Saeng-Fah Graham leads De Lune's community education initiatives. She is a Menstrual Doula with a passion for empowering humans through knowledge of their menstrual cycles.
The Fifth Vital Sign, co-founded by Emily Varnam and Kelsey Knight, addresses important needs around body literacy and informed choice. It delivers accurate information and everyday advocacy for every person to feel safe in their body.
Emily Varnam is a birth worker, reproductive health educator, and advocate. She currently lives in Detroit, Michigan where she teaches sex education and body literacy out of her home and through various organizations to all ages.
Kelsey Knight is a registered nurse specializing in childbirth and a lactation consultant in New York City. In college, she worked as a birth doula, which opened her eyes to the imperatives of informed consent and health care as human rights.
SF: What is the 5th Vital Sign and why did you start this educational platform?
FVS: The Fifth Vital Sign is a reproductive, sexual, and menstrual health education organization and soon to be cooperative. Our mission is to provide information and tools for the health of the body and the body-at-large, the community. Our name comes from the idea that the menstrual cycle is a vital sign, like heart rate or blood pressure. If we know how and what to listen for, it can tell us about our health. Our cycles are sensitive to environmental toxins and stress, which can be related to racism, sexism, etc., so they also act as an essential indicator of the well being of our community.
We started 5VS in January, 2016. Living together in rapidly gentrifying Bushwick as a doula and nurse, we witnessed a lack of access to healthcare and information among our peers and patients. We were called upon to answer questions and provide information so frequently that we created a curriculum addressing these questions.
SF: Why do you think there is so much taboo around the topics of menstruation and reproductive health?
FVS: Because capitalism relies on misogyny and self doubt.
SF: What are the biggest barriers to people knowing about their own bodies?
FVS: Access to accurate information. According to Guttmacher Institute, only 13 states in the US require that sex education in schools be medically accurate. More and more people are getting sex ed info online. Alarmingly, Guttmacher Institute shares, “Of 177 sexual health websites examined in a recent study, 46% of those addressing contraception and 35% of those addressing abortion contained inaccurate information.”
Information about, respect for, and affirmation of all bodies and identities. In our own sex and reproductive health research, we found a plethora of images and graphics of white, thin, able-bodied folks. If images don’t look like you and experiences similar to your own are not shared and even demonized (three states require that the discussion of sexual orientation be negative), then how does that impact learning?
SF: You went on a cross-country journey to offer sexual and reproductive health classes. What’s a takeaway from this experience?
FVS: There are so many!
- People throughout the US really want more information and spaces to talk about these topics.
- Being in person with people is so powerful, and as interactive as we attempt to make our online learning experiences, we can’t replace the special something that comes along with looking people in the eyes and being together.
- We were struck by strangers’ generosity--with their homes, which they invited us into, with their food, which they invited us to eat, with their time, and with their financial (we did a Kickstarter) and emotional support.
- Our new logo is informed by our cross country trip, in which taught in several homes, where these kinds of conversations have often taken place. The five points in our logo make the shape of a home. Our bodies are our homes, our communities are our homes, and we hope 5VS will be like home, a place to learn, grow, and love.
SF: As a white and a white-passing women, you’ve made sure to address white supremacy in your course; what’s the most common issue other white folks are unaware of when it comes to the link between reproductive health and white supremacy?
FVS: Perhaps that there is a link at all. So much of history has been whitewashed, so that people don’t know the “father of modern gynaecology” operated on enslaved women without anaesthesia or that the US federal and state governments nonconsensually sterilized women of color and indigenous women throughout the 1900s or the list could go on. Even if we do know about some of the history, we may not know how white supremacy continues to cause harm to reproductive health today.
The pervasive danger of everyday whiteness and how we as white people perpetuate harm. That enquiry into and working on whiteness as a white person is a lived, daily practice that has no end point.
SF: You’ve presented at Thinx, been interviewed for Vogue and work steadily in your communities and online to give greater access to reproductive health care; what’s the future for the 5th Vital Sign?
FVS: We’re so excited about the future! We are beginning the process of becoming a co-op. Last year, we incorporated as an LLC. We’re unsure how or if capitalism and social justice coexist. Then, after attending a panel discussion about coops at Allied Media Conference, we both walked out feeling the same way. As we grow, we want to be part of an organization in which everyone is a member-owner and decision making is democratic. We want to live our values. One of the seven principles of cooperatives is concern for community. It just felt right.
We’re also creating a new website. We want the new site to be a library for sex, reproductive, and menstrual health classes with info that spans menses to post-menopause. It’ll host curricula we’ve developed and online classes from other educators.
Last but not least, we have a one year residency at a community space in Brooklyn, called New Women Space. Once a month we are offering classes there around the topics of sexual, reproductive, and menstrual health. While we have a lot of fun with 5VS, we also spend a great deal of time in front of our computers (hi, google slides), and it is a relief and pleasure to instead be in front of other humans.
SF: Emily and Kelsey, have either of you had issues with your period? What did you do to sort them if you had? If not, what are some really easy ways to know when something is just not ‘right’?
Kelsey: I haven’t had many issues with my period. When I was 22 years old and still on hormonal birth control (the pill), I bled continuously for months. I switched pills once, tried to wait it out to see if my bleeding pattern would change, and ultimately decided that my body was not agreeing with synthetic hormones. Even though I talk a lot about periods, it’s not always something I greet with open arms.
Especially in the past few years, I’ve noticed I am more irritable a few days leading up to my period, or sometimes more sensitive. This can be a tender time, when I’m more in touch with my feelings, or it can be a stressful time, if I’m feeling more frustrated. Being patient with myself and recognizing patterns has helped.
I’ve also been trying new menstrual care products the past few years, going from exclusively using tampons and pads for 12 years to menstrual cups and period underwear, and I still haven’t found quite what works best for me.
Emily: My periods have been painful for years and were a big motivation for us teaching in this way. Years later I still ask myself ‘if I felt that amount of pain in any other part of my body would it be taken more seriously?’ I know the answer is ‘yes’. What has helped me is: CBD oil, abdominal massage, diet changes and changing my relationships to both my community and my environment.
Trust yourself and your instincts. When you get to know your normal, it’s easier to recognize when something is abnormal. Know that everything is connected and that our bodies are intelligent.
SF: What does it mean for individuals to be self empowered in their health care, and why is this important part of self-care?
FVS: It means really knowing that you know your body best. Knowing that healing will not come from the medical industry, but will come from you.
Of course, what’s messed up is that being self empowered in our health does not give us the power to access the health care that we always need.
SF: What are your thoughts on the #periodpositive movement happening right now, and what does period positivity really mean to you?
FVS: I don’t think the goal is for everyone to feel positively about having a period. For some people, it is painful or causes body dysphoria or is just a nuisance. Acknowledging the range of experiences without shame or judgement feels like a starting place.
SF: What is one way that those who don’t menstruate can support those who do?
FVS: For cis men to recognize and challenge patriarchy and their complicity in it. For ALL people to stop gendering menstruation.