Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation
Episode 8: Interview with Dr. Jessica Polzer
Transcripts by Jennifer Jill Fellows
Jennifer Jill Fellows: There’s this saying that goes, “seeing is believing”. We put a lot of emphasis on graphs and charts and other visual sources of information. Even when it comes to embodied experiences like menstruation, and pregnancy. And let me tell you, I’ve yet to experience something so embodied as pregnancy and childbirth. But don’t worry, there’s an app for that. Actually, there are several. And they all invite us to share the most intimate details about our bodies with them. Details that, like we might not even share with our closest friends and family. Because seeing is believing right. But it might be worth considering what we’re being invited to believe.
Jill: Hello and welcome to Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. I’m your host, Jennifer Jill Fellows. And I’m joined today by Dr. Jessica Polzer. Dr. Jessica Polzer, is an associate professor in the School of Health Studies and in the Department of Gender and Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Her research focuses on the politics of women’s health in the 21st century. She has examined public media accounts of the HPV vaccine, as well as how the experiences of women with a family history of breast cancer are shaped by predictive genetic testing. For her chapter in the book Gender, Sex and Tech: An Intersectional Feminist Guide, Jessica, along with Kelly Ge, Dr. Laura Cayen, and Anna Sui, conducted a research project examining the marketing and promotion of menstrual and fertility tracking apps. And Jessica is here today to talk about the results of that research project with me.
Jill: Hi Jessica, welcome to the show.
Jessica Polzer: Hi Jill. Nice to be here.
Jill: I want to begin by noting that I think it is important to be mindful that the existence of digital space is dependent on physical space. The servers and cables and computers and other devices connecting us today occupy physical spaces. The Cloud is in truth physical much as the metaphor might encourage us to believe otherwise. And so, as I record Gender, Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation today, I wanted to acknowledge that I am a settler on the unceded territory of the Coast Salish people of the QiqéytNation. And where are you joining us from today, Jessica?
Jessica: I live in London, Ontario and this is the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee Lunaape and Attawandaron and Huron Wendat peoples.
Jill: So, I definitely want to talk about menstruation and fertility tracking apps. But before we get into that, I want to ask a little bit about your academic journey. So, Jessica, can you tell us what drew you to an interest in the politics of women’s health and general.
Jessica: Sure. So, I really liked this introduction or this introductory question because my academic journey has not been a straight line, but I’ll try to condense it as well as I can for the purposes of this podcast? Yes. So, I actually had no intentions of sort of positioning myself as an academic in the politics of, of women’s health. Really like my central core elements of my research program has to do with technology, social relations, and embodiments. And I was, have always been extremely interested in how those three things come together. So, I trained in my graduate work broadly in medical sociology or health sociology at what is now the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. And there, this sort of triangle of interests really became forged when I was doing my doctoral research, which looked at women’s lived experiences of hereditary risk for breast cancer. And what I was very interested in was how the genetic information, how learning about risk genetically, altered their sense of susceptibility and embodiment.
Jill: Oh okay.
Jessica: Because at the time that this was being introduced, there was this sort of sense of a good intention, I think of like, oh, this information is serious, it can pose serious psychological sequelae for women who are, who are getting this information. But there was part of me that was like, “Well, I’m pretty sure that these women know something about their risks beforehand because a lot of them come from very saturated family history of breast cancer.” So it’s not like they have no idea. And then all of a sudden like, “Oh my God, I’m at risk.” You know. So what is it about the genetic information? How does the technology, this access to technology shape their understandings shape their what they feel they can do, what they can do, access to treatments, different kinds of therapies, et cetera. So that was kind of how I got into it. And so, at that time I was really thinking a lot about critical social theories of risks, particularly those influenced by the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. And theories of biopower and governmentality and health sociologists as well as feminists who have taken up, taken up that work. So, I guess through these sort of like discourses of risk, I’ve looked at case studies that look at technology, embodiment and social relations. And one of the kind of core threads that keeps coming up before me, which is kind of what got me to like the politics of women’s health, was that the way in which these technologies kind of channel women’s desires, in particular ways, how they channeled their, what they think is possible. Their sense of freedom, their energies, and especially their sense of self-control, right? And so, in many ways I kinda feel like in addition to their own sense of embodiment, I’m interested in the way the technology helps put into effect a transformation and feminist demands from social transformation to individual and personal transformation.
Jill: That’s really cool. And I think it’s really interesting to think about the way in which, for example, this kind of genetic sequencing or genetic modeling of risk can, can have a reaction in an individual that’s like both an affective response, like you probably already know, for example, if your mother or grandmother or aunt has had a diagnosis of breast cancer. But having this genetic modelling might be a different affective response and perhaps a different intellectual response and change kind of our embodied experience of the world. And I think that’s really interesting to examine.
Jessica: Absolutely. In fact, there’s some kind of clear resonances with this work we did even though for now we’ve only looked at promotional websites and not interviewed people directly. In my dissertation research, I interviewed women and also over time as they went through the process of genetic testing. But there are some really clear resonances and how they would talk about things. So, for instance, the idea of seeing your ideas about your risk and how it made you think about your body. This is something we might come back to later. But this was a clear resonance that power of the visualization of the technology being able to visualize your body or your risk in a particular way. And what that meant and how it was taken up among the participants.
Jill: Right. So this idea of the body as data or the body as information that we see both in terms of the genetic sequencing, but also in terms of your current research in menstrual, and fertility tracking us. So can you tell us a bit about how you became interested in menstrual and fertility tracking apps specifically.
Jessica: Well, unlike my academic journey story, this is not a long story. The second author of the chapter Anna Sui, who is currently doing her PhD with me on actually voluntary tubal ligation. She, I can’t remember how it came up, but she showed me this article and I just thought, man, what a great case study like, it doesn’t focus on risk exactly, but it has all those elements of technology and embodiment. And admittedly, I am not someone who is a self-tracker, right? So, yeah, the idea of people self-tracking fascinates me from its own unique like point of view, right? So, and because I’ve always been interested in not like criticizing the technologies outright, right? But like understanding, like the meaning they have for people. So this is became kind of a source of fascination for me. So really I have to give credit where credit is due, that this was really Anna’s sort of subtle suggestion and I asked her if it was okay if I ran with it. And then I have to say at the time I was doing some work on vaccine hesitancy in childhood diseases, which of course has been in the news, in other ways, as of late. And at the time I was really tired of the politics around that and having to like constantly, not so much in academic circles. But if I was describing my research with friends, like “I’m not an anti-vaxxers but” I don’t like this whole like “we can’t really look at something and ask questions about it” without being kind of interrelated into this, like very polarized debate that I feel is not very helpful most of the time. So I, somehow like looking at menstrual fertility tracking app seems like a lot of fun analytically, and it has been interesting and important.
Jill: Very, very cool. Well, thank you, Anna then for bringing this to everybody’s attention. Okay. So for anybody who like you, maybe it was not a tracker. Can you tell us what menstrual in fertility tracking apps are?
Jessica: Yeah. So, I mean, basically what I’ve learned or how I’ve come to understand them as that these are kind of technological expressions or extensions of fertility awareness methods that have been around for a long time, where people kind of record their dates of their menstruation, their bodies’ temperature, other physiological things like cervical mucus or quality of cervical fluid, in order to predict when you’re fertile and infertile windows are. And so basically these apps help you store, record this kind of information with, with quite a bit of effort from those who are using them right, which often gets like, conveniently, what do you call it, neglected. And then once this data is input, it’s kind of transformed via a number of algorithms which we don’t see right there, kind of the background, right? And then through those algorithmic translations, a certain amount of feedback is provided through various visualization such as charts, graphs, reminders, et cetera, that are provided to whoever is using, to whoever is using the app. Often the information that’s provided is aggregated. It’s presented to the user. And in addition to what the user gets, it’s often larger datasets are shared in ways that hopefully you have agreed to or know that you’ve agreed to when you signed onto your app or maybe you don’t care and shared with, with other, with other parties. So, there’s kind of like how I see it, it’s like there’s the front stage of the tech and the backstage. There’s the front like what we see like I see you interviewing me, I see my email but I have no idea of the coding and all of the zeros and ones and things that happened behind the scenes. Yeah, the technology. So I kind of see the menstrual infertility tracking apps in that way.
Jill: Okay. And I think, I really wanted to highlight this idea that there is a lot of user labor that goes into these, right? And you are asked to input a lot of information manually. And the more you input the story goes, the more you’re going to get back. But, that’s not insignificant, the amount of labor that goes into these apps. And then of course, the other thing that I want to highlight is when you input all this information, what happens to it?
Jill: And whether or not you’ve agreed. Like, do we read the terms and conditions? Is anybody looking at the permissions on these apps? So, I think that’s really like there’s a lot of rich space for questions and, and investigations here, it feels like.
Jessica: Yeah, and I think that that’s something, that is something that I really like to promote in the style of critique I do. I mean, I have no problems with critiques that say, “No, this is wrong and this is why, and this is dangerous and this as why.” But I think that the way in which questions, important questions get you light it or, or, and the way in which people get chided for asking questions is really problematic. And I see that the rhetoric and the discourses that frame these apps sometimes pay so much attention to like empowerment and confidence and control that those kinds of things easily go, they get swept away very easily. I just want to quickly come back to your question about the, the labor.
Jessica: Because I’m not sure that we’ll come back to that again. And in addition to the actual just like inputting, like maybe people think, “Well how hard is it to like poke in some numbers and your phone or whatever you do or like put on your bracelet, records a wearable device.” But I think that this is time, too, right? Like this is time doing this, not spent doing other things and that labor is free.
Jessica: Right? So there’s, there’s an element, this is not something that I take up and in the work, but there is an element, if you wanted to look at it, this way of exploitation, that is quite interesting that I think probably others have looked at, maybe not in relation to these apps specifically.
Jill: Yeah. So there is an idea that turning over your data, both what happens to the data, but also the labor of turning over the data is unpaid labor.
Jessica: And that’s falling primarily on cis women.
Jill: Yeah. And other exploited menstruators.
Jessica: And other exploited menstruators, yes.
Jill: Okay. So we’ve got a bit of a picture of how the apps work, some questions that we can ask regarding the apps and their place in our society. But I want to backup a little bit to talk about the background sociopolitical context in which these menstrual and fertility tracking apps exist. So these apps don’t appear in a vacuum, right? So, what kind of norms exist around menstruation and how might that have influenced the development and maybe use apps?
Jessica: Yeah, great question. I mean, I think that this question gets at a central assumption that guides my work and others who, who work from this kind of critical perspective, which is broadly social constructionist, let’s say, or like sociotechnical, which is that technologies embed the values, right? The technologies that rise to the fore, they embed the broader cultural, social, political, economic values in which they’re embedded. So, I think there’s a number of contexts so we can draw attention to here. One is that I think that these particular apps on menstruation and tracking, right, emerge, in relation to ideologies of menstrual shame and kind of long-standing ideas about women’s menstruation and bodies as leaky, out-of-control, irrational impure, right? All of those things, all of those constructions of the sort of feminized body which medicine in the past has provided like, a response to a rational response to help contain control, et cetera, regulate. In this case, it’s not medicine necessarily, but it’s a technology that kind of like bumps up against medical knowledge in interesting kind of ways. And certainly some of the apps, the websites we looked out like they have relationships with universities and doctors. Some are FDA approved, some are not, right? So, there’s all of that. So, you have these ideologies about the body alongside that you have responses to those ideologies like menstrual rights, menstrual equity activism, which is really interesting. So, they kinda challenge the stigma associated with those ideologies, advocate for like access to menstrual products, et cetera. So, many of the listeners may have heard of like period poverty and those kinds of things I know a lot of our students are interested in, writing about that for sure. And then you have also politically these very conservative values about sexuality and gender, where access to sexual and reproductive health education is, is challenged or continues to erode. So we have seen this in Ontario would like challenges to sex ed curriculum, for example. The more we push against and then make space for diverse identities, there’s this, this conservative kind of pushback. So, we see that. And one way in which that came up in our work is that one of the apps we tried to, we looked at a lot of apps and then chose 15 websites that were kind of diverse. So one of them is called Fam, and it was actually developed by a non-profit anti choice organization that was funded under Trump.
Jessica: With the purpose of preventing pregnancy among poor people. And that is just one and clear, extreme example of how like very conservative values get kind of built into these kinds of apps. Now certainly this app did not claim to have that, and others don’t either. But sometimes they, the apps as one researcher puts it, they inherit moral orientations, right? So even family awareness methods come out of the Catholic Church. And so, there’s these sort of kind of resonances that, that carry, right? And then the last thing that I’ll say is that, and it’s distinct from these conservative values but certainly overlaps with, as you know, there’s very strong ideologies of response, personal responsibility for health, that are prior, prioritized within neoliberal society is like Canada and other countries. And what kinds of political rationalities health very much gets worked out where governments provide individuals with opportunities to exercise their rights and freedoms in ways that both stimulate the market, right? And that elide social and governmental responsibility for health, right? So this idea of personal responsibility for health is very much reflected in some of those kind of post-feminist ideals that we make arguments about in the chapter.
Jill: So, what we have here is a background in which the menstruating body is viewed as unruly, perhaps unclean, and in need of control. And so, we used to have medical discourse that would kind of lead to the fore to try and do that control. And now we have this kind of quasi medical discourse in the frame of apps, some of which are backed by medical institutions. But now the, the need to control the body is downloaded onto the individual. And this kinda fits very nicely with the last thing you said about this kind of ideology of individual responsibility for health, that governments are taking this line that it’s the individual’s responsibility to look after themselves and to maintain their own health. And this is not framed as a social issue, but it’s framed as an individual issue.
Jessica: Yeah, and this is echoed in like, other feminists have drawn attention to this is not my idea, but these kinds of political ideologies, usurp and appropriate feminist ideals of “Taking charge” like all this sort of women’s health movement and women’s movement take charge of your own health, right? So it’s like, here’s the tool to take charge of your own health. One argument that I’ve heard before, it’s like, well, if this if there aren’t any services, here’s an opportunity for me to do something about it if no one’s going to help me, here, I can help myself so I can be self-sufficient. So, they kind of, these discourses kind of meet in very interesting ways. And, and it’s like within this set of competing discourses and sometimes complimentary discourses that these tracking apps I think have flourished.
Jill: Yeah. And this idea of kind of appropriating the idea of, of feminist goals of freedom and control of one’s own fertility and reproductive justice in this kind of thing. And I think we can see some of that which becomes even more interesting, troubling, when we look at the ways in which these apps are also promoting anti -choice, conservative Christian ideologies of like, take control of your fertility through fertility tracking in fertility awareness, not through other methods of reproductive control or reproductive justice.
Jill: Yeah, that’s a lot to untangle. That’s very interesting.
Jill: S,o you’ve already talked a bit about what kind of information users would input into these apps. Can you talk a little bit about how this input might happen? So, you’ve already mentioned there’s such a thing as wearables. So, what might be the difference between wearables and manual apps, for example? What what kind of different technologies are out there.
Jessica: Okay. I don’t know about the complete range of wearables. Within our sample, there were three. There was one that was in your ear, that you put an earbud in YoNo, Yo Know, or you know, which I think is the way like that, that’s sort of pun it was going for. Okay. Ava is another very popular one, which is a watch or a bracelets. And both he ear and the bracelet you ear, the ideas that you wear them at night and they collect continuous data every it uploads every five minutes.
Jessica: Or something like that. So I know the one that I read was five minutes. I’m not sure if that’s the same for all of them. And I believe there was a third one that was actually like vaginal, but I honestly don’t remember which, which company that was off the top of my head. You know that the information that you would put it manually, as I said, is often like the fertility information. But you’re also putting in personal information like name, email, whatever you decide to do, your residence, some apps asked for ID of other kinds, which is presumably optional. Sometimes they asked for other health-related information, which again is often optional things like weight, sleep, mood, energy levels, that kind of stuff. And then there can be other information as well like sexual activity outside of just fertility concerns, libido levels. And if you’re using pregnancy tracking, which we didn’t really look at, there may be other bodily functions or pregnancy monitoring indications. So, I think where the wearables are different from that, is that they are collecting information directly from the body. So one of the expressions, I believe it was Anna who contributed like it’s like the “outsourcing of the labor to the tech.” That’s the way it’s described, right? Is that you’re not doing the work, that you’re letting the tech and do the work for you. So one of those Ava, it includes a lot of different kinds of physiological mass measurements including resting pulse rate, heart rate variability ratios, sleep patterns, breathing rate. All of these are just, you know, you’re getting this constellation of data points all being generated from your body, whether they’re input manually or tracked directly from your body? Yeah, but I think idea that the more data you collect, the more accurate you can be, the more patterns you like, all of a sudden you can, you know, make patterns between breathing rates and something else. And so I think that’s quite, that’s quite interesting.
Jill: And it seems like patterns, right? Like the opposite of chaos. So, it’s like a promise that the disorderly menstruating body can be brought to order if we just have more data or that we can see the order that was always there that we just couldn’t see, right?
Jessica: Exactly. Exactly.
Jill: And that again, sounds like it might be able to be dressed up in the trappings of empowerment, right? Oh, we’re not unruly and chaotic and disorderly. See the pattern.
Jessica: Yeah. Right. And I mean, I think sometimes that’s helpful to people like there were certain instances in the testimonials we read, now mind you the testimonials we’re on websites so we have no idea how they were curated are selected, right? These weren’t at me like going out and interviewing people like, hey, how do you use your app?
Jill: This is kind of marketing material.
Jessica: Totally. But even there, there was like, “Hey, this, you know, I took this to my doctor’s office and this is how this helps me.” And so, I thought, well that’s kind of interesting because this is how people can use the information they’re getting through these apps to perhaps leverage power within their own medical encounters in a way that they may have not felt that they had a license to do before. So they have like a technologically endorse license to maybe challenge medical authority or just start a conversation maybe, right?
Jessica: You know, like doctors don’t like it when you go on the Internet, to get information. Who knows how the doctors feel about that? But I’ve had some conversations with who, who actually prescribe apps for some of their patients. So that’s interesting?
Jill: Oh my gosh. I prescribe your data be mined. Anyway.
Jessica: You know, like what, for those who can’t see me, I’m making like little air quotes
Jill: Prescribed in air quotes.
Jessica: But yeah, exactly. But yeah, I can’t remember if that’s the word they use, so I’m using that, but it is interesting to think that that becomes then part of like when is this medical information and when is it not?
Jill: Okay. So, to really kind of dig into all of this in your chapter, you and your team, as you’ve said, looked at how MFTA’s are marketed and promoted. And in going through the sample that you had, there were a few concepts you reached for it to kind of clarify what you were seen. And one concept you reached for was the concept of bio pedagogy. So, I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about what bio pedagogy is. And I understand we may need to back up and talk about Michel Foucault’s work on biopower in order to really ground this. So can you take us on this journey?
Jessica: I will try to take you on this journey in as clear a path as possible. Biopower are literally power over life, right? Is a reconceptualization or a conceptualization of power that was proposed by Michel Foucault. And basically he loosely located the emergence of biopower within about the 17th 18th centuries. And his argument, and this is in History of Sexuality Volume 1, most clearly and particularly in the very last chapter, “right to death or power over life.” His argument is that biopower is distinct from sovereign power, where state power function primarily in taking life. The king either took life or let live. This is sovereign or monarchical power. For him, biopower in contrast was not in the body of the king, but it was in the social body and it was dispersed and multiple practices and in multiple forms of knowledge. And that those knowledges and practices, which we can collectively refer to as discourse coalesced in relation to two poles, right? The first is a pole that revolves around the individual body. There’s a whole set of practices that seek knowledge of the individual body. This is what Foucault referred to as anatamal politics. And the individual body was something that he thought of that was disciplined. And it was disciplines primarily in relation to practices and techniques of surveillance. And in relation to norms. And norms were constructed through a set of practices and knowledges that concerns the species body, the second pole of biopower or the population body, right. And this for Foucault was called biopolitics. And that involved the collection of data at the population level, right? Birth rates, death rates. How do we make sense of the population as a living thing so that we can manage it? So, the focus became very much not about a king protecting the territory and the wealth of a country or a jurisdiction. But biopower was about how do we manage life and the question of the living. And so, this idea of bodies as things that could be administered, regulated, optimized, controlled, became questions that Foucault draws attention to through his theorization of biopower in the history of sexuality. And so this has been taken up by feminists as well as critical health studies scholars and in a variety of disciplines. But those are the two kind of fields that impact my work the most. And it’s been taken up to really look at how do people participate in power, right? How is the body’s functions, how did they become known? How do they become objects of knowledge through medicine and through various other disciplines of the human sciences, psychology, sociology, et cetera? And for feminists, I think that this question has been really used in clever and interesting and provocative ways to examine like, how do women become complicit in their own subjection, right?
Jessica: Within broader relations of power. And how did they also resist those things? Because for Foucault, within this model of power, which does not operate primarily according to repression, but certainly alongside repression, that power was very productive. It produced certain ways of being certain forms of knowledge. But it also could be act, like, resisted unintentionally, intentionally. And so, feminists also see this as a very useful way of understanding how women or other identities variously positions identity, take parts in practices of power in various kinds of ways. I hope that makes sense.
Jill: Yeah. So, if we take this idea of biopower, this idea of regulating the species life, regulating life, gathering knowledge, exerting norms, how, how does biopedagogy fit into that?
Jessica: Okay. Well, that’s a good question, I will be honest when I first kind of discovered biopedagogy, which I heard about some time ago and honestly didn’t think it’s that different from biopower. So, I struggled at first to understand that and how I’ve come to understand it and apply it is I really see that it’s a very specific application of biopower. So, I see that it’s a way of understanding the practices and techniques that focus on the education and training of the body in a very specific kind of way. And so often when people write about biopedagogical practices, they’re writing about an intensification of surveillance that occurs at both of those poles I spoke about. So, both the disciplining of the individual body and the regulation of the, of the population or species body. And so, I think, like biopower, biopedagogies or biopedagogical practices are found in multiple social sites, right? We see how in schools there’s sort of a training of the body in public health practice, right? If we even to think of those classic examples when you’re learning discipline with Foucault like how our students arranged into the classroom, like in the row. And then there’s gold stars and a system of rewards and punishments and all this kind of thing.
Jill: Or I’m even thinking of something so basic is like when you show up to a clinic and you take a number and sit down and wait for your number and that’s even before you get into the more biopower aspects of the health care system. But you, your body and your behaviour regulated in a waiting room, right?
Jessica: Waiting, waiting is a big area, I think where, where biopower can kind of exert itself for sure. Yeah, So I think that an important point here, again, you can see the relationship to biopower is that biopedagogies aim to cultivate through their training of the body, they aim to cultivate particular kinds of bodies that fit, right?
Jessica: That they fit with the prevailing social discourses, cultural norms regarding gender or sexuality, size, et cetera. There’s a lot written about obesity, epidemic discourse from the point of view of critical biopedagogies. And so that these bodies are made, they’re educated to fit these societies by providing instruction about the work that needs to be done to, to fit within that given culture.
Jill: Okay, so now that we have some understanding of what bio pedagogy is and perhaps some general examples of where it’s found, can you tell me why your team reached for this and looking at the menstrual and fertility tracking apps, or for example, what are some common themes you’ve found in these apps? How does this demonstrate biopedagogy, or why was biopedagogy useful here?
Jessica: Well, I think it really jumped off the page at me to be quite honest. Like, sometimes you have those projects that do that for you, which is sort of nice. It’s like, oh, maybe I should go there and take that concept, returned to add or take it more seriously or et cetera. Because what you see when you read those promotional materials is this sort of constant reiteration of how the technology is helping you right, it’s always like the technology is teaching your learning, learn about your body, right? Increase your IQ. Right there’s, yeah, there your fertility IQ, the one that I really love, I don’t know if it strikes me as funny as it did the first time, but was it was in relation to the wearable, YoNo, you know, I’m not quite sure how to say it. But I always like, I think they’re playing on “you know,” right? Like you’re a knower now . . .
Jill: I thought it was like YOLO, you only live once.
Jessica: But I think their expression was “fertility intelligence in your ear.” And they play on this like, imagine that your ear is your most important reproductive organ, whatever anyway. So, you know, and then just recently I was thinking about that even more like, that’s fascinating too, because the idea of intelligence, It’s like spying, right? Like you’re the spy on your own body. And this tech is translating like, translate the signals of your body so that you can now understand
Jill: And whispering in your ear.
Jessica: Yeah. So anyway, we reached for biopedagogy because literally through this language, I began to think of these technologies was like, Oh, they’re actually, they’re training the body literally. And they’re also training the user who is invited to think about their body now in a particular kind of way and to like build their capacity certain kinds of ways in relation to this form of bodily education, right? So we just discussed five main themes that we came up with. But one of the primary discursive dynamics that you’ve already kind of been, been getting at a few times through our discussion so far, is this idea that, you know that the promotional materials create confusion about the body, right?
Jessica: They assume that the body is disordered and then they resolve it with the technology, right? So it’s kinda like a classic sort of you create the problem and the vision of the solution that you already have to fix the problem. But you see this a lot in the way that the promotions use what I call like invitational imperatives. Right. So they’re not like commands like go clean your room, right? But they’re like, learn more about your body. Don’t you want to know?
Jill: Who doesn’t?
Jessica: Who doesn’t want to know about their body, right? And especially if you’re a person who might be struggling with, with fertility or, you know, endometriosis or who knows? There’s like actually probably a range of things that people use these for. So they kind of entice people right? They’re very enticing. And this kind of construction of the body is this mysterious thing that has all these disordered signals that you just can’t possibly understand on your own, right? I think this reflects what other researchers, I believe they’re anthropologists, they call it the 1-2 punch of technocracy. This is Michel and George’s review of ultrasounds. And they talk about reproductive technology as constructed as like we are going to create anxiety about this unknown thing inside of you. And then we’re going to resolve it by giving you an ultrasound. So then now it reassures you, right? So there’s this anxiety and reassurance kind of discursive dynamic that happens.
Jill: Yeah, in some ways this is a favorite to the tech companies, right? Because the anxiety is already there in society, right? Anxieties about pregnancy or in your specific research, this idea of the menstruating body as unruly and mysterious and uncontrollable is already there and can easily be amplified by these marketing techniques.
Jessica: Absolutely. They’re absolutely marketing techniques and I, I yeah, and that’s, that’s not uncommon, right? So again, I would just say that that biopedagogy really came across most clearly. And then all of a sudden these apps are helpers, translators, they are teachers, their guides, right? And they’re not doctors, like they’re never positioned as medical authorities, which is very interesting. Well actually, one of them was called Fertility Friend. And it was a very kind of grassroots one, which was why we included it. But they’re more like pals right there. They’re situated as pals and as providing information that can be just as helpful as medical information. But again, there’s this uneasy and wavering relationship with the information as medical information.
Jill: Right. And I think that’s so interesting that they position themselves as, as friends. Teachers and friends, but not authority figure is the way a medical doctor might be viewed. Because this seems to me to go back to your discussion of individual empowerment, right? Like if I’m talking to a friend who was helping me figure something out, it feels like I’m empowered rather than kind of me following the advice of an authority figure, for example. So, I think that’s very, very interesting. And it also leads me to the other tool or the other concept that you reached for, which is this idea of post-feminism and this kind of post-feminist individual freedom.
Jill: So I was wondering if you could talk about what post feminism is and then maybe why it was helpful in looking at these apps.
Jessica: Yeah. And it was, it was interesting to tease these different things apart because they do kind of overlap and in a Venn diagram, yeah.
Jessica: So kind of building on from the biopedagogy, what I found was that the, the sort of values or the ideologies that came through was up the body was being educated, are being taught in ways that reinforced what some have referred to as post-feminism or post-feminist principles, right? So to kind of summarize those principles would be a focus on individual choice and freedom, right? And the emphasis placed on individual choice and freedom is typically encouraged, recognize through practices and activities that take place on the body rates we can, we have a central focus on the body and on sexuality, right? And that they often strive for self-transformation, right? Personal and self-transformation. So as Rosalind Gill, I believe puts it that there’s this sort of make over paradigm that we can improve ourselves. I think that this also resonates a lot with ideas that I was learning about during my PhD, mostly in relation to risk, but the idea of the self as an enterprise, We should be entrepreneurial and that we can always improve ourselves. There’s always work to be done. And certainly with discourses on risk, which shapes so much of like health promotion. But also in this area I think, is that like the work that you can do on yourself is never done.
Jessica: So, it’s, there’s always something else, right? So this is also very convenient for people who are looking for a marketing, marketing opportunities. So there’s this sort of constant marketization. But, but in any case, to go back to the question of post-feminism, I think this is really interesting because you have these principles or main components of post feminist sensibility, like individually and freedom, the body and sexuality, and self-transformation. But those roots to self-transformation often require intense surveillance, right?
Jessica: So you to see that you have this sort of interesting again, set of tensions emerge between empowerment and self-control, between freedom and self-surveillance, and between individual transformation and conformity, right? And so this is where I think these apps kind of encapsulate this because they become, as we say in the very beginning of our chapter, a site for self knowledge, self surveillance and self-transformation.
Jill: Yeah, like the whole idea of post feminism, in this idea of individual freedom, focus on the body, like build your brand almost as if it sounds like when you’re talking about like self entrepreneurialship and self-transformation. I guess that’s why it’s called post-feminism. Because when I think of feminism, I think of collective movement, collective action, solidarity. Do post feminists or does the post-feminist ideology have this kind of idea that feminism has succeeded and we don’t need it anymore. And so now we can get back to ourselves and like live our best lives.
Jessica: Yeah, I think exactly like I, I see post-feminism being talked about as a set of ideas and also is kind of an era like many other isms. Like I think you can discuss like post-modernism, that way too. Like it’s a set of kind of assumptions and ideas. Like it’s talked about as an era. So post-feminism, as you just said, like, Oh, we’re past that. We don’t need feminism anymore. But there’s this sort of appropriation of ideas and yes, and the individualization of things like transformation, change.
Jill: Right? So instead of social transformation as through a feminist movement or other movements of collective resistance, we’re going to do individual transformations because the collective resistance thing succeeded.
Jessica: Yeah, and, and also I think feminism It’s like it’s repudiated. So it’s both kind of celebrated them repudiated at the same time.
Jill: It’s gone too far, right? Is another one I’ve heard, right? Feminisms gone too far. It’s dangerous. Feminism is overreaching and it’s time to move on to something else.
Jessica: Have we gone too far? Like is it too far? Like no. It’s not.
Jill: It’s not it’s not too far listeners.
Jessica: We say no.
Jill: Okay, So I think I can see how post-feminism and biopedagogy come together at the site of these apps and the interaction of the user with the app or of the app with the body in the case of wearables. Because the apps very much are promising, these kind of post-feminist promises for lack of a better word.
Jill: Is that right?
Jessica: Yeah. The app provides you with an opportunity to know your body, to participate actively in your own self surveillance on your body. Towards the end of that self-understanding and through that, you will become transforms, right? That is the progress.
Jill: And so you participate in the surveillance, this regulation of the body, gathering of knowledge in order to regulate the body to conform to some kind of norms. This is biopedagogy, biopower. And then that is supposed to promise individual freedom and growth and flourishing and transformation.
Jessica: Yeah, and I mean, certainly in some of the testimonials like you do see these sort of positive reports of, and again, getting back to the menstrual shame discourses, like I no longer think of my body that way. And so, you know, there may actually be personal instances where these apps or other kinds of technologies do enable people to think about their bodies in new ways. And I think this is very powerful because this now allows you to attach a new affective relation of, let’s say, confidence, knowledge, active participation to your body in a way that was formerly associated with guilt, shame, non-knowledge, passivity perhaps like, I’m not denying that people may, may actually have those. In fact, that is what interests me. It is, it is placing our liberation primarily in that affective relation that I think is questionable.
Jill: And I can see here to the resonance to your earlier work, right? So, this idea that the datification of the menstruating body can change our affective responses to our body and to the world. Perhaps no longer feeling shame about the menstruating body or feeling confidence about certain bodily reactions are functions that you didn’t feel confident about before. Because now you can see, and the metaphor of seeing, the idea of needing to make this visual. And this seems to go backs me to your discussion of breast cancer and genetics, right? So you may know, for example, that there’s a family history, but that may feel affectively different than seeing it in data.
Jessica: Absolutely. That becomes so important in this process of tracking in a way that questions about like the efficacy of the apps, like do they actually do what they say they do? Or what are the ethical, legal, social, political, economic implications of the data that are being gathered? Or, you know, as you said before, like do you even know, or you know, where your data are going? All of those things kind of get elided, right? And so I think that that’s very powerful.
Jill: One thing you note is that these apps promise to deliver knowledge of menstruators individual bodies and rhythms. And we’ve tied this now to post-feminism into biopedagogies. But your research went on to say that what often actually happens is not so much individualization, but more conformity. So can you explain this kind of paradox?
Jessica: Well, again, I will just preface this by saying, like, we haven’t talked to people, right,
Jessica: This is like these are discursive dynamics that we track and traced in our analysis of the promotional materials. But yeah, I think what you’re getting at is really important and it’s actually very kind of key to like the theory of power that we’re working with. So you have like on the one hand, like this appeal to use, users who are constantly being invited to like, input data, the more data you put in the better and you can customize what things you put in, right? And that you will get feedback that is uniquely you, right. You’ll get personalized feedback and tips. The idea that it’s your body. Not just any body. So this is very powerful rhetorically, I think, and how it operates in the marketing. But the way in which this opportunity for self-knowledge, right? Self-understanding becomes tightly sutured to self-surveillance. This makes people feel like they’re actively involved. And so, you have this on the one hand, and then on the other hand, you have this sort of these curated testimonials and these “visual economy” I call it, of these like with very little deviation from the sites we looked at, which was about 50 webpages and about 60 testimonials. These testimonials and visuals are tightly circumscribed by very normative expressions of gender, heterosexuality, et cetera, age of fitness, size, et cetera. So, I just copied this to this wording a little bit with some paraphrasing because I actually really liked it. “You see women happily surveilling themselves and model, model homes by staring at their cell phones. Physically active women, feminine, women-presenting bodies, slender bodies, and appropriately feminine fitness regimes such as yoga. Women participating in leisure activities while ornamented with stylish wearable devices and pregnant anticipatory mothers or new mothers with masculine partners, or you see them as very docile bodies at rest while their data are being collected without their mindful engagement,” right? So that’s the one with the wearable and that, that image is just fascinating. Like if you go even to the Ava website now there’s sort of like this short video and you either see the woman like sleeping with her bracelet/watch, or she kind of like caresses the watch. I always of this, this might be dated because of my age, but like I remember when I used to watch The Price is Right, as, as a little girl and those women would always get up with like a can of beans and like just caress it like that. Like, like look at this and I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing what you’re doing.” Anyway. So you see these images or these sleeping women who are wearing this tech, which is described in all of these active terms. So the tech is given all of this agency, right? The tech is, is tracking, it’s analyzing, it’s predicting, it’s helping, it’s doing all of this work.
Jessica: Demystifying, solving all these problems. There’s the link docile body par excellence, Like, sleeping, right? So I really feel like when you, when you look at all of those images and testimonials as well, you get a very strong sense of like this normative ideal that these apps are reinforcing. There were a few references to gender or sexual diversity and diversity in age. Not a lot. It begs the question of like, is this about uniqueness of bodies, about diversity, about inclusion, or is this about reinforcing a particular cultural imaginary in hierarchy of reproductive fitness, perhaps, right?
Jill: So here is, I think, where you and your team reached for the theory of intersectionality a little bit to look at what’s happening here. Because yeah, as you’ve said, a lot of the marketing material that you found showed cis het women or what appeared to be cis het women in in the marketing ads using these apps wearing these wearables. So can you say a little bit more about what the theory of intersectionality might show us with regards to the marketing of these apps.
Jessica: Yeah, again, so in our interview research that we hope to be doing later in a few months’ time, to start, we plan to try to really like get participants who are using these apps, who aren’t, who may come from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of identities and use the apps for a variety of reasons, right? But certainly, in these promotional materials, I think it’s really obvious that the way these are marketed is to very feminine presenting, cis het women, as you say. This leads out wide range of individuals who menstruate and who may find this kind of information or these technologies helpful in some way? And you know, to give credit where credit is due, I think that some of the apps do try to be more diverse. I think Clue is one of them, for example. So non-binary folks, trans man, there’s also one of our sites was before women who were undergoing, going through menopause. So that was unusual, but there are those sites and apps that exist. The other thing I think is that we saw was that these apps were predominantly aimed at, as you said, cis women in heterosexual relationships. So, they were rare instances of testimonials, which I found actually very interesting that focused on the usefulness of these apps for like, let’s say surrogates right. And so I was like, “Oh, that’s so interesting. I can see how these apps might actually help somebody in that very different kind of family formation or set of relationships, right?” And so I think that that is interesting.
Jill: But yeah, a lot of the marketing material as you presented it does talk about like getting pregnant, quote unquote “naturally.” Yeah, this is kind of exactly cis het relationships and not necessarily talking about using IVF treatment or other modes of becoming pregnant or fertility.
Jessica: Exactly. And that kind of like, gets me to my next question, which is like, are these apps really about physiological processes of menstruation, reproduction right, or more generally, or they concerned about reinforcing a particular kind of idea. But I don’t think that that is conspiratorial necessarily. But certainly, it reinforces those cultural imaginaries that these apps work within. And so I think that they really reinforce certain kind of ideas about docile femininity, heterosexuality, monogamous, heterosexual reproduction.
Jill: Cis normativity.
Jessica: And like a view of transformation that is very much rooted in a particular kind of person, right?
Jessica: So you’re, if you’re a docile feminine subject, then you can have personal transformation.
Jill: Whoo, Post-Feminist!
Jessica: Right! That comes back to that, right? It’s like back to the history of sexuality is like, why are we seeking liberation in this highly reductionist knowledge of our bodies, yeah?
Jill: And yet as you say, some people do find liberation here and that’s interesting too.
Jessica; And so for, for a model of power like biopower, you know, these things can be both laboratory and repressive at the same time.
Jill: So you have a passage in the chapter where you speak about the pleasurable experiences that many users have with these tracking apps as a source of data and knowledge, which we’ve talked about with post-feminist ideologies and biopedagogy. But you note that this source of pleasure that many people report experiencing in the testimonials itself is something we should examine carefully. So I’m going to quote from the chapter. You say, “While the data visualizations provided by these apps are associated with the reward and pleasure of obtaining self-knowledge, they also perform a kind of menstrual reductionism, whereby an expansive range of experiences and bodily quote unquote, ‘symptoms’ are filtered, interpreted, and represented as hormonally determined.” That’s the end of the quote. So, can you speak a bit about this, please? I found this fascinating.
Jessica: Yeah. So I think because these processes, bodily processes are often seen as a mystery or presented as a mystery, that text can solve, the idea of gaining knowledge and the experience of participating in self surveillance to get that knowledge, to achieve that knowledge is felt as liberating, right? Pleasurable. It gives people a sense of confidence which you just kind of set up. And so we see this sort of experience of pleasure or this affective relation to the body being kind of sutured to a very reductionist understanding to the body like this, this menstrual reductionism. Yeah, I think the pleasure is, it is important to acknowledge, not only because it has meaning for users, right? Because I think that’s important too. And, but also because it can mask the regulatory effects of the technology. And it can obscure how users become complicit in their own self-regulation. And I don’t want that interpreted as “Oh, you know, people are just dupes. They don’t really know what they’re doing. They just need to be told.” But sometimes it’s, I’ll reach back for Foucault here if we think about power as operating by inciting desire, right? And attaching our sense of individuality and identities to particular practices, right? Or, or attaching them to particularly effectively charged rituals, if you will, if you think about the whole ritual of everyday putting in your information or putting on your tracking watch at night, we can see how our energies get channeled in certain ways towards particular ends that may not be of our own choosing or about which we may not be aware, or about which we may not agree. And so I think that this is where it’s just important to like, how do we make thinking and questioning about that possible, about those questions possible once again. So certainly those data visualizations like they, they’re presented as being eliciting so much of this affective response. And so you see this like, the pleasure in reducing your embodiment to a set of data points. And you see this over and over again, like what is happening here.
Jessica: And so some of the other obfuscations that I think that happened in that moment is that there’s a selectivity of information that is presented to you and those data points, right? That the technology designers decide on, that you provide information about, that the user provides information about. But how can there, there is no other recognition of external factors like your stress at work where, let’s say you’re living through a pandemic.
Jill: I was just gonna say. . . Maybe my low mood isn’t because I’m PMSing but is because of the state of the world.
Jessica: And so this is kind of like, your understanding, this very reductionist understanding has, is circumscribed hormonally in many ways, right? And so, there’s, you know, there’s someone who writes about the pill Andrea Tone. She talks about the hormonal imperative. I was like, “Oh, this kind of relates to that a bit.” And so another aspect that may be interesting to think about is how the affective dimensions, both in how they’re marketed and how they’re taken up an experienced by people may override a number of other considerations, which I think I mentioned earlier, which is, you know, do the apps do what they claim to do or they efficacious? And what else is happening? Ethical, legal, social implications. So we’ve seen a few cases that had been widely publicized about Flow period trackers shared their data with Facebook as the fact that some of these apps are purchased by workplaces to monitor work to a worker health.
Jill: Oh my gosh.
Jessica: For, presumably to help them manage health insurance claims. And they give their workers incentives, financial incentives to use the app during their pregnancy. And so these are the things that can kind of, you know, until they appear in the media are not as much in the forefront.
Jill: And I also think this reductionism that you talked about. So we don’t look at the state of the world or perhaps a relationship you’re having with your boss or with somebody else. If there’s a problem with your pregnancy and pregnancy tracking or if something’s, some other problem with your body is occurring in and you’re using menstrual and fertility tracking. It’s again, back to this kind of post-feminist individualism, isn’t it that like, the site of the problem becomes the body. Rather that’s your relationship with the world.
Jessica: Yeah, or the way that the technology structures, the understanding of the problem and therefore the response. And so if I think of like a student whose, whose thesis committee I was on Andrea Carson, who did this great study on women who decide to discontinue infertility treatment in Canada. And the fact that it’s so hard for them to discontinue it because they are never told, like maybe you should stop. But ultimately, the way that they internalize the failure as in their bodies, because that is how the whole practice is shaped even though that is not the intention of a particular medical practitioner. That is the logic, you didn’t release the egg or the technology didn’t work, right? But it’s never the failure of the technology, it’s the failure of the body. And I see like kind of a similar thing here. Like, ultimately are we assuming someone’s using it for the purposes of getting pregnant? Are we just putting blame in the bodies of the people who are, of menstruators and women who are using this technology? It’s very individualized. And that individualized, as you said, is reinforced by a post-feminist imaginary. And it’s also highly influenced by medicalization of health.
Jill: So I will admit that I have used a menstruation and fertility tracking up. Unlike you, I’ve used one. And I know several other menstruators who have. So do you have any advice to people who have or who are currently using these apps like should we stop?
Jessica: I actually really love this question, right? Because it really makes you think like what is the point of my critique that I’m doing? I, as you know, do not use it. Do not use the app. And, you know, it just off the cuff, I wouldn’t tell someone who I knew, let’s say who was telling me about their experience to stop using them unless I thought he was being very harmful to them in some ways, like causing them psychological distress. But I think that like there’s, there’s two answers to this question. And one is kind of more philosophical, which I might have touched on already. And one is a little more practical. And the more philosophical one is just about, I think that the purpose of the chapters to really provoke readers to think about what it is that they’re doing when they’re using these apps, right? And again, that’s not to suggest that people are dupes, like, do you really know what you’re doing? But it’s more like a decentering themselves as a user to really think about the set of power relations are entering into, right? When they’re, when they’re using the app.
Jill: Why are you doing it? What do you get out of it?
Jessica: Right? Why, why did you start doing it? Why are you doing it now? Like, how is your relationship to it changed, right? I think that it’s through that kind of critical self-reflection, we can better understand what do I want out of this technology? How can I better direct my decisions in a way that is better for me and for my life and for my situation, right? And so, for me, the idea of decentering yourself as someone who perhaps is not in full control over choices, right? Trying to think about like, what choices are being offered to me and under what conditions?
Jessica: To me that, for some people, that sounds very disempowering, but to me, it’s actually a way for me to understand better how I can work within a particular set of power relations to best fulfill whatever it is I’m seeking through my use of that. And maybe that means disengaging from the app. Maybe it means continuing to use it and contacting the app developers and asking them for other options. It could look all different kinds of ways. The other sort of more practical way that I would answer it, and I guess this is really about like more what I, I’m, I’m interested in doing is just to get a better understanding of why people use these apps. Because I think really understanding how people use the information and how they engage with these apps in the context of their everyday lives, that can also look very different than the kind of critique that we formulate from a philosophical point of view. And so that’s kind of where we’re headed.
Jill: So it sounds like one of the things that you’re hoping this chapter and also the podcast can do is to encourage people to think about the relations of power they’re entering into. And think about whether or not this is also a place they might want to engage in some kind of resistance. And if so, what might that resistance look like? And if not, why not? What are you getting out of it? Because there’s a sense in which it may seem like it’s always been there, like we know it hasn’t. But all of these apps, we adopt them so quickly, not just menstrual and fertility apps, but all tracking apps. And you start engaging with them because everybody else is. And again, I do this a very common social norm. But it is worthwhile kind of stepping back and being like, Well, hang on. Like, why are we all doing this?
Jessica: Right. And I do think that there is something to be said for like, while the technology might provide us with a way of connecting to our bodies and certain kinds of ways, how are we being disconnected in other ways? Right? Because of course, with every way of seeing there are blind spots. So even if we’re using way of seeing, metaphorically, a way of understanding, right? So like, what is being left out? Are there other things that you couldn’t be exploring about your embodiment in relation to menstruation or other forms of self-tracking that is not indicated by this. So rather than it just being an instrumental exercising how many steps did I walk today for instance, it’s like, how do we feel when I walk, do I want to walk on this path or that time and why?
Jill: This episode of Gender Sex and Tech continued a conversation began in Chapter 8 of the book. Gender, Sex and Tech!: An Intersectional Feminist Guide. The chapter is called “Empowerment through participatory surveillance: menstrual and fertility tracking apps as post-feminist biopedagogies,” And it was written by Jessica Polzer, Ana Sui, Kelly Ge and Laura Cayen. I would like to thank Jessica for joining me today for this really stimulating discussion. And thank you listener for joining me for another episode of Gender Sex and Tech: Continuing the Conversation. If you want to continue this conversation further, please reach out on Twitter @tech_gender. Or you might consider creating your own material to continue the conversation in your own voice. Music for this podcast provided by Epidemic Sound. This podcast is created by me, Jennifer Jill Fellows, with support from Douglas College in New Westminster BC and support from the Marc Sanders Foundation for Public Philosophy. Until next time everyone. Bye.