Just over two years ago I read and reviewed Hannah Witton’s first book, Doing It!: Let’s Talk About Sex. I loved seeing a YouTuber I respected and whose videos I so enjoyed meet with success in book form. With The Hormone Diaries: The Bloody Truth About Our Periods, Witton does it again. Based this time on a long-running series on her channel chronicling her journey of self-exploration by discontinuing her birth control pill, The Hormone Diaries aims to inform its readers about menstruation and other hormone-related issues for people with ovaries and uteruses. With a target audience of 15+, the book does this in an approachable, reassuring way. It’s this combination of compassionate cleverness and clear research effort that makes Witton a great educator.
Despite its subtitle and provocative cover art, this book is about way more than periods. That’s part one of five, the others being: contraception, disorders, hormones and being trans, and pregnancy. I would have a difficult time trying to decide which of the parts are the most valuable; I learned so much from every part of the book. For example, while I understood the basics of menstruation, it was really interesting to see Witton explain the nuances of the subject, the ways it can vary for people, and the different products that exist to help deal with it. Similarly, I had a pretty solid idea about how the pill works, but I wasn’t aware of its sordid backstory and the truth behind the reasons for the 7-day break. It’s these kinds of things that had me asking one of my best friends on the phone, “Uh, did you know this??”
Some positionality, I guess:
I’m a cis man . Now, that doesn’t mean I’m out of the target audience—on the contrary, I think this book is just as essential for people like me as it is for, say, a teenage girl trying to learn more about her period in a society that is hellbent on shaming her for it. And I’m quite impressed that Witton manages to achieve a tone that keeps the book accessible to such a wide audience. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that in my review I’m coming at this from the point of view of the outsider. These are issues that I’ve never dealt with. I’m reading because I’m curious, because I want to build my empathy for all the lovely people in my life who have these hormone-related experiences. I want to be able to participate in the conversation knowledgeably and responsibly.
I really like how inclusive this book is. Witton achieves this in two ways. First, she is conscious about her language. We associate menstruation with womanhood, yet as Witton points out, some people who menstruate aren’t women, and many women don’t menstruate. So the idea that menstruation makes one “a woman” is fallacious and actually harmful. This book acknowledges the existence and experiences of trans and non-binary folx, particularly through the second way: Witton includes a plethora of short letters submitted by viewers of her Hormone Diaries series. These come from all around the world and include cis women, trans women, people young and old, pre-menopausal or peri-menopausal or post-menopausal. (The one notable omission, as far as I can, is that the book doesn’t seem to mention intersex people. I don’t know if that’s outside the scope of the book because many conditions fall under the intersex banner, so it’s very complicated, or what. ) While Witton supplies the information, and adds her educated opinion about the subjects, she lets her fan contributors share stories far more diverse than she, alone, could provide.
These letters also serve the important purpose of expressing differing opinions. For example, one person writes an encomium of the combined pill and its effects on stabilizing her mood, while another person breaks up with their pill because of weight gain. Some of her contributors love tampons, others despise them. Witton is upfront about not wanting this book to be a guide or a solely her view on the “correct” ways to manage a period, use contraception, etc. She tries to equip the reader to make their own decisions, and part of that is to share different opinions on topics.
The only time Witton really gets polemical is when she addresses an underlying social justice issue: women’s pain is not taken seriously. This is particularly evident in the chapter on disorders, diseases, and infections, as well as the pregnancy chapter, but it runs throughout The Hormone Diaries. By and large Witton tries to keep her tone upbeat and even jocular, but when this issue comes up, her frustration and anger is palpable—to good effect, and with good reason! A great deal of suffering related to periods, hormones, etc., might be alleviated if we as a society cared more about women’s health and the health of people who menstruate or can get pregnant. Hence, it would be a mistake to write this book off as simply an educational text: like all of Witton’s project, there is a strong foundation of social justice and equity.
No book on such an important issue could be perfect, of course, and I have some minor critiques. Although its contributors are international, the book on the whole is quite specific to the UK when it comes to its information about health services and outcomes. I suppose that’s not surprising, and it isn’t a flaw in the book, but it’s worth being aware of this, especially if you’re reading it outside the UK. On a related note, fertility-tracking or awareness apps get mentioned a couple of times. Some of these apps have made the news recently because of privacy concerns, either in terms of selling users’ data to related industries, or even selling the data to your employer! Technology can be such a great tool for quantifying and helping one understand one’s body, and I think Witton is right to discuss its pros and cons so candidly here. Just be aware that, as with any technology, privacy and who has access to your data should be on your mind.
Honestly, though, these are incredibly minor quibbles compared to the wealth of information and relief, I’m sure for some, that The Hormone Diaries offers. As much as I loved Doing It!, I’m pleased to say that for her second effort Witton has stepped up her game. Her writing is even better; her topic is focused and delivered extremely well; I learned so much. My only true regret is that I didn’t get a chance to read it much in public so I could make a statement as a very dude-looking dude reading a book about periods with these bloody panties on the cover. Maybe for a re-read sometime?