How might we subvert and overcome patriarchal notions of the female body through design?
Patriarchal ideas lead to shame and stigma shrouding much of what we know about the female body. This has lead to a lack of knowledge and interest in including female bodies in research, policy, design, healthcare, and many more aspects of life. It is imperative that we overcome this by normalising knowledge and discussion about female experiences.
This thesis aims to do this through engaging in conversation via designed objects and experiences, creating modes of learning for men and boys who can be powerful allies of change in the process, and taking the opportunity to design for the needs of female bodies.
Design Research Journey
Surveys & Journey Mapping
How have you encountered shame and stigma around sexual and reproductive health?
School sex-ed class is most people's first and only opportunity to learn about their bodies and the bodies of the opposite sex in a safe and informative way at a young age. Instead, these classes are often loaded with patriarchal shame, stigma and often, misinformation which young people carry with them for a number of years, if not their whole lives. The goal of this initial survey was to identify from users what they learned and how they perceived those experiences.
1. The framing of what we learn, is important as the content
2. Young people learn shame, stigma and silence around female body, bodily experiences at a young age and carry those notions with them
3. Conversations with peers are powerful ways to challenge attitudes of shame and stigma
4. Shame and stigma persists until challenged through one's own life experiences. Often we learn to break free from shame and stigma under duress.
5. Men lag behind in the learning curve around sex, reproduction and the female body.
Subject Matter Expert Interviews
What are the ways we can overcome shame and stigma around sexual and reproductive health of female bodies?
Through conversations with 10 subject matter experts in fields ranging from social impact design (YLabs), art & design history (MFA Boston), design strategy (Johnson & Johnson), public art (Avenue PVD), sexual wellness (Maude, Amazing Essentials), and gynecological nursing (Planned Parenthood).
What role has art and design had in overcoming shame and stigma in relation to sexual and reproductive health?
I analyzed the landscape of western and indian media, art and design to identify the ways in which others have approached the overwhelming number of challenges in the realm of sexual and reproductive health.
Mapping Challenges to Potential Approaches
From both primary and secondary research I was able to identify some key problem areas that I was interested in focusing my intervention(s) on. Through some experimentation, I started to identify what the pathways for designed interventions could be and mapped the themes in the challenges to the interventions I was interested in pursuing.
Framework for Approach
With those pathways in mind, I created a framework to both guide and also communicate my thesis goals, and how I was imagining the impact of my work. With the overarching theme of normalising the female body, and by using the Capability, Opportunity and Motivation framework, I devised by own way of imagining a more equitable future.
The Clitoris, Female Pleasure and Shame
In drawing attention to female pleasure through the motif of the Clitoris, it made me think about what it takes to have pleasure. Female people have to rely on the ability to prevent pregnancy in order to have sex for pleasure. This is achieved through the many types of contraception that are designed for women, as if women are the only ones responsible for conception. It is maintained by the ability to check for pregnancy through managing menses, which if missed are indicated through at home pregnancy tests.
Video as Prompt
I created the character Clitty from a found 3D file of a model of the clitoris. Unlike the anatomically focused original, my own version is fluid, distorted, textured and layered.
“That’s the clit?! I’ve never seen what it looks like!”
The goal was to trigger conversations around female anatomy and sexuality.
I used the mode of a Public Art proposal to build out the idea of Clitty World. Clitty, the Clitoris, has friends that are designed innovations that help in the prevention of pregnancy (IUD, Birth Control Pills) , managing of menses (menstrual cup), and monitoring of pregnancy (home pregnancy test). Female people have to rely on the ability to prevent pregnancy in order to have sex for pleasure. The idea of framing them as 'friends' helped to draw the connection between these largely medical and everyday objects, come alive by showcasing them with the Clitoris, the organ of pleasure.
Users are intrigued by the image created. It led to many conversations across the group that I showcased this to. Some came back to me later and mentioned that it helped to spark a conversation about birth control with a sexual partner.
Materiality is key to making even the weirdest objects feel familiar or approachable. I created versions of Clitty in a variety of materials and tested them on my users to gauge how they were responding to each material. The materials I tested were - flexible PLA, hard metallic PLA and resin.
Users were mixed in their response ot his material. On the one hand, some found it to be 'fun and squishy' and approachable. On the other hand, others found it to be 'creepy' and too flesh-like.
Users found the objects to be special and handled them with more reverence. The shiny finish of the odd looking Clitty was made inviting and illicited curiosity.
Imagining Clitty World in a format that is typically masculine and also familiar to many. Video games are a great way to present narrative that is at once open-ended as well as structured. Clitty World the video game highlights the experience of a person with a Clitoris, who is relatively sexually empowered, attempting to manage their bodies. It is a way to generate empathy and pull more people into thinking about the structural inequity that lies within thinking about this typically taboo topic of female pleasure.
In video form, the game can be observed with more distance. The game itself generates emotions like frustration and confusion but also intrigue, enjoyment and satisfaction as the user is able to collect menstrual pads, IUDs and gain ‘time’.
The game requires expansion in order to truly draw the user into a complete experience.
Adornment: Clitty Earrings
Fashion and adornment has long been used as another way to create conversation among people. As a jewellery design practitioner myself, it was only fitting to create a set of Clitty jewellery. I made a few pairs and distributed them to my users. I realised that it did not meet enough of my criteria for engagement.
Users who liked these as pieces of jewellery were happy to wear these and talk to others about these. However the mode of jewellery was too small and limited in its context. I wanted users to be able to engage and reflect even further.
In creating a boxed set of artefacts I began to create a mode of engagement that presented the Clit and associated objects in a more overtly artistic way. Taking medical devices and an anatomical model, and presenting them as a collection of artefacts to keep on your coffee table at home, or in a museum. Could changing the material and context of these subjects challenge how my users perceive these objects?
Changing the material, adjusting the forms and presenting them in a way that evokes decor items was effective tot he extent that they created conversation amongst those who chose to engage with it.
However, in order to have my users reflect more deeply about the themes I was trying to evoke, I would have to take these objects and frame them into a more interactive experience.
Design Outcome & Evaluation
Pathway 1: Engagement Through Designed Experience
The Prototyped Experience I ended up building was a Shrine. By using a familar mode and arrangement, I asked users to reflect on how they have engaged with female pleasure. The Shrine to Clitty, the Clitoris, asked the user 3 questions - What sacrifices have you made for pleasure? Who taught you about pleasure? And offered a blessing in the style of many places of worship.
After initial testing, I did not pursue this pathway further into development though it helped to provide a lot of the groundwork into the next phase of the project.
Pathway 2: Engaging Men & Boys
I spent a good part of the year in conversation with YLabs, understanding their work and my potential role in it. They shared their Cocoon project with me and one avenue I identified that could address a need both that was in line with my thesis goals and their ecosystem of work was creating educational materials that could help to include men and boys in the Bidi bidi refugee settlement that they were working in.
Unfortunately due to my own thesis time constraints and the availability of team Ylabs, I decided not to pursue this pathway into development.
Pathway 3: Design for Care in Everyday Life
This pathway drew me in as it allowed me the ability to be able to fold the aims and goals of the other 2 into this, while also satisfying my desire to design an object that helped to both re-frame the female body, but also help to tangible improve health outcomes. To accompany this object, I could build out the pleasure-based narrative in the eventual communication and form development of this object. I could directly target my female users while also challenging pervading narratives around the female body.