cycles.

Societal ignorance of female fertility leaves individual women “in the dark”

A strong sentiment among the interviewees was that this societal phenomena of ignorance has resulted in women being “in the dark” when it comes to their own health and the basic workings of their bodies and reproductive functions. In contrast, an important part of the treatment of infertility through NaProTechnology is training women to chart their fertility cycles through the Creighton Model FertilityCare System.  Ruth* shared that without the knowledge that charting provides, it can be difficult for women to identify what is “normal” or “abnormal” in their own cycles:  

“A lot of women don’t even know they’re supposed to get [cervical] mucus and when they see [cervical] mucus they think there’s something wrong with them, which is extraordinary.”  

For Ruth, women’s confusion over bodily processes that are fundamental to their reproductive lives and to their well-being shows the worrying levels of body ignorance in society. Ivy suggested that such ignorance is partly due to a culture of silence in society on the topics of menstruation and fertility:

“Well, you don’t discuss [your fertility cycle] with anyone, do you? You have it every month and that’s it.”  

Body ignorance among healthcare professionals 

In Miriam’s interview, she expressed surprise that she was more knowledgeable about women’s fertility cycles than her own (non-NaPro) physician. For Miriam, the body knowledge gained from learning to chart her cycle through the Creighton Method of natural family planning (NFP) meant “you know things that doctors don’t know.” She shared some of her experience with mainstream medicine:  

“[My doctor] said to me, ‘Ok, you will see that you will ovulate on the 14th day of your cycle. How? I don’t know.’ [Laughs] And ‘you will have your period on the 28th day.’ So he thought he would give me the perfect cycle and it didn’t happen.”  

Other women in my study had experience with healthcare professionals in mainstream medicine ordering lab work at the wrong time in their cycle, meaning that precious time was wasted and crucial information was missed in treatment of their fertility.  One participant, Irene, noted that when healthcare professionals carried out a blood test to check her progesterone level, she already “knew it was in the wrong time” because she had been charting her cycle, but she was not listened to.  

In Martha’s interview, we see a contrast between her in-depth knowledge of her cycle, acquired through charting, with the gynecologist’s guess-work, shown in an incorrect assumption of Martha’s ovulation date. Martha explicitly told her doctor that this guess-work would lead to inaccurate assessments, but she was not taken seriously. 

“I had started already doing observations [through NaProTechnology] for three months, so by then I already knew that my luteal phase was very short; it was only seven days, like on the borderline. So I knew my day of ovulation was not on the 21st day like the gynecologist said. She picked the 21st day and she said, ‘This is your ovulation day’ and I told her, ‘this is not my ovulation [date], this is my second phase, and it will not be relevant for what you are looking for’ and she didn’t take me seriously.”  

Fertility awareness directly combats ignorance of the female body, and particularly empowers women seeking treatment for reproductive issues

The women I interviewed revealed that when they began working with NaProTechnology-trained providers they learned to pay attention, for the first time, to signs and biological markers in their cycles that are reflective of their overall health and well-being. For these women, what distinguished NaProTechnology from approaches such as Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), was its emphasis on the fertility education of patients.  

When speaking of her experience with charting and NaProTechnology, Beatrice observed, “It’s really powerful and I think it’s really massive, it’s an empowerment thing for women if you ask me.” Women who know what’s going on in their own bodies aren’t just more prepared to resist hormonal birth control as a Band-Aid “fix” for reproductive issues. They’re more able to advocate for themselves and their health, leading to improved well-being overall and for the long term. Far from being a bodily function relevant only if and when they’re interested in childbearing, women who use fertility awareness understand their fertility to be a fifth vital sign, a window into their whole-body health. 

*Pseudonyms have been used in the study.  

References:

[1] Butau, L. 2018. An Analysis of the Lived Experience of Infertility and NaProTechnology in the Context of Catholic Theological Ethics, University of Surrey, England.  

[2] Zegers-Hochschild, Fernando et al. “The International Glossary on Infertility and Fertility Care, 2017.” Fertility and sterility vol. 108,3 (2017): 393-406. doi:10.1016/j.fertnstert.2017.06.005

[3] Iino, Kaori et al. “Fertility awareness and subclinical infertility among women trying to get pregnant at home.” BMC women’s health vol. 22,1 43. 20 Feb. 2022, doi:10.1186/s12905-022-01626-z

Additional Reading:

When IVF fails, what’s next?

“Isn’t NaProTechnology just charting?” and other questions: A Natural Womanhood NaPro FAQ

4 ways free fertility awareness classes at my university improved my college experience

How fertility awareness helped me find solutions for hormonal migraines

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