Let me be clear: When I tell people that I use the Flo App as my birth control, most people get a concerned look across their face, and pat me on the back with an “Oh, sweetie.” Later, I tell them that after years of dragging my hormones along an exhausting ride to find the right birth control, I surrendered. There was nothing for me, I concluded. I refused to throw back any more birth control pills, or listen to my Doctor try and sell me on the latest method. Just as I was detoxifying the side-effects of years of experimenting, I came across a piece of modern technology that would mend my relationship with my body: the Flo App.
The Hunt for “The One” Begins
“You have to pick one that is right for you!” my Doctor told me excitedly as she handed me a bright pink pamphlet. It felt like we were going shopping, only what I was buying into was not clothes or dinner, but one of the gems of the pharmaceutical industry: birth control. I hardly needed any convincing when the Doctor suggested I start birth control if I was planning on being “sexually active” in High School. I had attended an ultra-progressive, all-girls Middle School, where birth control, as it had been engineered into my mind, was mine to claim, like a right of passage into the movement of independent women. I didn’t bat an eye when I began flipping through the pages of the pamphlet and noticed the lengthy list of potential side effects for each option. Most of them seemed far too dramatic to really happen. Depression from this one, weight gain from that one, nausea, bleeding and acne from the other. Some promise to clear up your skin for the price of migraines. Others negotiate bigger boobs for a decreased sex drive (sounds highly un-feminist to me now). Most were extremely effective, or at least so they say. We all know someone that was an “accident.”
The Starter Pack: a Minipill a Day Keeps the Babies Away
The overwhelming amount of trade-offs left me willing to start anywhere, so my Doctor put me on the beginner’s regimen – a progestin only pill. The Mayo Clinic has christened these the “minipill,” and describes them as the pill that “doesn’t contain estrogen.” It works by thickening the cervical mucus and thinning the uterus lining (slow down sperm), and ultimately suppressing ovulation (no egg drop). All this can be achieved by trying to take the pill at the same time every day, which I quickly learned was much easier said than done. While the exact chemistry of what it was doing to my body went a bit over my head, the side effects did not. A couple months into the pill popping, I started to think I was losing my mind. I was typically level-headed at school and at home, but recently I had found myself losing my temper over just about anything: my teacher’s horrendously bad haircut felt like enough to make me throw myself over a ledge, the shower being too hot made me cry, the sound of rain made me want to pull my hair out. I was going crazy, so crazy in fact that my previous PMS symptoms seemed like child’s play. I honestly missed my period.
The first Breakup and IUD rebound
When I came in for another consultation, I had to hold my hands tightly together to keep myself from throwing the pills in my Doctors face. By Sophomore year, most of the friends were going the hot new thing in town: the IUD. Even actresses like Lucy Hale partnered with healthcare brands to launch campaigns for getting the IUD. Both the copper and hormonal IUDs prevent pregnancy by changing the tides of the traveling sperm (copper is sperm-repellent). The small device is inserted into the uterus through the cervix in about fifteen minutes. Women have different experiences with the procedure, with some equating it to child birth and others saying they enjoyed the tickle. The biggest appeal of the IUD for me was not having to worry about whether it was effective and if the side effects would be worth it (it is a long-term 10 year relationship). However, when I came back a couple weeks later for the procedure, my initial excitement had been replaced with some reluctance. My lust for birth control was gone. I thought to myself, “Why am I even in here?” Sure, I was in High School and spouts of sexual activity fell and rose with the times. But I was not in a serious relationship. I always had normal periods and my health was fine prior to starting birth control. As I stared deeply at the clamp, scalpel and needles laid out beside me, I realized it was not worth it.
Third Attempt: from Pill to Patch
My friends threw their extra condoms in my direction when I told them about my failed IUD attempt in high school. The summer before I started college seemed like the right time to see if my luck got better with birth control. My Doctor suggested I get on the new fad – “the patch.” Planned Parenthood explains that the patch is worn “on certain parts of your body, and it releases hormones through your skin that prevent pregnancy.” I was drawn to the relative simplicity of it; stick it on my butt or thigh for a week and more or less forget about it. It didn’t require the strict adherence of pill popping or the uncomfortable IUD insertion. While the sticker contains estrogen (not a fan), my Doctor encouraged me that the patch was helping her patients with iron deficiency, which I, like most teen girls, dealt with. I really can’t complain much about the patch. The initial side-effects wore off within a couple months. As a matter of fact, my relationship with the patch ended on the patch’s terms, not mine. It simply kept falling off, especially after I went on a sweaty run or swim. I guess the patch couldn’t keep up with my active lifestyle and broke up with me.
Finally Finding the Flo App
It was clear: birth control was just not for me. Two years into college, while interning at the United Nations Population Fund, which specializes in reproductive and sexual health across the globe I learned about the Flo App. Over 150 million women use the app, which was launched in 2015 and now claim’s the top spot as the most downloaded health and fitness app in the app store in 2019. Flo provides cycle predictions, individual daily health insights, and a closed community of experts and peers to provide advice regarding everything from menstruation to sexual health. Let me be clear: the app itself is really not birth control. However, by tracking their period dates and menstrual symptoms, users are able to see their chances of becoming pregnant on any given day. It is just as easy to use the app to get pregnant to use it to not get pregnant. Quickly after starting Flo, I began to see the trends in my own cycle. Alerts popped up on my phone when my period was about to start, or if I was ovulating, and the technology even predicted a couple breakout days and cramp-filled nights. The more you tell it, the more it knows and can make predictions. For the first time in my life, I truly understood what it meant to be in touch with your… period.
Birth Control field notes: Period poverty and the privilege
I recognize why many Western feminists promote various birth control methods. There is certainly a clear incentive for women to get on birth control for health reasons. There is also power in being able to control when you have children. However, more recently, I have seen birth control controlling women. Many are willing to bend over backwards and put up with excessive side-effects to claim their right to the pill. Even more concerning is the tendency for some women to subject themselves to these side effects for the relief and ultimate satisfaction of their male partners. Not everyone gets to sit in an expensive Western medical center and flip through the pages of a birth control pamphlet like I did. In reality, there are many women who do not have access to birth control who probably need it much more than me. There are also women, who are part of cultures and religions, where birth control is not as radically accepted and celebrated. What I love most about the Flo App is that it can reach women across the whole world, even in places where there is less information regarding reproductive health. In that sense, I suppose that apps like Flo App are the first universal birth control, transcending geographic borders and social barriers.