Breaking the cycle: women are learning to love their hormones 0

To be labelled hormonal used to be an insult. Now women are reclaiming the role of oestrogen in their lives. Eva Wiseman reveals how a new generation is being empowered by their hormones

The grand plan, the plan to end the Second World War, was inspired by the docility of Paula Hitler. You dont hear much about Paula, do you, the lesser-known Hitler, who worked as a secretary while big brother Adolf was upstairs doing the Holocaust? But yes, inspired by Paula, British spies planned to end the war by making Adolf less aggressive. They intended to do this by smuggling oestrogen into his food, thereby turning him into a woman. Hitler had tasters, said Professor Brian Ford of Cardiff University, who discovered the plot, so there was no mileage to putting poison in his food because they would immediately fall victim to it. But, Sex hormones were a different matter.

Though the word hormone was first used in 1905, derived from the Greek meaning to arouse or excite, it was during that period leading into the war that the science of endocrinology developed. Hormones are the bodys chemical messengers; they trigger activity in the body and regulate the function of organs. But with knowledge of their effects came creeping politics. If hormones meant women were less inclined to start wars, did it also mean they were less capable of ambition? Less capable of being leaders? If hormones meant men were more aggressive, less nurturing, was equality an impossible dream?

Womens hormones sneak into our culture with a period-like regularity. In 1978 Gloria Steinem wrote in If Men Could Menstruate: Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps. The news, too, is littered with commentary. In 2012, CNN argued womens hormones play a significant role in their voting decisions, with single women more likely to vote for Obama and married women more likely to vote for Romney; it was removed after complaints. In 2015, a business survey confirmed that 54% of respondents thought a womans behaviour at work was dictated by her hormones.

A year later Novak Djokovic waded into a debate about equal pay in sport, explaining that women faced more challenges than men to succeed in tennis, including battling against hormones. In the Old Testament, God banters: When she is in heat, who can control her? He was talking about camels. There have been many, many more, all positing versions of the same idea that women are complete nightmares at certain times of the month. And the thing is, despite the outrage that these clumsy stories cause, some researchers would agree there are kernels of truth, or shadows of kernels, or kernels of kernels, buried within them.

Martie Haselton, professor of psychology at UCLA whose book, Hormonal, discusses the hidden intelligence of hormones, argues that, rather than oppressive and damaging, what weve learned about women and hormones is empowering. Rather than a simple story about women losing all rationality around their periods, she sees it as: The story of how our hormones guide us through uniquely female life experiences, from feeling desire and pleasure to choosing a mate, having a child (if we would like to), raising a child and transitioning to our post-reproductive years. Haselton is part of a new conversation that is emerging; she is a pioneering researcher pushing the politics of hormones in a new direction. Where once women were encouraged to combat the effects of hormones with the Pill and HRT, stamping down wobbly moods in order to be in control of their bodies, today their daughters are turning away from hormonal contraceptives in order to reclaim some autonomy over their bodies, with figures dropping by more than 13% between 2005 and 2015. Instead of using the Pill to prevent or plan pregnancy, theyre using their phones.

Monthly trials: When we are premenstrual, our usual self-censoring is ruptured, like a truth serum. Illustration: Harriet Lee-Merrion/Observer

The period-tracking app, Clue, was conceived by a woman called Ida Tin. It was a struggle to raise investment: men she pitched to were embarrassed discussing an app used to monitor bleeding and breast tenderness. One venture capitalist agreed to invest, but only if his details were kept private. But when she finally launched, in 2013, she attracted millions of users, and went on to raise a further 20m. I use Clue, in part, to remind myself when to expect a headache. Theres an option to share my cycle with friends which is something I muse on, monthly. Who else would care that this is one of my heavy days? Tin explains, over email from Berlin: At Clue, we are committed to getting more people talking about menstrual health, as being transparent about this helps us become better educated and removes antiquated social taboos. Clue Connect allows for this conversation to take place without any awkwardness. As well as sharing your cycle with your partner, she says users share with their friends, to prevent their holidays clashing with periods or PMS. Parents can also benefit from using Clue Connect with their children, as it provides a way to teach them about fertility and menstruation.

What a world! Tin is responsible for providing a window for millions of women into the mysteries of our hormonal cycles. She found it surprising, she says, that weve managed to walk on the Moon, but that most women still dont know on which days they were most fertile. I thought that women would find an app like Clue empowering, as they could take control of their health and educate themselves fully about their bodies. Theres that word again, empowering; one that 10 years ago would have seemed quite out of place when discussing hormones, which women were expected to manage, in order to avoid them managing us.

This September, entrepreneur Amy Thomson, journalist Laura Weir and nutritionist Lola Ross will launch Moody-U, an app to accompany the website they designed to help women understand their cycles. In 2015 my periods stopped due to cortisol stress hormones, explains Thomson. I was 27 and it was a wake-up call. Starting a diary, she began to see patterns linking her bad moods and her hormonal imbalance. I realised it was an algorithm. So I sold my agency, broke up with my boyfriend and set out on a mission to build this technology. Users receive personalised advice based on which Moody tribe theyre placed into. The site offers advice, from lists of books that help you harness the power of your period and natural rhythms to articles on period poverty and superfood tips. Theres an online shop, too, with Rhodiola rosea root extract sold alongside Moody merch. What Ive learned, Thomson adds, is that the biggest asset we have in the space of moods, hormones and women is [our ability to] share experiences to create fewer taboos, and empower people to understand and reconnect with their bodies rhythms.

Theres understanding, and theres understanding theres knowing when your periods due, and theres knowing why you feel murderous towards the bus driver the fourth Tuesday of every month. Does anyone have any questions about hormones? tweeted Eleanor Morgan, who was starting research on her book Hormonal: A Journey into How Our Bodies Affect Our Minds and Why Its Difficult to Talk About It, which will be published by Virago next year. She was bombarded with messages (including a handful from me). The overwhelming theme was: why does our very nature make us feel so bad sometimes? she recalls. Underpinning this is a sense of some cruel sorcery at play, particularly in relation to PMS. I think many women feel like there must be an evolutionary reason for it.

While theres a swell of interest in womens hormones, she points out a need for an interrogation of common myths, assumptions and misinformation. After all, almost every woman will be bamboozled by their reproductive system at some point, whether around fertility, birth or menopause, all of which are underpinned by hormonal changes. She became interested in the continuing stigma attached to discussing feeling, in her words, beaten by our biology. Right from when we have our first periods, the phrase Its just your hormones is wedged into our consciousness. So much of womens emotional experience is waved away with that phrase. And like Amy Thomson, Morgans research had an urgency due to her own biology: the author of a book on anxiety, shed realised how much of an impact her cycle has on her mental health, after, yes, downloading an app to track it. I never wanted to accept this, really, she says, because being female is not a diagnosis. Ive felt, at several moments, like a lost cause; a slave to my biology. Only, that feeling also makes me want to fight.

Where Morgans path seems to veer away from the Moody developers is in her scepticism around the marketing of the emerging hormone conversation. There is money to be made from vulnerable, soul-searching, dissatisfied women when wellness gurus and of-the- minute celebrity authors appear to offer neat, credible-sounding solutions, she says.

She is drawn instead to psychologists theories about rationalising the emotions we have in the PMS phase. We feel we shouldnt judge our decision-making when were pre-menstrual. But some feminist critical psychologists argue that, in those moments, perhaps our usual self-censoring is ruptured and were getting a window into our core issues like some sort of hormonal truth serum. Its fascinating. Martie Haselton writes: It took too long for those of us in the scientific community to admit that human oestrus is real. Now we are making up for lost time as we seek to research and understand its implications.

A change is rumbling. But why now? One answer could be found by considering our quest for wellness, a key part, of course, of todays luxury lifestyle. Hormones feature heavily on Gwyneth Paltrows website Goop (an article last summer claimed: Its important for women to touch certain plants, to balance hormones its not) and form the basis for many self-improvement diets.

Life cycle: Its not just younger women who are changing the conversation: as we learn more about menopause, the taboo there is lifting, too. Illustration: Harriet Lee-Merrion/Observer

A cynic might suggest that todays interest in hormones is only skin deep that we want to manage them in order to look more attractive, and that were discussing them in order to Insta-signal our fabulously conscious lives. They might go further too, analysing the ethical implications of the data shared by period-tracking apps, a necessary concern when weighing up the cost of something one gets for free.

Another answer, and a cheerier one, is in the political shift away from the silencing of women. Discussing hormones was not encouraged in the past, in part because it perpetuated ideas about weakness and volatility, and in part because periods were considered icky. But that idea has been diluted by a sort of period pride. In 2015 Kiran Gandhi ran the London marathon with blood dripping down her legs to raise awareness for women who dont have access to sanitary products. And shored up by the widening of dialogues about mental health, theres a recognition that hormones are tied into its changes. As the stigma around admitting depressive feelings and anxiety falls away, so does the stigma around hormonal health.

Its not just younger women who are changing the conversation: as we learn more about menopause, the taboo there is lifting, too. Last month one of Britains leading womens health experts said workplaces should start catering for the menopause in a comparable way to pregnancy. After all, in the past 15 years the number of working people aged 50 to 64 has increased by 60%. Kathy Abernethy, chair of the British Menopause Society, welcomed the move, saying a social shift was under way, partly driven by celebrities (including Kim Cattrall and Angelina Jolie) who have decided its not something embarrassing to talk about.

And, as Haselton details in her book, charting the way HRT has been marketed since 1942, and its health scares that began in the 1990s, doctors now have a firm handle on oestrogen therapy for instance, during the first six to 10 years of menopause, taking oestrogen can lower your cardiac risks, but after 10 years it can increase them. People are no longer framing menopause as an illness, but something that, with care and knowledge, can be managed.

In 2006, Haselton started publishing research showing that women do alter their behaviour during peak fertility. But she found herself offending two camps: those who rejected the suggestion there is still some animal inside us civilised humans, and those who believe her findings undermine efforts to achieve equality. Tabloids distilled her research into snappy headlines about sex, but today the real news, Haselton believes, is that womens rights are enhanced, not diminished, by an increased understanding of how our bodies and minds work. To learn more, she adds: We need to get more females into the lab as well as more female scientists, more female research participants, more recognition of the cultural bias that treats male bodies and brains as the norm. More education about our bodies rhythms and heats, and then a sense of satisfaction, perhaps, when we say: Im hormonal.

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