Is Your Body Out of Sync With a Man’s World?

On TikTok, influencers promise you can beat burnout by planning your life around your menstrual cycle.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

In a video Anna Trimble recently uploaded to TikTok, she tosses two pillows onto a beige couch and snuggles up under a blanket for a nap. “Lord have mercy,” the voice-over intones. “Today drained me.” Trimble overlaid the video with text: “me in my luteal phase after doing absolutely nothing all day.”

Trimble, a 29-year-old who works in finance and lives outside Philadelphia, runs her life according to a calendar dictated by her menstrual cycle. She’s a devotee of cycle syncing, a set of practices that involve tailoring day-to-day activities to this biological rhythm. She schedules intensive workouts and creative brainstorming sessions to coincide with hormonal peaks, for example, while valleys call for lighter fitness sessions and projects.

That means scaling back workouts and resting more during the luteal phase of her cycle, in the days right before her period. “I feel like my energy levels throughout the month are higher and more stable because I’m not constantly pushing myself to the point of burnout,” she told me. “This method has taught me to rest when I need to rest.”

Some 50 million women around the world use apps to track their periods. In certain corners of the internet, women are going beyond monitoring their cycles to embrace them as a blueprint for living: a guide to navigating their relationships to food, exercise, and work — as well as to other people — over the course of the month.

In many ways, the method feels of a piece with a cultural moment when so many of us are renegotiating how we structure our lives, including where and how we work. That there’s scant scientific evidence to support the purported benefits of this strategic scheduling hasn’t seemed to affect its popularity among the wellness set and the Goop-curious, and even heightens its appeal to some individuals who feel dismissed or ill-served by physicians. In videos posted to social media, cycle syncers like Trimble report struggling with their physical and mental health until trying cycle syncing, and then experiencing benefits like increased energy, less bloating, clearer skin. Along with the ideology itself, a cottage industry of self-styled gurus selling books, customized schedules, brand partnerships, coaching sessions, and even edible-seed subscriptions has emerged. But perhaps the key to understanding cycle syncing’s appeal lies in the premise of Trimble’s video: permission to rest without guilt.

Whether or not they’re aware, creators of TikTok videos with the hashtag #cyclesyncing, viewed a combined 466 million times, harken to a 2020 book, In the Flo, by Alisa Vitti, who coined the term and inaugurated the method.

It promises nothing less than healing mind, body, and soul from a wide variety of ailments. The book is heavy on treacly feminism that panders to a certain type of high-achieving perfectionist, as well as on anecdata, stats from studies of uneven quality, and woo. But people suffering from reproductive-health conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome, as Vitti has, may recognize themselves in her tale of frustration and independent search for answers. (If they do, there’s a related tracking app with paid features, and supplements, for sale.)

“We’re all looking for a way to make everything more doable, but doing everything still leaves us feeling like somehow we’ve failed,” she writes in the introduction. Vitti, who has no formal training in science or health, goes on to propose “a female-centered form of time management that works with your hormonal phases to help you get more done with less stress.”

It goes like this: Vitti argues that the rise in estrogen during a woman’s follicular phase, as the ovary develops the egg, means she’ll have more energy — this is when she urges women to ramp up their activity. Once a woman releases that egg during ovulation, she enters the luteal phase, during which, Vitti claims, more energetic resources are required to maintain a thickened uterine lining and prepare for a potential pregnancy. According to Vitti, women should be eating more and tapering activity then, and resting during the menstrual bleeding that follows.

The doctors I spoke with about these claims were dubious. Kristyn Brandi, an ob/gyn in New Jersey, took no issue, in theory, with tenets like adjusting diet, workouts, or sleep throughout one’s cycle if that feels right. “But I worry that people are wanting this because they think that there is science behind it, or data behind it, and unfortunately there’s not,” she told me.

Erin Higgins, an ob/gyn at the Cleveland Clinic, acknowledged that Vitti and her followers had a point: most medical research has historically been conducted on, and for, men, and that women’s suffering is too often dismissed. “Getting away from the paternalism of healthcare,” and of the larger social matrix, she told me, feels like a worthy goal. But Higgins said she was shocked that someone — especially a non-clinician — was marketing a program based on the menstrual cycle that had not been proven by research.

But beneath the merely specious claims lurk more insidious ones. Though Vitti pays lip service to inclusivity (if people — say, cis women who’ve had a hysterectomy, or trans women — are interested in cycle syncing but don’t get a natural period, they can try aligning their activities with the phases of the moon, she offers), her work traffics in biological essentialism, holding up the “natural” hormonal cycle as the epitome of womanhood and the locus of feminine power.

Accordingly, Vitti goes out of her way to malign the birth control pill as suppressing this sacred biological process, since it prevents women from ovulating and therefore from experiencing a full menstrual cycle. “If you are on synthetic birth control, I would highly encourage you to reconsider that,” she said in a recent webcast. Spouting a common talking point among anti-pill propagandists, she went on to warn that the pill is “deeply… mind-and-body altering.” (Vitti did not respond to a request for comment).

Cycle syncing’s directives have become popular enough, and are just complicated enough, that they’ve opened a lane for creators who have made related instructional videos and coaching businesses their new specialty. Some focus on the program’s dietary or fitness recommendations, or on its purported effects on skin. Others, like Caitlin Molony, often post about how biological timekeeping affects women in terms of productivity.

“The wild thing is that men’s hormones, their testosterone, goes on this 24-hour journey,” she said in a recent TikTok. “They are perfect for the society that we live in. Yet they make us feel like we are less than, like we can’t keep up.” She went on: “But it’s literally just the entire system was not designed for us to thrive.”

Molony, who is 31 and lives in Toronto, told me she spent her early career in international nonprofit work before becoming a yoga and pilates instructor. Within the past few years, she came across cycle syncing, went off the pill, enrolled in online certificate programs related to women’s health, and began to build a full-time professional practice helping women implement lifestyle changes based on their cycles. Women in her DMs and coaching sessions want to know how they can organize their calendars around their menstrual cycles, such as which work tasks to assign to the different phases, she told me.

Molony said she counsels them that, “instead of pretending like we have to show up the same every single day, if we leaned into the menstrual phases, and allowed space for rest when we were menstruating or near the end of our period… we’re going to have more energy in our tanks.” That might look like meal-prepping in advance of a lower-energy phase, or declining social plans after work, she explained.

Cycle syncing wants us to understand that our problems — our cramps, our acne, our burnout — aren’t our fault. It promises that, if we can observe ourselves with compassion and care, then we can decipher the body’s messages to us, offer correctives, and ultimately unleash the primal forces of womanhood that the patriarchy would rather keep down. It positions its framework as an antidote to hustle culture — a path home to our bodies, ourselves.

Never mind that more rest or a DIY work calendar is out of reach for most people who aren’t self-employed content creators. Cycle syncing’s core claim that it unlocks a new paradigm for natural energy management — some sort of Woman Standard Time, if you will — that was latent in our female bodies all along, sits uncomfortably alongside its recurring pitch that adhering to its teachings will finally allow us to compete with men at work and in the larger world. We’re resting, it seems to say, so we can then hustle harder. Its insistence that we have, at best, one or two “good” weeks a month, and ought to wring every drop of estrogen out of them, seems bizarrely regressive — only a step removed from puerile arguments over a woman’s emotional fitness, say, for the job of President (and access to the nuclear codes). In its eagerness to absolve women of blame for our struggles, cycle syncing patronizes its adherents, constantly reminding them of their supposed limitations.

“We look outside ourselves — relying on magazine articles or male-centered health research — for healthy living strategies,” Vitti writes, disapprovingly, “rather than listening to the inner wisdom of our biochemistry.”

Yet women who look to cycle syncing for help in decoding their physical and emotional experiences are being sold another set of prescriptive strategies. This experience of being coached through the month — the paradox of choice whittled down to a mangable set of options for this morning’s workout or this evening’s bedtime — might be what cycle syncing’s adherents really want. 

But there’s no app that can make you at home in your body, guide you through the days and months that make a life, do the work of being a person for you.

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Is Your Body Out of Sync With a Man’s World?