Are You There, Follicle?


“Hark, the tubes are calling” - from STM group educational slides.

Judy Blume once said that in her desperate quest for any information about puberty, she only managed to get her father’s vague explanation that periods have something to do with lunar cycles—when the full moon comes, all the women HAVE IT. Judy remembers staring at the night sky as a girl, fascinated, longing for IT to happen to her at last. I got my period at 15 after spending a couple of years in terror of facing—not the “bleeding out your pee-hole” itself, as one girl said to me proudly at summer camp—but the fact that I would have to somehow tell my mom about it. The period coming brought slight relief (if you’re wondering about the telling-my-mom situation, I mostly got by with pantomime), but pretty soon that evolved into a severe horror, recurring for the next several years, of getting pregnant, even though I was having zero sex.

When I turned 22, a good friend of mine—also experiencing anxiety over all sorts of things, including intercourse—told me about the so-called sympto-thermal method (or STM) for evaluating fertility throughout the menstrual cycle. In other words, for contraception. The main idea seemed simple and brilliant—it’s impossible to conceive after ovulation, so in order to avoid pregnancy the uterus-owner should avoid penetrative dick-involving sex before ovulation (spermatozoids can live for several days). If the desired outcome is a baby, sex must be had on days approaching ovulation. The tricky part was actually finding out when the ovulation had happened. The STM coach whose online classes I took taught a technique that involved three main elements. First and foremost, I was to measure my basal temperature (i.e. the internal temperature of the body) every day at the exact same time with one and the same highly sensitive thermometer at one and the same spot—mouth, anus or vagina. Next, I was to examine my cervix positioning and its density with my finger daily. A “soft” state would feel like an earlobe, “firm”—like a nose tip. Lastly, the thickness and volume of cervical secretion had to be constantly examined and estimated on a scale from 1 to 5. All the gathered data was to be thoroughly documented in a special chart.

A drastic rise in temperature that holds for at least three days indicates ovulation. The cervical secretion gets looser and heavier up until ovulation and then rapidly dries out. Different states of mucus are represented by correlated colors from orange to green in the chart. The cervix opens up and gets softer towards ovulation.

For the method to work, all the listed elements needed to be unapologetically maintained. As one other student said, “That was my strict everyday ritual, no days off, no vacations.” I wasn’t good at it. I slept in way too often, I couldn’t find the opening to my uterus, I got overly anxious about precisely estimating my cervical secretion’s wetness level. Those women possessed determination I never had.

However, I stayed around for a while. Some graduates of the STM course I took formed an online community on the Russian social media site VKontakte. It served as a platform for exchanging experiences and building up their skills in using the method. They also shared educational videos, eco-friendly beauty hacks, opinions on what feminine energy was like, culinary recipes, and conspiracy theories about store-bought foods. I stayed in contact with these women only through this online group, diving into various chats they led, each dedicated to a specific topic. Nobody was actually allowed to say “contraception” in reference to using STM there. The right term was “postponing pregnancy.” The vocabulary circulating in the group was heavily inspired by pro-life ideology: the term “blessed state” was preferable to “pregnancy,” and “already a mom” was used instead of “mom-to-be.” Successful conception as the ultimate goal (with no regard to how long the “postponing” phase would last) was expected to be every participant’s motivation.

What fascinated me the most were stories from women who stabilized their menstrual cycle and healed themselves by following the sympto-thermal method. Some of these stories reminded me of conversion narratives. One woman shared that since her periods were irregular and she had failed to conceive from her husband, she had been diagnosed with “lack of ovulation.” The hormonal medication prescribed had emotionally and physically exhausted her. She wrote:

I felt completely broken. I was very concerned about my health. Going to doctors made me feel like they were just experimenting on me trying to figure out what kind of hormones I should be taking next. I was utterly against taking hormones, but doctors couldn’t come up with any other solution. It was a deadlock… Then one of my friends sent Larisa’s [the coach] video to me. My husband and I decided to apply to her STM course. You can see the results for yourself. Here are my charts.

Another one had a very similar story—with lamentations over being on birth control pills, longing for her period to normalize and pregnancy to come, feelings of complete dissatisfaction with hormonal therapy and the biomedical approach—that resolved in mighty works revealing themselves:

And at this very moment I learned about STM. I took the online course, stopped taking any of these bullshit hormones and started self-tracking. Oof… That wasn’t easy—to watch your body not give a damn about reproduction month after month. I waited for my first ovulation for 273 days!!! I couldn’t have been happier. Next ovulation happened on day 40 of my cycle. And after 9 months we had a baby boy. As it turned out, neither polycystosis nor uterine hypoplasia was an obstacle and I was able to conceive.

Witnessing a miracle of conception after a long and arduous journey towards discovering STM was not the only outcome in those stories. It was also about regaining one’s agency and autonomy. An obstinate body, not willing to participate in reproduction, could be tamed and befriended. By following an extremely sophisticated set of somewhat scientifically-based self-tracking techniques, these women tried to gain a deeper understanding of their own anatomy. The more experienced in following STM someone became, the more she felt that her body was connected to her mind and under her control, and—what surprised me the most—the closer her body felt to nature. By “working on their reproductive performance” through charts and precise measurements, women developed an emotional bond with their bodies and selves.

I realized that withholding OCPs [oral contraceptive pills] didn’t turn me into a frog—which I was extremely scared of—instead I became a REAL WOMAN, not a robot in woman’s disguise!!!

Many chat entries described visualizing inner transformations and gaining control over them as crucial. Women suggested talking to newly forming follicles, growing them with the power of mind, staying aware of what kinds of hormones should be being released at each stage of the cycle.

I have a conflict with my hypothalamus :))) Help us settle our dispute: I started a new cycle. At the beginning of the cycle I decided that I’m gonna let my body rest after menstruation for about four days and then on the eighth day a follicle would start growing. Accordingly, I kept in mind that my brain cortex should signal to my subcortex to pass on to my pituitary that it should exude FSH [follicle-stimulating hormone]. The FSH goes to an ovary, the ovary gets a message to produce estrogens and the follicle starts to grow. But why do I see fertile secretion on the 5th day of my cycle?!! I didn’t give out this order to my CORTEX

Women trained their sensoria to reach almost unthinkable heights of refinement. I was truly impressed by how wide a range of actors was casually present in their lives. Not only were their obtrusive menstrual blood and relatively accessible cervix held accountable, but such concealed processes as egg formation and hypophysis secretion were too.

I didn’t think twice about signing up for the online course… I couldn’t wait for it to start!!! I began filling in the charts differently! I’m on my 10th now! The difference is just night and day! I can’t feast my eyes upon my charts enough))) Everything is clear, neat and nice!!! I understand now what it means to “regulate your cycle with your brain cortex”)))

Precision and diligence in keeping records was supposed to contribute to the harmonizing effect. Studying other people’s charts, especially the ones where the cycle is normal—or even just being periodically exposed to them—was believed to be extremely helpful. Did charts filled in by a person with a regular period hold some healing power that could spread to people studying them?

“The secrete of our success!” - from STM group educational slides.

As Frazer puts it in The Golden Bough (let’s momentarily ignore his taste for calling people minding their own affairs “primitives”): “One of the principles of sympathetic magic is that any effect may be produced by imitating it.” Summoning rain by making thunder-like noises and sprinkling water around—or by throwing a stranger in a river—is a classic example of magical thinking of this kind. Another example is the use of yellow plants, stones or animals as a treatment for liver dysfunction, as they extract this color from a sick body. This mindset implies that contact with an object sharing some traits with the desired outcome will help in obtaining it. In the same way, perfect charts acted as a medium for magically normalizing periods among STM women.

So did the moon:

Larisa often visits eco-dwellings [Russian neo-pagan villages mostly associated with the religious movement Anastasianism, also known as the “Ringing Cedars of Russia”] where women lead natural lives on their own land, without any exposure to artificial lighting at night, free from information overload and stress. Their living environments are very close to those ancient women had (not 100% of course). An interesting thing—for some reason their monthly cycles gradually adjust to the lunar cycle: they last for 28 days, when the new moon comes they menstruate and when it’s a full moon they ovulate.

Mostly living in apartment buildings in urban areas, women in the STM community tried to imitate moonlight and recreate what they believed to be biblical conditions using whatever resources were available to them. For instance, one person made use of a very bright street lamp gushing into her room. She would keep the curtains shut tightly when she wanted her period, then gradually open them until it was ovulation time, and after the ovulation she would keep the curtains fully open. Others suggested using mysterious “moon lamps.”

I’d like to hear more about the lunar cycle. I remember Larisa saying that at the dawn of time all women had their period simultaneously according to moon phases. But where does this information come from? I couldn’t find it in the Bible, although I probably wasn’t looking thoroughly enough…

I couldn’t find that in the Bible either.

Some women accompanied their moon bathing and mindful thinking with specific dietary adjustments:

I also did this. I visualized my egg growing from the new moon to the full moon. I kept imagining the dominant follicle developing in my ovary. I included greens in my diet. My period would come on the full moon. From then until the new moon I imagined my yellow body doing its job and ate red and orange food. I started it all over again with the next cycle.

Green, yellow, orange and red represent different liquids coming out of the uterus in the chart. Green is for cervical secretion in its fertile state, yellow and orange—infertile. Red is traditionally saved for blood. Foods of these colors were believed to boost the effectiveness of self-tracking if eaten during correlated stages of the menstrual cycle. In addition, our coach would advise wearing accordingly colored clothes to signal to our husbands what day of the cycle it was, the egg’s state, and our readiness for “spousal intimacy.” Initially including these colors in the adepts’ routine perhaps served mnemonic purposes—just to provide more training in using charts—and then it evolved into practices ruled by the laws of sympathetic magic. Women tried to entice a good cycle by almost fusing together the realms of their charts and their bodies.

I’ve never gotten back into this business. And I have no idea what temperature my vagina’s been all these years. The only time I ruminate about the moon’s influence on my life now is when my girlfriend and I pretend to be waterbenders in the dorm kitchen. Honestly, though, if I were ever blessed with any bending skills, that would be fire.

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