Graduate Thesis Part 2: Development and Design
Graduate Thesis Award 2022, Industrial Design Department, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)
How does a gendered gaze determine what we feel shame about?
In patriarchal society, the male gaze is normal. Within its sights, the vulva, the external female sexual and reproductive organs, is consistently viewed negatively — censored and ignored, or labeled with euphemisms and slurs across cultures. The modern western medical canon upholds and reinforces this view of the vulva, through a combination of disinterest and omission. This cultural aversion leads to a personal aversion. For people with vulvas this manifests in a lack of information about their own bodies which leads to shame, pain and even fatalities.
Vulva Gazing is an invitation to become curious, empowered and shame-free. This work explores how sex-ed contributes to gendering, how shame is experienced in relation to the body through teenage years and well into adulthood, and the role art and design can play in challenging shame and promoting pleasure. The lens of pleasure offers a disruption of conventional social relations that stigmatizes female agency. I have found that the act of gazing at the vulva is critical to radically normalizing the gendered female body.
I ask you to imagine, what might happen if every person could live in their body without shame?
Design Process Part 2
Through extensive research, interviews, probing and framing and re-framing. I started to see the connection between the arrangement of ‘sex-ed’ in school and what falls into this category of sexual and reproductive health; a lot, and also not enough. The connection of ‘female problems’ like periods, pregnancy, and contraception to the gaping void of interest and information in female bodies. The same children from an insufficient and awkward sex-ed class go into the wider world as researchers, doctors, policymakers and healthcare providers without any further education or inclination to be educated on what it means to be male, female, or intersex and how we are same or different.
User Testing, Subject Matter Expert Interviews
If you google “female sexual anatomy” you’ll largely see many diagrams of uteruses and ovaries, and a few diagrams of vulvas that never use the world vulva, or worse, are labelled “Anatomy of Human Vagina”. You’ll even find a rogue diagram of the male reproductive system. All of which is to say that the connection between female genitalia to sex and reproduction is severely lacking.
When I did a survey of my peers, both with vulvas and without, I learned that no, we don’t really know that much about vulvas. Most of my participants weren’t able to fully label a diagram of female genitalia - some attempted to label parts with their own descriptors like “lips” and “opening” instead of labia and vagina. In fact 60% of American women can’t label their sexual and reproducitve anatomy and 1 in 4 women don’t know where their vagina is. I guess this makes sense because again, culturally, we are not really meant to look “down there” at your “vag” “vajayajay” “lady parts”. If we can’t even say the words, we’re definitely not going to look there, let alone explore our vulvas physically.
Currently objects in the realm of Sexual and Reproductive health lie on either end of the spectrum between being highly medical and sterilized and highly novel and euphemistic.
In order to normalise the vulva, my thesis aims to place itself in the aesthetic and functional realm of mundane everyday objects that are radically normal can can be designed to be both beautiful as well as highly functional, without pigeonhole-ing into the highly functional or highly novel.
Approach: Normalizing the Vulva
By mapping the problems to a potential design criteria, I was able to articulate a clear framework for my work. The non-negotiable aspects directly address the gaps and problems I identified.
Design Statement: Design a mirror for people with vulvas to be able to look at and care for their vulvas, which evokes an aethetic that is timeless, beautiful and evokes its unique use and is a source of pride for the user.
Functional Criteria & Thematic Criteria
• Table top object that takes up a balance of vertical and horizontal footprint.
• Not to be put away.
• Can be held in the hand or used hands-free.
• Should be engaging, alluring and evoking its use, in its resting position.
• When in use should be easy to hold/easy to put down.
• Directly addresses use, body parts, and uses de-stigmatising language
• Shares useful, medically accurate information
User Testing Mirror Shapes and Sizes
In the process of testing the appropriate ergonomic shapes and aesthetic forms, I was able to understand the bodily positions in which my users would potentially use the mirrors. The study of these positions, helped me to further develop the potential forms that the mirrors need to take.
Use Cases & Understanding Ergonomics
• Menstrual product use aid
• Contraceptive use aid
• Vulva Self Exam
• Checking for pain/discomfort
Prototyping Informational Booklet
Though I was offering a product that had many use cases, there was a lack of awareness among my user group about the potiental uses. Hence it became important for me to include an overtly educational and informative element to go accompany my mirror design. I used sketches taken from a survey I did to corroborate how proficient users were in their own vulva anatomy, and found that they lacked the language and knowledge to confidently know and navigate a vulva mirror.
Prototyping Forms + Material
Prototyping in Textiles
I moved my prototyping into textiles as I found that wood was not a medium that was easily malleable to me and would require mechanical development in order to improve its usability. The first design I developed was in the style of a beanbag that would resemble a small cushion. This would be angle adjustable and also blend into the environment of the bedroom.
The second design needed to be completely hands free and adjustable for those who cannot raise their legs beyond a certain level. I research products that use a similar hardware, like pipes and adjustable reading lamps. The hardware of those was not congruent with my design, so I padded the arm with foam and started to create a movable mirror frame.
The third version I made was intended as another hands-free mirror that could be adjusted around the body, not requiring the user to move around it. This form experimented with a 3D printed frame that had straps and were adjustable and could potentially hang on the wall in the user's bedroom.
Design Evaluation and Outcome
Vulva Gazing: Mirror Collection
A pleasure based approach is a complete paradigm shift. Ellen Willis said it better, “Women’s liberation should no be about fending off men’s sexuality but about trying to embrace your own.”
The normalized vulva mirror is then an object that seeks to help people with vulvas to -
1) Overcome the stigma associated with the vulva
2) Become literate in one’s own anatomy
3) Engender curiosity in the vulva owners body
These mental shifts are made habitual by designing for the integration into the home space, specifically the bedroom where we are most likely to engage in the intimate exploration of the body. One of my peers even suggested - “You can use this with a partner for pleasure and body exploration.” to which I responded with a resounding YES! to unlocking ideas for seeking out more information, more exploration and ultimately more pleasure.
Vulva Mirror 1: Beanbag
Materials: Velvet, Glass Beads, Rice, Mirrored Acrylic
Designed to be super adjustable so that it moves around your body and not vice versa. This mirror is a bedside companion with a weighted softness that invites you to check on your vulva.
Vulva Mirror 2: Adjustable Arm
Materials: Jacquard, Foam, Cotton Webbing, Metal, Mirrored Acrylic
Viewing the vulva requires a different type of ergonomics than mirrors that are designed for the face/vanity mirrors. This mirror uses adjustable straps that use the user's legs for support and can rest hung up on your wall next to wall art or even on a bedpost.
Vulva Mirror 3: Soft Strap
Metal, Jacquard, Cotton Webbing, PLA, Mirrored Acrylic
What's essential in a vulva mirror is the ability to adjust it around your body and the position that is most comfortable. This mirror can be adjusted and then engaged with hands-free so that the user can conduct self-exams and -exploration and any use pertaining to the vulva or otherwise.
Accompanying Informational Booklet
The booklet comes as an informational guide to anatomically educate the user, while also sharing what the mirrors can be used for and what to look out for during a vulva self-exam.