The titles and roles of activists may differ, but a good activist can be spotted by their passion and dedication to their work. Most of us choose our paths of activism based on the impact we want to have or life sort of decides for us by placing us in social locations where the only path that makes sense is one of resistance. High levels of recognition are typically reserved for a few select folks. This blog series is not a remedy to this situation, but rather designed to highlight activists and their justice work through brief interviews. This interview is a part of our work on The Right Time initiative, which aims to increase Missourian’s access to their contraception of choice (therighttime.org).
This installment is an interview with Monica Everett, a reproductive and sexuality health expert. Responses were provided during a one-on-one call, and this transcription was reviewed and approved by the interviewee prior to publication.
You are working on becoming a certified Fertility Awareness Educator and Sexual and Reproductive Health Educator. What does this entail/mean?
I’m studying fertility awareness and becoming certified in educating people about what that is. What I’m really doing is increasing mine and other people’s body literacy, which is a term that means knowing our bodies and how they work. Body literacy is an umbrella term, which means knowing our bodies intellectually, so, understanding the physiology of how our bodies are supposed to work, knowing how it feels to be kinesthetically in ‘this’ body, knowing how it feels when off balance or off rhythm, when something feels really good to me, or when something doesn’t feel good. The essence of fertility awareness is the ability to know when you are fertile and when you’re not, and then be able to make decisions based on that information. Fertility awareness is body literacy applied specifically to our cycle of fertility, or what most people call the menstrual cycle. I call it the cycle of fertility because it includes more than menstruation. The cycle of fertility starts with day one of our period and begins again with the onset of our next period. A lot more than bleeding happens between those two periods. A healthy cycle of fertility includes ovulation and a series of hormonal phases that most people are not familiar with and don’t realize is happening in their body. I’m studying and starting to teach people about this cycle and how they can use this information with the fertility awareness method as a form of contraception, for conception support, or as a tool to support their hormonal health.
What I do is teach people how to track basic signs that their body gives so they will know when they are fertile and when they are not. Most of us were fed the lie that if we have ovaries and a womb then we can get pregnant anytime we have sex, which is not true. On average, there’s actually only 7-10 days per cycle that ovulating folks are potentially fertile. With the method I teach, we track cervical fluid, basal body temperature, and optionally track cervical changes throughout a cycle of fertility. With these two, or sometimes three markers, people can identify when they are fertile and when they’re not. It’s actually pretty simple once you learn it.
You previously stated that more health professionals are starting to recognize the menstrual cycle as the “5th Vital Sign” of health. What does this mean for people who can have periods?
Even though the information I’m sharing has been proven and scientifically studied at least going back to the 1950s, a lot of the time when people hear “the fertility awareness method” they instantly think “the rhythm method” but they are not the same. I’m talking about an observation-based method that tracks our fluid and temperature changes to know when the time of fertility is occurring. The rhythm method uses a calculation to predict when fertility or menstruation will occur based on past cycles.
Observing cyclical bodily changes to know one’s own timing of fertility is likely reclaiming ancient knowledge, which science now backs up. With more scientific study, people are now referring to the menstrual cycle as the fifth vital sign of health. The same way our blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate are vital signs that a doctor takes to get small points of data to tell you about the overall health of your whole organism, our menstrual cycle can tell us a lot about our overall health. For instance, period pain can give us insight into what’s happening with our hormonal health. When we track things like cervical fluid and basal body temperature then we can know even more about how balanced our hormones are, which can tell us more about how well our other endocrine glands are working, including how well our thyroid, gut, or liver are functioning. For example, I went through a phase of amenorrhea, a fancy word for not having a period. That was my ‘vital sign’ for knowing another system in my body was out of balance. It led me to realize that I had hypothyroidism. Once my thyroid health improved, my period came back.
How does period tracking apps fit into your work?
Not only are period tracking apps collecting people’s data, but almost all apps are calculation-based and prediction-based. A lot of them are high tech versions of the rhythm method, so it’s taking a very outdated way to think about fertility awareness and giving people a very modern way to access it. Using an app’s algorithm – giving it my data and saying “predict for me when I’m going to ovulate, be fertile, and bleed again…based on what I did last month” – isn’t accurate because most people don’t have perfectly repetitive cycles. The way to know if you’re ovulating is to track your biomarkers. Lots of people can have 28-day cycles and ovulate on different days. However, there are a few that can be useful. I recommend one that allows you to turn off data collection or one where you can interpret the data for yourself. Read Your Body and Kindara are the apps I find to be most useful for my clients, but I prefer paper charting.
What age range does the information you’re providing and the work you’re doing cover?
The fertility awareness method is totally appropriate from puberty all the way to perimenopause. Thinking about this method as contraception takes us into some other considerations. Some conversations that my colleagues and I are having pertain to what age we will agree to teach about using this method as contraception, and I don’t have a clear answer for that. If a teen had parental consent to use this method instead of hormonal birth control, then I would teach them. Another component is teaching this method as a part of reproductive and sexual health, and that’s appropriate for all ages – just knowing of our bodies and knowing that “these” are the parts our body has and “this” is how it works. It’s amazing how much this information is left out of standard sex education. Many adults do not know the names and functions of some of their sexual body parts, namely due to censorship in schools. I’ve taught body literacy classes to people as young as third grade. Ideally, I’d like to be teaching people in their teen years and early twenties because I would have really benefited from this when I was that age. However, this information is relevant to people of all ages.
What made you pursue this particular approach and path into health care, and how have your experiences with your reproductive health informed your work?
I believe in greater access to health care that makes sense to each person. The fertility awareness method is what I choose for myself, but I believe in people getting access to whatever contraception option that fits them.
I experienced a lot of issues related to my sexuality and my body as an adult, and as a teenager as well. In my early 20s, I was introduced to the idea of having a sacred relationship with my period, and that shifted my entire reality. I had no way of being in relationship with my body, especially the sexual parts of my body due to the trauma I had experienced. Once I started being in relationship with my blood and recognizing that it was something to be grateful for and to honor, and it had a purpose, then that led me down the rabbit hole to learning more about women’s health and female health. I felt more in touch with my body, and it was my doorway to self-love. I felt like if I could love this part of myself – this part I’ve been told to hate or repress, that it is shameful or taboo – then I could love my whole self. It was a reclaiming of myself. It became less focused on blood over time, and became more about ovulation and the cycle connected with it all. I realized how much this information needed to be spread and I wanted to be a part of people being able to access it. It’s really self-care health care, because it puts the power into the hands of the person.
As an active community leader, where do you see community voices most needed in shaping health care? What is missing and what are some ways you are working to make improvements in your community?
I don’t even know if I can speak to what’s “most” needed, but I think voice. There are voices that are not heard or included in health care, so listening to people and what they really need. Western science, conventional methods are good for emergencies and have a great capacity in that sense, but educational basics are missing in that model. We need this concept of body literacy, so that we know our bodies and how they’re supposed to function so we’re not so dependent on ‘experts;’ I’m interested in what others think about what we need, what voices need to be included.
What advice can you give to people who may want to follow in your footsteps?
Check out Toni Weschler’s book, Taking Charge of Your Fertility. Go to fertilityawarenessprofessionals.com where you can find a list of certified educators and certifying schools. Also visit the Read Your Body Fertility Awareness Educators Directory to find an educator that meets your needs at https://faeducators.directory. Follow my friends on Instagram: @queerbodyliteracy. You can reach me at https://www.moontidebodyliteracy.com/ or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Monica Everett is an intern at The Well School of Body Literacy. She is a fertility awareness educator in training, a student professional midwife, and a birth doula. She lives in Columbia, Missouri and is currently seeing clients. She teaches at City Garden School – an outdoor elementary school that teaches through story, art, and nature. Monica is also a dedicated gardener and dancer.