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Period Story Podcast, Episode 40: Professor Joyce Harper, I Want Women To Understand How Their Bodies Work

On today’s episode, I was so pleased to speak to Professor Joyce Harper. 

Joyce is the Professor of Reproductive Science at University College London in the Institute for Women’s Health where she is also Head of the Reproductive Science and Society Group and Director of Education. 

She has just written a book called Your Fertile Years, which will be released in April 2021. 

Joyce and I had a great conversation about breaking taboos around what we call our  genitalia, the importance of body literacy and not over relying on menstrual cycle apps.

oyce was 9 years old when she got her first period and she says it made her feel different and a bit abnormal because she was the only one in her year who had it. She says didn’t really feel mentally prepared for what was going to happen.

We talked about the importance of parents talking about their bodies, fertility, sex and menstrual health at an age-appropriate level with their children as early as possible. Joyce says that this needs to be a continuous dialogue and include calling genitalia by their proper names so that everyone becomes more comfortable talking about these things.

Joyce discussed a study she did last year with Natural Cycles, looking at over 600,000 menstrual cycles. She says that the majority of the women in this study didn’t have a 28 day menstrual cycle and that actually, a menstrual cycle between 21 and 35 days is normal. 

Joyce says that you shouldn’t rely on menstrual cycle apps to tell you when you’re ovulating and that you also shouldn’t get stressed if your period doesn’t arrive when the app says it will.

Joyce says that it’s so important for women to learn about their bodies, learn about what happens when they’re ovulating and their cervical fluid. Thank you, Joyce!

Get in touch with Joyce:

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JOYCE’S BIO

Joyce Harper is an author, academic, scientist and educator. She is Professor of Reproductive Science at University College London in the Institute for Women’s Health where she is Head of the Reproductive Science and Society Group and Director of Education. She is a Director of the Embryology and PGD Academy which she established with Alpesh Doshi in 2014 and founder of Global Women Connected.  

She has worked in the fields of fertility, genetics and reproductive science since 1987, written over 200 scientific papers and published three books. She started her career as an embryologist, then moved into reproductive science and genetics. Now she is researching into fertility education, the social aspects of fertility and infertility, from social egg freezing to childlessness, and FemTech.

Joyce is a passionate educator at all levels, from the general public to PhD students.  She is invited to numerous international meetings, including key note and plenary lectures. She regularly appears on TV, radio and in the press.

She is co-founder of the UK Fertility Education Initiative and founder of the International Fertility Education Initiative who have developed a fertility education poster.

Her latest book, Your Fertile Years, What you need to know to make informed choices, is in press with JOHN MURRAY PRESS, SHELDON PRESS and available for pre-order

Joyce has had many senior roles in the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. She was a director of the British Fertility Society and International Society of Prenatal Diagnosis and a founding member of the Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis International Society. She is chair of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority Horizon Scanning Group and an advisor to the HFEA Science and Clinical Advances Advisory Committee. She was a member of the Nuffield Council for Bioethics working group on genome editing. 

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SHOW NOTES

Le’Nise: Welcome to the show.

Joyce: Hi.

Le’Nise: So the first question I always ask my guests is tell me the story of your very first period.

Joyce: I think this is such an interesting question and really important for all of us to revisit. So I was actually very young and what happened to me was that I was nine years old and in my school when you were in the top year, which was year six, there was special toilets that you could go to and you had sanitary protection there and you had the bins for disposal etc cetera. But I was in the year below when I started my periods, so the teachers had to take me aside and give me special permission to use the top year’s toilets. So I started to feel very odd that I was like this freaky girl that I was now having to go to the special toilets because I’d gone through puberty and I had my periods. So I really had a feeling of being different and really a bit abnormal and not doing what the other girls were doing. And so for me as well, I’m sure I’m not the only one who then became very aware when I had my period at school about leakage, I definitely had a couple of times of leakage, worried about smell, etc. And again, being the only one who was doing that in that class, you know, no one had seen it before, so… I did find it very traumatic being so young and in a way I was envious of those friends of mine who started much later. So I don’t know whether that’s part of the reason I really wanted to educate women more and teach more about women’s health. And it’s something that I discuss a lot in the book I’ve just finished writing about women’s health. I’ve written quite a lot about periods and how we deal with them. And one thing I’d love to do is to do some more work and how women globally deal with having that that period.

So I think it’s a really important topic that we need to discuss.

Le’Nise: So when you got your first period, was it at school or was it at home?

Joyce: I’m pretty sure, I was really trying to remember. I’m pretty sure I was at home. I have three older sisters and I seem to remember I asked one of them recently, she can’t remember, but I seem to remember going to them. And we also lived with my grandmother and she was great and really open. So I definitely remember talking to her. But I think it’s such a hard thing for any young girl, especially at 9, to hear that every month you are going to bleed from your vagina. And I’m sure you’re aware that most people don’t even use the word vagina, which is another mission I’m on. Use the word vagina and vulva! They’re fine. They’re not swearwords. They’re not, you know, any other brilliant words that we should embrace as women to use these words. So, yeah, being being told that that’s going to happen. I’ve got three boys who we’re all very open. We discuss things, but I’ve never had the experience to have to tell a girl before she starts appears that she’s going to bleed every month. But I know friends that have and it’s a hard conversation. It’s really tough to have. 

Le’Nise: When you got your first period, you were at home and you had had you have three older sisters. Did you learn kind of by osmosis what was about to happen to you or did anyone have that conversation with you, whether it’s your sisters or your grandmother?

Joyce: It was definitely osmosis, so I absolutely remember them sitting down around about that age to tell me about sex education, I can remember sitting at the kitchen table. My brother was there as well. I remember having this conversation. I do not remember a conversation about periods. So it was definitely something that that evolved. And I really remember not being totally mentally prepared for what was going to happen and feeling really concerned every month and stressed when it happened. As I said, I definitely remember a couple of times leaking in the classroom and absolutely being mortified about this. And I can remember thinking I often used to watch a lot, I still watch a lot of dance. And I always used to think, what are the women dancers do when they’ve got their period? How do they you know, they’ve been lifted in the air or whatever, you know what how other women deal with this. And so I think it’s really important to have these conversations and to help young girls feel reassured about what they’re going through. And that they’re not alone, probably every other teenage girl at some point. Well, I wasn’t even a teenager, but girls will go through, the majority of girls will go through this and they’re not alone and everything that they’re worrying about, other, other people are worrying about. So I just want these conversations out there and for us to normalise these things and not make it taboo, just talk about it.

It’s a normal bodily function. We should be talking about it.

Le’Nise: So you’re really comfortable talking about these things now. How long did it take from the time that you from when you got your first period to the time when you actually felt really comfortable with what was happening to you every cycle?

Joyce:Well, I am a very open person, and I can absolutely remember having many conversations with friends at school about this, so I sort of became the person that they came to to ask. And even with sex education as well, I can remember telling my friends so many things about sex education, not that I had sex or anything, but, you know, just my family was quite open and we had talked about it. So it’s always been a mission of mine. And I feel really strongly that these conversations should start in the home and we should be teaching our kids about our bodies, sex education, fertility education. And parents should feel comfortable with having these discussions. But I know it’s really hard for people. And I asked many, many friends who are parents about this, and I would say just roughly about half do not want to have that conversation. And many people say to me, oh, the school will do it. Some schools do do it, they do it to varying levels of effectiveness, but I feel very strongly that as a parent, it’s really wonderful if your child can feel comfortable talking to you about any of these issues, especially is when they have any questions or something goes wrong or they’re unsure about anything, they feel comfortable coming to talk to you. And I’ve been really lucky. My, my boys do ask me a lot, and I think they go and tell their friends and I think this is really good. But I understand that a lot of adults don’t have the language. So, you know, even even saying vulva and vagina. In my book, chapter one is all about the anatomy. And someone that read it recently said, oh, my goodness, I really didn’t know the definition of what a vagina was. And she said, I feel so embarrassed. She’s not alone. She’s really not alone.

Le’Nise: For people who are listening, thinking, ‘what what are the definitions? Can you tell them what the definitions are? 

Joyce: Very good question. The vagina is just the opening and the tube that’s internal. And what we’re normally talking about is actually the vulva. So the vulva is a term that includes the clitoris and the the lips of, of our genitals. And so, you know, we we normally call the whole thing a vagina. And I just wonder whether to make life easier. That’s what we should rebrand it. But officially, for our medical textbooks and our biology, the vagina is just the opening and the tube and the vulva is everything.

Le’Nise: Why do you think people are so uncomfortable having these conversations, and why do you think that so many parents, you said, want to kind of abdicate the responsibility of all of this to the school of having these conversations? 

Joyce: I just think it’s historic and I think where we’ve been in a culture where sex is taboo, pregnancy’s taboo, you know, very few people tell anyone if they’re pregnant in the first 12 weeks, they just don’t tell people because they worry something goes wrong. 

If something goes wrong, your friends and family should help you. So, as I said, I know not everyone is as open as I am, but I really want to try and change that. I think we are a lot better now. We’ve got a lot of programmes on TV and social media and the Internet. We we do talk about things more, but when we’re not there yet, we’ve got a long way to go. And because historically we’ve never talked about these things, we as I said, people don’t have the language. They haven’t become comfortable with those words. So they don’t know where to start. And when I always tell my friends is that this is a continuous dialogue, talking about sex and periods and everything is not just shouldn’t be a one off conversation. As I said, I can remember that one off conversation with my family, but it should be continuous. So in my view, when we’ve got toddlers and they, with the boys, we should call it a penis and we should call it testicles. With a girl, we should call it vagina and the vulva. And when they say, they ask the question, what is my penis for? You know, it’s, it’s to make babies.

I was in a brilliant event last year at the Eve Appeal, and the Eve Appeal have been doing a lot of work of using the correct language because they’ve they deal with female cancers. And they said women can’t even identify what’s normal in their anatomy. And when things become abnormal, they they’re not aware of it. And it was really interesting. There was a woman on the panel who has been very much involved with sex education, but she said when she goes into a nursery, they have, she has been asked that she doesn’t call it a vagina.

And everyone was like, oh, my goodness, even this important woman is not using the right terms at a young age. And I thought, I think that’s crazy. And she said that some of the parents will be offended. And I think we need to get over that. We need to not worry. It’s not an offensive word, vagina vulva, either of them. So I think we need to get it out there. We need to normalise it. And there’s many of us on campaigns to try and get this, I wrote a post last week that the image just said vagina. My friend said, “You know, I get these Instagram photos of all these lovely pictures of scenery or food or something. And yours comes up with just vagina.”

I think we’ve got to normalise it. So we should stand at the top of a high point and shout out vagina and period and menstruation and absolutely normalise it. But it should be a dialogue. So we shouldn’t have young girls thinking, when did I have that conversation. It should just be. But it’s evolved through their upbringing and age appropriate. I don’t think we should be teaching five year old girls about sexual intercourse by any means. But as children age, we can teach them age appropriate things for them. So puberty, absolutely. Before they go through it. Things like wet dreams for boys. You know, these need to be before they have a wet dream, which can happen in a few years before puberty. And then then when they reach teenage teenagers, then about sexual intercourse, consent, good relationship, healthy relationships, all those things. So I think that’s how we should do it. 

Le’Nise: So for parents who feel slightly uncomfortable having this conversation, what you’re saying is start slowly, start with the age appropriate conversations and the age appropriate language and build your own comfort around this topic as your child gets older so that they’re not, when they’re teenagers, you don’t have to sit down for the big birds, birds and the bees talk.

Joyce:Absolutely. We’re making it hard for ourselves if we’re doing that. And then you think, when should I do that? But if it’s been a gradual, I had one case recently that I think that the children were in year 6 and they learn about pregnancy and delivering a baby. And the girl came home and said to her mum, “So I they told me at school that the baby comes out of my vagina” and the mother turned around and said, “no, no, no, they come out of your bellybutton.” I mean, why would you teach an 11 year old child the incorrect information? And my view had always been, if they’re old enough to ask the question, they’re old enough to hear the answer. But how much you tell them is, you know, I’ve been asked by teenagers before about male male sex or female female sex, so you don’t need to tell them everything you know at that conversation. But you need, I think, to give them enough for them to be aware of the answer.

Le’Nise: I completely agree. I think with especially with younger kids, they’ll let you know when you’ve given them enough information, like they’ll either walk away or they’ll just move on to another topic.

Joyce: My eldest son, I’ve got one one one 14, 14. I was very curious and my eldest son is 17, keeps saying, “don’t ask her the question. If you ask her the question, you might not want to hear the answer.” But we always laugh and I always answer. So, yeah, it’s it’s quite funny.

Le’Nise: I think it’s actually another reason why it’s so important is because you don’t want them, especially as they get into their early teens and perhaps even younger these days, is them getting this information from pornography and learning, you know what this is what, this is what sex is supposed to be like or this is what our bodies are supposed to look like. You know, you want to kind of preempt all of that, because in this day and age, it would be naive to think that your child isn’t going to be exposed to porn at some point. But I really believe that it’s important for them to know that that is not a true depiction of sex.

Joyce: Absolutely. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve written a book about the fertile years. I’ve got a chapter on sex and quite a large section on pornography. And I absolutely remind my sons, I know they’re watching pornography on the you know, the majority of children or teenagers are unfortunately. You know, when I was young, you couldn’t have access to this material. And these magazines are on the top shelf of a shop or porn videos were something that were hard to buy. A child couldn’t buy that. But we have to realise that all of us have access to pornography at the touch of our computer. And if you put any words into the computer and then click on images, any sexual words, click on images, you will get bombarded with graphic images, pornographic images. It’s one click away, literally. And parents have got to understand that. And then they try to use filters and things like that. The kids get around all of that. So what I believe is that we need to talk to our children about pornography, remind them that this is not real life and this is not how we have a healthy sex life. There’s often violence, especially against women. The women that they act as they do is not what most of us would do. There is no disparity is any, just I don’t watch any, but there isn’t any discussions about consent and that the women unfortunately are often very either surgically enhanced or, you know, filter and Photoshop enhanced. So this is a real problem for young girls because they’ll see these women in these videos and they’re they’ve got very trimmed labia. They’ve got no pubic hair. Their breasts are a certain way. And the girls might look at themselves and think, well, I don’t look like that. I don’t look like that so there’s something wrong with me. And that’s a huge problem. So I’m always reassuring people and and this is in my book as well, that this is not normal on any level. It’s, it’s a fantasy. And that’s not how a woman should look and that’s not how we should behave in a normal sex life. So it does worry me that how much a child, a teenager’s brain could get altered by watching these images. So I think porn is a is a real problem, a real problem. And then the young girls that go into the porn industry thinking they’re going to be this glamorous actress and the, and the way that the guys treat them, I’ve seen some terrible documentaries about how the teenage girls are treated and then discarded. And so it’s a, it’s a terrible thing. And the whole trafficking thing, you know, it just seems every day you hear about some of the women being found or whatever. And so I do what really worries me is I do think this is getting worse. So I think we’ve we’ve got to try and really reduce the negative impact of this on our future children, our children. And I don’t know how we do that. Such a. Terrible situation we’ve got to.

Le’Nise: I think the I think the heart of it is being having comfort in yourself to be able to have these conversations. And it’s like I think about the movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. Meet the Fockers.

Joyce: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Le’Nise: For those of you listening who haven’t seen it, Barbra Streisand, she plays a sex therapist and she always talks about how she had been having these conversations about sex with her son from a very young age. So she’s very open, very free. And also the show Sex Education, where Gillian Anderson plays a sex therapist and it’s a similar sort of thing.

Unfortunately, they play both males in the show as being a bit neurotic because of this. But I think in real life, the child has the benefit of these conversations and knowing that they can be open and go to their parent with anything.

Joyce: I’ve watched both of those with my kids and especially Sex Education with Gillian Anderson. I think it’s fantastic. I learnt something on it. I like the way on Sex Education how they deal with certain important topics that children wouldn’t have learnt about in school. One of the great storylines what where the girl had vaginismus, which is a problem where the vagina is really tight and she was trying to have sex and she couldn’t have sex. And they actually went through the treatment where they used a dilator to try and open up the vagina. And I thought that was great. They did it in a really good and sympathetic way.

It was, it was brilliant. You know, when you watch something that’s just so good, you know, they’re all going to be young girls are affected by that. And I think the same sex relationships stories I have watched were really good. So, yes, Sex Education has been a big thumbs up for me. And I think series three’s coming out soon.

Le’Nise: Yeah, I’m looking forward to that.

Joyce: Yeah. I really encourage people to let their teenagers watch that and watch it with them. And and I hope people feel confident enough to watch it with them and laugh about bits and talk about open discussions. That’s one good really way of doing it.

Le’Nise: Yeah. So going back to the work that you do and your your period journey, so you’ve you were very comfortable as a teenager and you had the conversations with your friends at school. And then how when you think about your relationship with your period, you said at the beginning it were very uncomfortable. What how would you describe your period, your relationship with your period and your menstrual health now?

Joyce: Okay, so I’m postmenopausal now and I would absolutely say that for me, not so much the period, but the whole menstrual cycle was something that, especially with hindsight, looking back, was something that was a huge influence on my life, on my daily life. So for me, I know not all women are affected by the fluctuation in their hormones, but for me, I was. And even when I was on the pill, you know, when it came to a few days before my period and having premenstrual syndrome, I definitely had that. And I was on the pill for quite a long time. Way over ten years. And I don’t know whether the pill had made it worse. Sometimes it makes it better.

But I, I really feel, now I’m postmenopausal, I think one of the wonderful things of the menopause is that your menstrual cycles stop, your periods stop. And I feel now much more sane. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of postmenopausal woman say this. But so I think for women, when they’re free from their menstrual cycles, free from worrying about fluctuations in hormones, free from worrying about contraception and. At this stage, for me, it was an absolute new lease of life and I felt absolutely fantastic since my menstrual cycle has stopped and I agree that most people are going through the perimenopause, there’ll be some little, you know, some symptoms and things that they’d have to deal with. For some, it can be really severe and they might need some treatment. But for the majority of women I see post menopause actually not having your periods. I mean, having a period is is tough. You know, it can happen when you’re out, when you’re not prepared. How many times have all of us had a woman come up to us and say, have you got a spare tampon? And if you don’t, you know, and I love the menstrual cup and I love the menstrual pants, I think those are great inventions now that women can help deal with, with the periods. But for me, that fluctuation of the hormones as well was really tough.

So actually, when I became postmenopausal, I contacted my boyfriend, who I lived with for 10 years in my 20s and early 30s. And I said to him, “I’m really sorry. I was a bit nuts. And when I was with you and on the pill and my menstrual cycle and now I feel so sane.” So looking back, I mean, obviously having a period and a menstrual cycle is something we have to embrace as women. And I know some women who, who love having their period. They feel it’s a sort of reset of their body. But we’re all different. And I know that the contraception people, hormonal contraception is often now a lot of people are able to just keep taking the hormones or the implant or the injection. You won’t have periods. So there are options of what women want to do. If, if you love having your period, you can certainly have your period. But if you’re having problems and some women do have a lot of problems with their menstrual cycle and their periods, there are more options now of, well, trying to get over that.

But I, I’ve recently reviewed a book that’s coming out. I think it should be out soon about periods. And the woman who wrote it said that she tried everything. She had a lot of problem with her periods and she tried everything and nothing really worked for her. So we have to appreciate that. There’s a whole different views that women can have about their periods, and we are all individual and we’re all different, so some, some might have long cycles, short cycles.

So we did a study last year. I did a study last year with one of the fertility and contraception apps called Natural Cycles. And we looked I want you to look at their menstrual cycle data. And we looked at over 600,000 menstrual cycles. And I want to see how long they were, how long the bleed was and when the women were ovulating. And actually, I think it was 13 percent of women in our study had a 28 day cycle. The majority didn’t. And I think a lot of women don’t realise that between 21 and 35 days menstrual cycle is classified as normal. So we get taught at school, 28 day cycle, ovulation on day 14. And that’s not that’s a sort of textbook. And that’s not what the majority of women would experience. So I want women to be aware that there’s a huge diversity in how our menstrual cycle will be between any two women and also something very important. I think the invention of menstrual cycle apps is great because women can get some idea about when their next period will be and how to plan a bit and knowing if they’re feeling a bit stressed that they might be premenstrual syndrome.

But I’ve got two important messages for women that use them. They shouldn’t get stressed if their period doesn’t arrive on the day the app says it’s going to do, because we, we’re publishing a big study saying we’re just writing up the data. We, we use 10 apps and we had five fictitious women that had sort of very common types of menstrual cycles. And we put all the data in that some we’ve been analysing them and some of the apps definitely didn’t get things right. It’s, they’re using algorithms and, you know, we’re human. We never act like we should be doing. So women shouldn’t worry if the says you’re going to have your period on Thursday and it doesn’t come. It’s nothing wrong. It’s just, you know, a limitation of technology. But the second thing is that almost all of these menstrual cycle apps will tell a woman the day she’s ovulating. And this is totally incorrect. You can’t just look at your menstrual cycle dates and predict the day you’re ovulating. You have to measure something, there’s a few things you can measure. There’s some hormones. You can measure a urine stick or there’s other ways to get temperature and things like that. And these will help. You know, when you’re ovulating, you can’t just look at your dates because every woman could ovulate at different times. In our study looking at 600,000 cycles, there was some women that ovulation on day 10 and some of women ovulation on day twenty six. So the average was actually day 17. So you can’t just predict that looking at dates. So I’m really trying, I keep posting about this, trying to get these menstrual cycle apps to not even give you that information. So I think some women will think, oh, I’ve ovulated, I can have unprotected sex, and then some women are using them as a fertility app and they’re going to miss the day. So there are fertility apps that do measure things. They’re great. And menstrual cycle apps are great, but they shouldn’t tell women when they ovulating. Women shouldn’t worry about having appeared on a different day.

Le’Nise: I think that the use of apps is really interesting. But what I think is really important is combining that with body literacy. So knowing when you ovulate, like not just relying on your app, as you say, but knowing the signs of ovulation. So what, what is happening with your cervical fluid? What’s happening with you energetically and then, you know, delving deeper into your period, what’s happening there? Don’t just look. Oh, well, my app tells me I’m going to have my period. But what’s happening to your body now? Are you feeling a sense of winding down? What’s happening to you? What are the other physical signs that you can connect with? Because we, it’s another I feel like it’s another example of how we’re just kind of offloading our responsibility onto a piece of technology when we actually get a lot of benefit from knowing more about our bodies. I want to ask what you said. You said that you talked about 28 day cycles. And in that study, only 13 percent of women had their 28 day cycles where you said a textbook definition. But where does this this idea of 28 day cycles come from?

Joyce:It’s one of those historic things that gets put into a book, there would have been a study I have looked at some of the old studies, but there were a lot of the early studies on the menstrual cycle. Someone along the way had decided to pick women of 28 days. It’s sort of, you know, 28 days. It it’s like rounding things up. And it’s you know, you’ve got the lunar 28 days as well. And we’ve got 28 days fits nicely into four weeks. So some of the very early studies people, the scientists doing them, had decided to pick women with 28 day cycles of normal body weight to do their studies on. So if you, if you pick those sorts of women, most of them might ovulate around 14, 15 for sure. But they were often small studies. And as I said, they’ve picked a very narrow range of people. So those early studies didn’t appreciate that women are so individual and diverse and we all do different things. So now once these things get put in books and then taught and it sort of escalates and trying to undo that is one of my missions. But it’s really tough. So, yeah, it’s historic early studies that were done and they obviously had to pick one group of women to do them because they didn’t want too many variables.

So in my book I have, I’m covering all of this and I’m trying to get women to understand the science behind their bodies. But as, as you just said, I totally agree that I think women should learn about their bodies, learn about what happens when they’re ovulating, their cervical mucus. I think the two most important things of menstrual cycle are our periods and ovulation, and they’re not hard to understand. So I want women to understand how their bodies work. And the reason I’ve, I’ve just written this book and the reason why I’ve spent the majority of the last 30 odd years working in this field, because when I was younger, when I was at university, I realised that so many of my friends didn’t understand how their body worked. They didn’t understand what was really happening in a period. They certainly didn’t understand ovulation. They didn’t understand how contraceptions were working or about sexually transmitted infections. So I’ve always wanted to write, but I did start writing a book in 1987. I wish I was joking. I didn’t I did start writing a book to explain to women how their bodies work. And I think nowadays more women want to know this, but the information out there is saturated with false information on websites and unclear information, so I’ve gathered all this together in a book for women to understand their fertile years from puberty to the menopause and to embrace being a woman and to understand how well that works and understand how we can keep healthy. Because lots of information we have now is that is that if we want to get pregnant or we’re going through the menopause, if we’re leading a healthy lifestyle, all of this will be a lot easier.

But also, if something’s wrong, if we’re having really heavy periods at a young age, if we’re having really irregular periods or very short or very long, or if we think we might not be ovulating every month, if women are in tune with their bodies and pick these things up themselves, then they it’s not just to do fertility, do their own female health. I would encourage them to go and visit a doctor sooner rather than later and say I’m just a bit concerned about my menstrual cycle because sometimes that could pick up endometriosis, it could pick up polycystic ovarian syndrome, and there could affect our fertility. But more immediate, they actually affects our health and our menstrual health. So I think I don’t think women should wait till they’re trying to get pregnant and then think, oh, I’ve realised I’ve got polycystic ovaries. I think we should look at our menstrual cycle much earlier and if we do think something’s wrong. But how are you going to know something’s wrong if you’re not educated about it properly and if it’s at school you’re told 28 day cycle, ovulation 14. So this is what I’ve written a book. I’ve written a book to tell women everything I can about itemising their health, their mental health, their pre pregnancy, health, everything.

Le’Nise: You said something that I wholeheartedly believe in. So how are you supposed to know something is wrong if you’re not taught what is normal and what isn’t? And I see that all the time. We, we have these cultural messages that having period pain is normal. Feeling like emotionally all over the place before your period is normal. I saw someone posting on Instagram a couple of months ago talking about how bloating is normal. And I just, you know, all of these messages that we receive and then where we then internalise and think, well, that’s normal, so I just have to live with that. So I love the fact that you put coming out with a book about all of this. So tell us more about the book when it’s coming out, if it’s out, if it’s not out already and when we can get our hands on it.

Joyce: Thank you so much. So as I said, I started writing this in nineteen eighty seven. There was a there was one book I’d come across called Our Body Our Selves, which is an American book, which is great. But I thought there’s some things in there that they haven’t quite covered and I would like to write that, but I was very young and time goes very quickly. So around about 7, 8 years ago, I’d be working in the fertility field the whole of this time, I started my career as a clinical embryologist, working in the lab in a fertility clinic, helping people get pregnant. And then I’ve been doing research to do with infertility since then. And I I’m Director of Education at the Institute for Women’s Health at University College London. So I’m absolutely passionate about educating our future professionals, but also women. So about 7, 8 years ago, I set up a website called Global Women Connected and wanted to have a place to start discussing these. And so we still, I still post a lot on there. And it’s been really good to help me think about what women want to know. But a few years ago, I thought, I think I need to write that book. I really do. So I wrote it a couple of years ago and I actually covered it from birth to death. It was a whole women’s life course, had some trouble trying to get it published and basically now it’s going to be published with Hodder. Today is actually an important day. Today’s the day I send the final manuscript to my publisher. Good omen. So I’m just finishing reading the last bits through now again. So Hodder will be publishing this book in early next year and I’m absolutely on a mission to go to book clubs, go to women’s groups, lecture to women and men and men. It takes, you know, fertile years, these effect men as well. It takes two to make a baby. And so I really now want to spend the next years of my career doing more events, getting all of these things out on the table, so the book starts with your anatomy and a bit about puberty. I talk about female fertility decline. So unfortunately for women, all the quantity and the quality of our eggs starts to go down. And that’s that’s a whole other podcast. But from the age of about 35, even though, we may feel wonderful. Our fertility is decreasing. And again, women are getting false information about this. We’re seeing celebrities have children at 50, but it’s it’s not real. It’s really not real. So there’s a lot about female fertility decline. But I’ve got chapters on contraception, about sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, even covered the menopause. I’ve talked about egg freezing. Some women feel that maybe egg freezing might be the answer to put their fertility on hold, so they can delay being a mother. So I’ve talked about the advantages and disadvantages, so I’m really looking forward to it coming out. And I want to get this message out there and help women understand how their bodies work and how they can be healthy and really look after themselves.

Le’Nise: Sounds so exciting. Well, we’ll have to get you back on when the book comes out. I can’t wait to read it. What would you, what message would you want to give women about their mental health, their hormone health, their fertility, any of those areas? What message would you want to leave women with?

Joyce: So I talk about the four pillars of wellbeing to live our life and men and women. So we have nutrition. We, we really have to look after our nutrition healthy five a day, not processed food, etc.. I don’t I’m not a fan of any of these wacky diets. They come and they go on and I’ve tried them all over my lifetime. So we’ve got nutrition, just sensible nutrition. There’s no pill you can pop for fertility or menstrual cycle vitamin cocktail that’s going to change everything. We should be healthy.

The second is exercise. I’m I’m a huge, passionate exerciser. I I’m a qualified aerobics teacher. I don’t teach anymore. But I used to in my 20s and I’m I’m an ambassador for This Girl Can, the UK scheme to encourage women and girls to exercise.

Then we’ve got sleep. Sleep’s really important for our wellbeing. And unfortunately, some people now sit in bed with their phones and their gadgets on social media. And so we’ve got to make sure we get enough sleep.

And finally, it’s our mental health and we’ve got to look after our mental health. So we’ve got to keep stress, anxiety, depression in a really good place and look after that. So I would say to any woman, if you if you’re looking after your wellbeing, you should, should really help your menstrual cycle. You should hopefully reduce your PMS if you’re experiencing it. And then when you want to have children, if you want to have children, you’ll be prepared. This is all the preparation that you need is to be living a healthy life. And then again, if you’re, if you’re pregnant, the same things apply. And then preparing for the menopause again, I would say the same thing. You know, I think, unfortunately, a lot of women drink too much alcohol and then they say, oh, I’m feeling depressed and I can’t sleep. And, you know, well, how much alcohol are you drinking? Oh, you know, every day and half a bottle. And, you know, so all of these things, if you’re smoking cigarettes, if you’re eating poor food, all of these things will affect our general health, but especially our menstrual health, fertility, pregnancy and menopause. So that would be my biggest message, just get in that routine as soon as you can and really look after your your body, your body’s a temple, look after it.

But the last thing would be if you’re doing everything really great and you’re suffering from anything, you know, heavy periods, PMS, no periods too many periods, whatever, you think there might be something wrong, then it’s really important. Don’t suffer in silence. If you’re unsure, go and see your doctor and try not to Google it. We always do. But please go and see your doctor and get it checked. Be safe rather than sorry. Just check it. And it’s better to check it sooner rather than later. 

Le’Nise: That’s brilliant. So really don’t don’t guess get it checked. I love that. That’s so important. Don’t don’t be beholden to Dr. Google. If if listeners they’re listening to what you’re saying, they really connect with what you’re saying. How can they find you to find out more about the work you do?

Joyce: So I do a lot of social media on Instagram and Twitter, I’m @profjoyceharper. If you Google me, you’ll come to my website as well. And then I have a Facebook group called Global Women Connected and post various things on there and get discussions going. So I’m on LinkedIn, Prof Joyce Harper. You’ll find me so very easy to find. I’m pretty sure if you just put Joyce Harper in Google, good old Google, it just comes straight up with all my contacts. So always welcome to have conversations and hear things and just get the message out there. Let’s, let’s talk about women’s health. Let’s normalise it.

Le’Nise: Yes. Yes. Let’s normalise women, women’s health. I love that. Thank you so much for coming on to the show. It’s been so wonderful speaking to you.

Joyce: Thank you so much.

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