Pregnancy Test Tweakers Are My People

Editing photos of pregnancy tests until they look positive might seem deluded, but these online communities help me feel less alone.

by Elisabeth Sherman

A couple of months after my second miscarriage, I bought a bulk bag of 50 pregnancy tests. I would take one early in the morning, sometimes more than a week before I expected my period, and examine the results with the diligence of an Olivia Benson-level detective. After that, without fail, I would take a photo of the test and post it to the Pregnancy Test Checker app, where other users would vote on whether or not the test looked positive.

Pregnancy Test Checker app was my gateway into test “tweaking,” as it's known online, a common, almost compulsive practice, where users adjust brightness and contrast on photos of pregnancy tests, hunting for a faint second line that, without the photo editing tools and the discerning eyes of fellow tweakers, might otherwise have been missed.

This isn’t a new phenomenon: Even before apps like the Pregnancy Test Checker as well as Femometer, which launched in 2014, tests were uploaded to pregnancy forums like BabyCenter, with a request to tweak, where active members or generous moderators would adjust brightness or invert colors and upload their results for others to inspect and, if appropriate, congratulate. And as long as the practice has existed — and one can imagine women have been gathering together to squint at pregnancy tests for as long as they've been commercially available — it has been mocked. That tweaking has been called bizarre, and its partakers called desperate and impatient, is no surprise — it occurs in the realm of mostly women, after all. And these women are in a potentially lonely phase of life, experiencing uncertainty in the face of what is often a deep desire that can be tremendously difficult to articulate to people who don’t have or want kids. You are waiting to find out if your body and brain, your relationship with your partner — the entire course of your life, really — are about to change in ways both terrifying and thrilling. It’s kind of a big deal.

And so, like many before me, I started taking pregnancy tests, then taking photos of them, and then taking my pregnancy test photos to the tweaking app. I did it because I would have done anything, no matter how delusional, to see even a hint of a positive test.

“The desperation you feel when you're going through infertility is such a mindf*ck,” Kristyn Hodgdon, the co-founder of Rescripted, which offers women practical advice and insight into sexual and reproductive health, infertility, and pregnancy loss, tells me. “You just want to know other people are going through it too.” Hodgdon, who calls herself an “IVF veteran,” says her twins were conceived this way, and now she’s hoping to conceive her third child through another round of IVF. It was that desperation that pushed her to trade photos of hard-to-read tests, often with tweaked filters in case a line pops up that might have been hidden before, with a group of women going through a similar struggle. Hodgdon connected with them through social media platforms like Instagram — and she has yet to meet some of them in person.

“You hear stories about people getting pregnant left and right, but no one talks about the five months prior, when they were pulling tests out of the garbage can to double-check if they're pregnant.”

For women in Hodgdon’s (and my) position, peeing on a stick can be a high-stakes guessing game. And it can feel incredibly isolating to stare at a stick every morning thinking you see something that might not actually be there.

“With IVF specifically, you're not even four weeks pregnant when you can start testing,” Hodgdon says. “So you're like, ‘Maybe there's like a drop of HCG in my urine. Maybe if I just tweak it, I'll be able to see something.’” HCG is called the pregnancy hormone because the early formation of the placenta triggers its production — which is why it's so exceedingly uncommon to have a false-positive pregnancy test. If you aren’t pregnant, there won’t be a trace of HCG in your body (except in the case of rare health conditions).

The small community of people with whom Hodgdon can swap tweaked tests without feeling judged or embarrassed is, for her, a lifeline. “You hear stories about people getting pregnant left and right, but no one talks about the five months prior, when they were pulling tests out of the garbage can to double-check if they're pregnant. So just having that outlet with people who have been there is so important.”

The Pregnancy Test Checker was the only place I felt comfortable turning to when I was at the height of my obsession with pregnancy testing. I am lucky enough to have an unconditionally supportive partner, but even he struggled to understand why I sometimes hid pregnancy tests in my bedside table or in my desk drawer to look at later. It’s not so much that I needed someone to tell me what I was doing was normal — I knew it wasn’t — I just wanted to (virtually) surround myself with people who couldn’t judge me for behavior that felt compulsive, almost out of my control.

That’s why I expected other users to agree that the app, and tweaking tests in general, can be a source of support for women like me who are made to feel that they must mask their struggle to get pregnant in secrecy and silence. So when I posted to the Pregnancy Test Checker feed asking other users how they felt, I was surprised to encounter strong objections to the practice.

“Tweaking tests only leads to false hope,” a user named Hilary wrote in her comment. “Telling someone to tweak a test is about as harmful as it gets. [In] the TTC community we are looking for honest and reliable sources and information. And tweaking pictures is not one of them.”

Even if the app does encourage tweaking, it has created a space for women to vent and commiserate, where there might have been isolation and loneliness before.

But others affirmed that even if the app does encourage tweaking, it has created a space for women to vent and commiserate, where there might have been isolation and loneliness before. “For people who have absolutely zero support in life, these apps are very helpful,” another user commented anonymously on my post. “People are going crazy in the two-week wait, so might as well have some like-minded support.”

It’s true that a heartbreaking false positive can certainly be one risk of test tweaking, but that’s not always a deterrent when you’re just looking for someone to talk to. There is still so much taboo and shame surrounding all the mishaps that can occur when trying to get pregnant that most people hesitate to confide in close friends and family — especially if those people got pregnant easily, or don’t have kids themselves.

Erin Scholzman, a counselor who specializes in treating expectant and new parents, says she understands why sharing anonymously online with strangers feels safer than sending a picture of a pregnancy test to your best friend. “If you can find allies in these online spaces where you feel heard and seen and validated, that's a good thing,” she says.

However, Scholzman emphasizes that tweaking tests can have a “deep emotional toll.” Once you’re inside the echo chamber of an online message board or app, it's easy to justify test tweaking, because everyone is doing it. But tweaking a negative test until it looks positive compounds the disappointment and anxiety that already accompanies trying to conceive, and can be an unhealthy coping mechanism. That’s why Scholzman recommends getting a “reality check” from your health care provider about when you can expect a positive result, and what it will look like.

Somewhere out there, behind another phone screen, was a woman just like me, full of yearning for the baby that could be.

That emotional whiplash is one of the most devastating side effects of test tweaking, according to Erika Pranzo, a counselor who treats perinatal and postpartum women. “Getting all the feedback that’s like ‘Congratulations, you're pregnant,’ gives you this big endorphin kick,” she says. “Then if you get your period, that’s a major low. That cycle can really start to beat a person down.”

In the seven months since my last miscarriage, I have gone through all the emotional highs and lows that Pranzo referenced. I have mourned the loss, even felt at peace with it, and then gone right back to desperately wishing to be pregnant again. And that’s why I’m still a member of the Pregnancy Test Checker app, because nobody — not my partner, not my therapist — except the people who exist in the same precarious moment as I do, understands how I feel.

Just last month, I took a test on a whim and posted it to the app. It was clearly negative, but I had a glimmer of hope that I couldn’t resist indulging. In response, 39 people voted that it was actually positive. The results made me question my own reality, and I had to force myself to shut down the sudden surge of hope I felt. I reminded myself that my partner and I aren’t ready to dive back into newborn life — and then almost against my will I began to think, “Wouldn’t a second baby be nice?” I had to brush away these daydreams like troublesome cobwebs.

Turns out I was not pregnant, but I still took comfort in the knowledge that somewhere out there, behind another phone screen, was a woman just like me, full of yearning for the baby that could be. No amount of tweaking is going to reveal a line that isn’t there, or make a much-wanted pregnancy a reality. But I can still forgive those 39 voters for feeding my fantasy. When trying to conceive has offered mostly heartbreak, hope can be in short supply. They offered to share some of theirs with me, anyway. And that’s exactly what I needed in that moment. Not a reality check or straight talk, but hope.

Elisabeth Sherman is a freelance commerce writer at Food & Wine. She lives in New Jersey with her partner, their daughter, and three cats.