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Empowerment and Self-Care: Designing for the Female Body

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Abstract and Figures

This chapter discusses how design, at the intersection of science and technology, is uniquely situated to address women’s intimate care and contribute to revolutionize practices within the female body. Everyday practices that are conducive to mitigating health disparities and promote well-being throughout the life course are needed, as much as advancements in the design of tools and services that highlight our relationship to the body are crucial to shape our place in society. Knowledge that was once inaccessible and technologies that were institutionally bound are today being challenged by the rise of citizen science, do- it-yourself (DIY), and open source approaches. These are community-oriented viewpoints that emphasize active participation as alternative to gathering and generating data, e.g., about ourselves, our bodies, or the environment. This data have the potential to disrupt, e.g., institutional care, and to promote self-care, which in turn create opportunities for change. Knowledge available about women’s and men’s bodies is disproportionate, and that knowledge, or lack thereof, is actively produced. In building on this, we argue that knowledge available to women is lacking. It is therefore urgent to challenge traditional forms of engaging women in understanding their bodies. New methods are required that value self-care. We start by reviewing feminist theories that underpin our woman-centered approaches to designing materials that promote bodily awareness, inviting women to become embodied knowers. In addition, we discuss the design of a series of toolkits as mediums to engender conversations and break taboos. Our exemplars include DIY alternative biological practices that embrace domestic remedies through playful hands-on interventions with electronic textiles and digital applications. This is a suite that aligns with design inquiries concerned with addressing the body as a future lens for innovating in intimate technologies. They configure woman as an active participant, and her (taking) action is at the fore of our quest to design systems that promote agency, autonomy, and knowledge.
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Giulia Tomasello and Teresa Almeida
Accepted Manuscript in pre-production (not copy–edited, proofread or typeset)
"This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book chapter published by Bloomsbury Academic in
Crafting Anatomies: Archives, Dialogues, Fabrications on 20-02-2020, available
This chapter discusses how design, at the intersection of science and technology, is uniquely
situated to address women’s intimate care and contribute to revolutionize practices within
the female body. Everyday practices that are conducive to mitigating health disparities and
promote well-being throughout the life course are needed, as much as advancements in the
design of tools and services that highlight our relationship to the body are crucial to shape
our place in society. Knowledge that was once inaccessible and technologies that were
institutionally bound are today being challenged by the rise of citizen science, do-it-yourself
(DIY), and open source approaches. These are community-oriented viewpoints that
emphasize active participation as alternative to gathering and generating data, e.g about
ourselves, our bodies, or the environment. These data have the potential to disrupt, e.g
institutional care, and to promote self-care, which in turn create opportunities for change.
Knowledge available about women’s and men’s bodies is disproportionate, and that
knowledge, or lack thereof, is actively produced. In building on this, we argue that
knowledge available to women is lacking. It is therefore urgent to challenge traditional forms
of engaging women in understanding their bodies. New methods are required that value
We start by reviewing feminist theories that underpin our woman-centred approaches to
designing materials that promote bodily awareness, inviting women to become embodied
knowers. In addition, we discuss the design of a series of toolkits as mediums to engender
conversations and break taboos. Our exemplars include DIY alternative biological practices
that embrace domestic remedies through playful hands-on interventions with electronic
textiles and digital applications. This is a suite that aligns with design inquiries concerned
with addressing the body as a future lens for innovating in intimate technologies. They
configure woman as an active participant, and her (taking) action is at the fore of our quest
to design systems that promote agency, autonomy, and knowledge.
Bodies of Knowledge
The bodies through which we produce knowledge matter (Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1991),
and how we know what we know is shaped by patterns of inclusion and exclusion from the
communities who configure those scientific, social, and political systems (Schiebinger, 1993).
Traditionally, women have been a group of people ignored in the production of knowledge
(Tuana, 2006), even when knowledge is directly related to them and their own bodies. It was
with the age of Enlightenment in the 1700s that the professionalization and medicalization
of women’s health surfaced, in detriment of women’s traditional knowledge, which was
instrumental in establishing “women as objects of knowledge, but not as authorized
knowers” (ibid, 2006). Whereas the politics of participation at the time determined that
women were excluded from moulding scientific knowledge, notions of gender dictated
ideals that put things defined as feminine, including women, aside (Schiebinger, 1993).
While the neglect of research that could potentially be beneficial to women has been
wrought in institutions dominated by men (ibid, 1993), more open and inclusive approaches,
e.g DIY biology or citizen science, use research methods that traverse institutions and put
tools in the hands of disparate communities of people. At a time when such approaches
proliferate and are recognised as powerful to improve quality of life among many, and digital
technologies become accessible, we strive to demystify the existing status quo.
The science of the female body, but whose science is it anyway?
The science of the female body remains a contested topic (Thomas Stockly, 2011). The
existence of gender bias and disparities in women’s health and care was constructed on the
fact that biomedical research had been based on male subjects and later generalized to
women (Munch, 2006). This or stereotypes that are sustained and built on cultural biases. In
addition, history also shows us that scientists have always sought to distance themselves
from any association with things female (Schiebinger, 1993). Surely, the question of the
bodies of women in history is well documented within social theory and feminist critique of
science? While the concept of the female body might be “underpinned by a core of
identification” of experiences associated with women (Riley, 1999), such as pregnancy or
menstruation, woman as a category continues to evolve. Women are far from being one
homogeneous group. Regardless, what counts as scientific knowledge, as the ‘facts’,
depends on who counts it as such and in what context (Birke, 1999). An understanding of
how gender influences the result of science is therefore crucial. Science is not a neutral
culture when it comes to women (Schiebinger, 1993). Historically, the ways that institutions
mediated knowledge was highly gendered, underlined by the lack of women’s access to
higher education. Is this politics of participation perpetual or has it changed throughout
times? If knowledge grows out of who is doing the studying, and for what ends, and knowing
that women continue to be underrepresented, then it is critical to partake in engendering
and shaping these agendas. Surely, the female body will remain a contested topic.
Moreover, what we attempt to do in this chapter is to explore notions of the scientific body
in its relation to biology and entanglements with technology.
The Body in bio(techno)logy
“What are our bodies? First, they are us. We don’t inhabit them, we are them.” (The Boston
Women’s Health Book Collective, 1971)
As noted by feminist philosopher Iris M. Young (2005), “the lived body is particular in its
morphology, material similarities, and differences from other bodies”. It is also built for care,
visible in daily rituals such as grooming, washing, and eating (Hamington, 2004). Evidently, a
lack of everyday knowledge and misconceptions about the female body still abound (Braun,
V. & Wilkinson, S., 2001). The female body has been a subject of taboo, limiting the
development of women’s health and care in general (Rossmann, 2008). In spite of this,
routines and behaviours we adopt as part of our everyday have an impact on our lives over
time. Experiences that are traditionally considered female have a meaning of their own and
depend upon the subjective experiences each woman might have.
Considering women as both oppressed and free, S. De Beauvoir (1949) in her book ‘The
Second Sex’ made a clear separation of the social and emotional gender between the
physical and natural body.
A woman's relationship with her body is the most direct relationship she has with the earth
itself. It depends upon the extent to which a woman sees herself as a free subject rather
than as the object of society’s gaze. Birke (1986) argues that claiming that body gender is
socially constructed is emphasized by ideas that society holds about women’s biology, that
gender is reflected by their social subordination; further, biology cannot be understood
outside of its social, economic, and psychological context, and that biology alone is
insufficient to explain why women are constituted as the Other; and, finally, she suggests
that biological experiences do contribute to the way we experience indirectly our lives as
women.“One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (de Beauvoir 1949).
The female body has been considered a societal taboo since the early seventies, when
women activists from Boston, calling themselves Women’s Doctors, decided to publish a
radical and pedagogical magazine to explain women’s healthcare in a unique political and
social context, accessible and understandable to everyone. Their knowledge became an
extraordinary piece of writing, easily available to be shared as a model, for women that
wanted to learn about themselves, communicate their fears with doctors, and challenge the
medical establishment to change and improve the care that women should receive. Just a
few days from publication, the magazine ‘Our bodies, ourselves’, became an underground
success that sold 250,000 copies. A liberal and public format to educate women in the
knowledge and care of their own body and wellbeing. The magazine, now book, introduces
stories of women who experienced illegal and often mortal abortions, domestic violence,
precarious pregnancies and at the same time natural remedies to treat vaginal infections,
menstrual and ovulation pain and to educate women on the different types of
contraceptives. A book was written by women, for women.
The meaning of the body changes dramatically over time. Therefore, the questions we
should ask about the female body should be ones set within context and concerns of
particular historical moments (Price and Shildrick, 1999). Nowadays technologies of
convenience need to be re-imagined in relation to the body. One example is that of the
vaginal speculum: a medical gynaecological device used to perform the pelvic exam and
cervical smear test.
Figure 9.1 Vaginal Speculum (2015) Photo credit: Ko-Le Chen
Historically, the vaginal speculum is the first in a line of “spectacular” instruments in the care
of women (Sandelowski, 2000). It was developed during the 1800s, a controversial invention
of a male doctor and an instrument of a ‘contested technology’ within a somewhat
contested history (ibid, 2000). Its “purpose is to retract the vaginal walls to allow a clinician
to visually examine the cervix and obtain culture specimens for tests, such as the pap smear”
(Rossmann, 2008). In spite of advancements in technology and in understanding of the
(scientific) body, it has seen little design improvements since invention. It is an example of a
technology that “gets its job done”, its design taking little or no account for the intimate
needs, values and experiences associated with such exam - that it may be unpleasant even
fearful, impacting on whether most women decide to do it or not. To this day, health and
care of intimate parts such as the vagina have not only seen little technological
breakthrough in its (clinical) interventions, they also persist as an ‘uncomfortable’ social,
even personal topic, which in turn perpetuates a culture of shame, secrecy, and lack of
awareness that can be (broadly) damaging to genital integrity.
Figure 9.2 Future Flora addresses women who are taking control of their own bodies as a
precious and intimate practice of self-care (2016) Photo credit: Jan Vrhovnik.
We live in a culture of silence that distorts reality, by emphasizing the gender construction of
women’s body (Sabala and Meena, 2010). The female apparatus is perceived as a mystical
taboo, a site of struggle for definition and control (Braun and Wilkinson, 2001) and because
it is often reduced to isolated parts in the woman’s body, is therefore most popular for
pleasure and considered as myth for judgment and violent abuse (Brownmiller, 1984). From
social sciences to popular literature, academic texts, theatre or television, newspaper
articles and fiction, there is a lack of attention to the vagina as topic. The mythology pictures
the vagina as dentata, altering inevitably the symbol of reproduction and central to
womanhood, as well as the menstrual uncleanliness myth, the cunt connotation and so
forth. Women are taught that vagina is vulgar and socially inappropriate to mention.
Today’s society is calling women to talk about it. Women that recently turned to the internet
for answers, instead of keeping doubts inside. The need of speaking about their own bodies
and intimate health it is becoming urgent in addition to a sense of belonging and sisterhood.
Having a conversation with your body and understanding its silent language is the challenge.
By declaring that the vagina has its own consciousness, N. Wolf (2012) explores the secret
language of the vagina’s anatomy as the coexistence of both the female soul and brain,
understood also as medium of self-knowledge and freedom.
Dr. A. Kinsey in 1953 interviewed 6000 American women, reporting that the cervix “is the
most completely insensitive part of the female genitalia anatomy” and has no nerve endings,
so any discomfort will feel more like pressure and cramping (Region of Peel). Considered the
pioneer in human sexuality, Kinsey was completely wrong. Studies proved against the myth
and his report, that the cervix, is the only organ that receives a sensory impulse from three
different pairs of nerves: the pelvic, hypogastric and vague (Komisaruk, 2017). In mammals
there are two brains, the cranial and the abdominal, of almost equal importance to the
individual and also to the race. The first is the instrument of physical protection and the
second one of visceral rhythm and nutrition. In the abdomen, the female uterus area, exists
a brain of wonderful powers that controls, initiates, sustains, prohibits, receives and
transmits. An automatic nervous center, physiological and anatomical brain (Robinson,
1907). Today doctors from the San Diego Sexual Medicine confirm that “there is an assault
of women’s genitals going on now in medicine” (Dr. Goldstein, 2018).
A call to the development of new health technologies, designed with, by and for women has
started. Design through technology, becomes the tool to explore social needs and empower
citizens from healthcare and wellbeing perspectives.
Designing technologies for intimate care in women
In tying together our practices, we advance woman-centred approaches that enquire
knowledge practices in health and (self-)care. In this section, we introduce four novel design
concepts and devices that tackle bodily taboos and awkwardness, and offer insights on how
designing for intimate care is entwined in woman-centred design (Almeida, 2017) – An
ongoing methodology that highlights the distinct attributes and experiences in, on, and
within the female body. These include Future Flora, a kit designed to prevent vaginal
infections, in which we discuss the delicate interaction of nurturing microorganisms at
home, as an intimate practice of self-care, whereby women become participants in the
culture and knowledge of science; TNUC, a magazine that frames the meaning lost behind
the word cunt, by researching the etymology and socio-cultural understandings of the word;
the design of an eTextiles Toolkit that explores textile materials with electronics as
interaction materials for (intimate) health literacy and as a method for engaging women in
self-care; Labella, a system that exploits non-traditional embodied interactions to promote
pelvic health in women.
Female biophilia: crossing boundaries
We aren’t just single individuals walking the planet: we are walking ecosystems made of
microbes. Microbes are in the soil, in the water and even in our bodies. We co-exist with
them. The human body is composed for the 90% of different microorganisms, most of which
are beneficial to their host. Microbes as bacteria, fungi and viruses are part of our skin
microflora, covering both the inside and the outer surface of the body. Even though invisible
to our eyes, our microflora has a symbiotic relationship with the interface between our body
and the environment, our skin. The Human Microbiome Project, designed to identify the
core human microbiome and to determine whatever changes can be correlated in human
health, in 2010 developed research based on vaginal microbiome and genetic diseases
. The
vagina communicates through an invisible and interactive interface with the environment,
covered by a protective epithelial surface, colonised by millions of microorganisms which,
protect the host from pathogens. What changes in the vaginal microbiome are associated
with relevant infectious diseases and conditions? (Buck et al., 2010) Research was conducted
to identify the role of the vaginal microbiota in the urogenital tract health of females and to
evaluate the factors that lead important therapies or intervention strategies.
Women’s bodies are considered sacred in society. Female sexual pleasure and fertility are
the only issues that matter. If design could become the tool to empower women and their
health care - Would women be ready to wear bacteria in their underwear to prevent vaginal
Figure 9.3 Future Flora aims to celebrate a Female Biophilia approach, by women wearing
bacteria in their knickers (2016) Photo credit: Tom Mannion.
Future Flora is a harvesting kit designed for women to treat and prevent vaginal infections.
For women that are taking control of their bodies as a new precious and intimate practice of
(self-)care. The kit is composed of an inoculation loop, a spreader, a pipette with freeze-
dried bacterial compound and the nutrient agar-agar recipe, plus an instruction leaflet
providing the necessary steps to grow and harvest your own pad at home. The included
tools are now considered basic laboratory equipment. In this context, the user is a woman
who wants to embrace biotechnology in her home, allowing science to show alternatives to
traditional medicines and probiotics.
Figure 9.4 Future Flora is a kit designed for women to prevent vaginal infections (2016)
Photo credit: Giulia Tomasello.
How can design challenge our perception to celebrate the relationship between the
human body and its microbiome? Future Flora aims to incentivise the symbiotic
relationship between the beneficial presence of microbes in the skin and to suggest
alternatives on wearing probiotics to keep the body healthy. The bacterial pad positioned
inside the underwear grows the necessary strings of Lactobacillus bacteria
to create a
hostile environment for the further development of Candida Albicans
, acting as living
culture of probiotics. By placing the pad in contact with the female genitalia, the healthy
bacteria grow on the surface of the infected area, reconstructing the microflora missing in
the vagina epithelium. Considering that 75% of women worldwide suffer from a candida
infection every year, Future Flora explores women's approaches in the context of personal
self-care and body awareness, generating an intimate and delicate interaction between
nurturing bacteria while they grow, and wearing them as a second layer within your
Celebrating a female biophilia, Tomasello opens the possibility of wearing microorganisms in
the future, embracing them as part of our natural well-being. Following Biohacking
and do-
it-yourself (DIY) procedures, merging biology with health-tech, the female becomes a citizen
scientist. By taking care of her own health, she establishes a first relation between her body
and what is part of her living surroundings. Clothes and accessories become the ecosystem
that balance the entire body skin microflora. Future Flora proposes alternatives to embrace
biological remedies in our daily life, by questioning the materialistic behaviour embedded in
society, aiming to challenge new propositions for the future of women’s healthcare.
TNUC is a zine that describes the meaning behind being female in contemporary society.
Currently the term ‘cunt’ is undergoing a period of transition. Its meaning has become the
most profane and offensive swear word, and as a result society is taught to refrain from
discussing it. Feminists attempt to re-appropriate it, having so far achieved only limited
success, and liberal attempts to integrate it into popular culture. This fear attached to the
word ‘cunt’ is developed in the publication, as an historical exploration to frame and
research its cultural and scientific perspectives, to highlight its power and significance as a
word both socially and individually. The aim of the zine is to open a new dialogue between
us (women) celebrating cunts every day and in everything related with them. To educate
about subjects such as fertility and infertility, mental health and gynecology enabling women
to feel comfortable to conquer taboos. The real question is whether or not c[unt] is going to
ever lose its taboo (Goldman, 1999).
Figure 9.5 TNUC zine - reclaiming the term ‘cunt’ in society (2017) Photo credit: Giulia
En-gendering conversations in health
Electronics for Women was a project exploring traditional handicrafts and soft electronics. It
consisted of a series of workshops that took place at the Thai-Myanmar border town of Mae
Sot. It investigated how hands-on activities could inspire and contribute to promoting
positive wellbeing.
When living and working in Southeast Asia (2007-2011), Almeida became inspired by the
richness of local textiles and interested in the potential of handicrafts as critical power tools
in contemporary culture. One instance included spending a period of three months working
with a group of Burmese women to weave stretch sensors and create light-emitting textiles
while learning from their traditional handicrafts. This was a practice-led inquiry into the
making of craft technology in an unexpected context: that of a rural environment and
displaced peoples, with a distinguished and rich textile tradition.
Figure 9.6 Electronics for women: Weaving stretch sensors and creating light-emitting
textiles while learning from traditional handicrafts; the intersection of soft technology with
traditional handwork in rural Southeast Asia. Women weavers at the Thai-Myanmar border
(2011) Photo credit: Teresa Almeida.
At the time, it was through volunteer activities and workshops that Almeida promoted e-
textiles (textile crafts and electronics) as materials innovation and inventive methods to
interact within cultures characterized by extreme disparities in access and mobility. At the
core, questions explored how traditional practices, such as weaving and stitching, each with
a history that is devoid of electronic artifacts, intersect with today’s technology and,
importantly, how could this approach support capacity building for women who use their
skill to earn an income. This exploration interwove traditional handwork and digital practice
later informing the design and development of a set of interventions - the e-Textile Toolkit
and Labella (2013-2016).
In designing systems and interactions that tackle bodily functions and body organs that are
intimate, the cases of the e-Textile Toolkit and Labella serve to bring to the foreground
research in sensitive topics and challenge lines of inquiry that continue to be absent. These
attempts aim to enable a woman’s knowledge, i.e. to engage in her own development
(Young, 1990) through empowering her to look and know more about her intimate body.
The e-Textile Toolkit by Almeida combines technologies to explore novel ways to promote
bodily awareness around pelvic health. Body mapping and wearable e-textile materials are
the chosen methods to tackle issues of intimate health and wellbeing. The toolkit is an open
invitation for people in a workshop to recall existing body knowledge, and to expand on that
same knowledge through a hands-on process of do-it-yourself (DIY) discovery ‘of’ and ‘on’
the body.
Figure 9.7 DIY Wearable e-Textiles, assembling pelvic floor muscles: from screen print to
knickers (2014) Photo credit: Ko-Le Chen.
These activities put a focus on interweaving aesthetics with the material landscape of
electronic textiles and the body. This situatedness enables participative development in
understandings of the biology of the body, biology which, to quote Lynda Birke, “is crucial –
and a vital ally – in terms of how we understand both embodiment (our own and others) and
the subtly socio-political dimensions of scientific knowledge production” (Åsberg and Birke,
2010). Biology is also what includes bodily functions, and this study was aimed at using novel
interactive materials as tools to open dialogues within communities of women in
understanding biological processes such as those involved in pelvic care.
Figure 9.8 Labella, using a bespoke piece of underwear and a mobile app to ‘Look Down
There’ (2016) Photo credit: Ko-Le Chen.
Similarly, Labella is an augmented system that invites the woman to be an active participant
in looking through an interactive surface (a mirror) to the body (the vulva). It combines a
piece of underwear for embodied intimate interaction, and a mobile phone as a tool for
embodied discovery (Almeida et al., 2016). It is an unconventional tool that works in the
interest of generating knowledge that is actively produced, in this case by considering
biological embodiment as part and parcel of what makes bodies and what they are, to draw
attention to the ‘scientific’ intimate body and pelvic fitness in women. Conceptually, Labella
is inspired by the Women’s Health Movement, as introduced before, a time in which women
used a mirror as a technology of choice to not only highlight health rights (or lack thereof)
but foremost to reclaiming control over their bodies. Women “located power in the mirror
and in genital self-visualization, and they reclaimed both as productive tools with which to
confront the male-dominated institution of gynaecological medicine” (Labuski, 2008).
A mirror is a technology for surveillance (Twigg, 2004), a tool to support control by display,
and the cultural context in which women live with their reflected image highlights
‘exteriority’. “’The mirror’, after all, “almost always serves to reduce us to a pure exteriority.
(...) We look at ourselves to please someone, rarely to interrogate the state of our body or
our spirit, rarely for ourselves and in search of our own becoming. (...) [T]he mirror is a
frozen – and polemical – weapon to keep as apart.” (Irigaray quoted in Labuski, 2008).
The primary emphasis is on the visual sense that the mirror provides to us, as a means of
outer representation. Alternatively, in her book This Sex which is not One, Luce Irigaray
(1985), introduces Alice, who “exists behind the screen of representation”. It is so to
describe “the necessity for going through the mirror in order to free oneself from a
traditional sort of representation(s)” (Irigaray, 2008; p. 162). In this sense, Almeida’s interest
in using a mirror was in extending “genital integration beyond the visual” while engendering
an “articulation between the visual and the tactile”. Looking at oneself, as requested by the
experience with Labella, allows for creating a deeper bodily integration. While exploring
external and internal organs, it is sensible that these organs are integral to bodily functions,
critical to reproductive health and sexual well-being.
In ‘going through the mirror’, the woman is invited to explore her body in a non-traditional
way, one in which the body space merges with a sort of representation(s) on the screen
(ibid, 2008). By doing this, Almeida aims to explore technology as an extension of the body,
one that invites the senses of (visual and tactile) representation to operate in tandem with
the physicality inherent to the interaction.
Since their initial conceptualization, the e-Textile Toolkit and Labella have been re-
introduced as The Bitness Project, a creative DIY toolkit for women and girls to learn about
their intimate health. Almeida has presented the project at a women’s summit in the African
country of Cape Verde (2017), where there is an emergent interest in technologies that
support socio-cultural change and break taboos. In aiming to tailor this interactive toolkit to
the contemporarity of this African country, Almeida is currently devising strategies to bring
the toolkit to all ten islands of the Cape Verde archipelago, reaching over 50% of the
country’s population (youth under 24).
On becoming embodied knowers
Similarly to the radical intent put forward by the women’s health movement, that of
involving woman in understandings of their bodies, we strive to carry on such legacy of
empowerment through innovating design in self-knowledge. Our work aims to encourage
women to turn to their bodies and become ‘embodied knowers’ (Tuana, 2006). That is, other
than simply consult medical textbooks to obtain information and understand the intimate
body (ibid, 2006), our desire is to explore ways for technology-enabled materials to
contribute to creating bodily awareness around intimate health and shape and strengthen
knowledge of processes within and between bodies.
The potential of crafting technology to tackle taboos and stigma that continue to be
associated with intimate care, e.g. in gynecological health, opens new directions in the
production of (self-) knowledge. This approach to craft as a practice to both embody and
discover in intimate health goes hand in hand with the most recent democratisation of
science-oriented practices. If, before, access to expert tools and materials were once
contained within the (medical) institution, now they become more readily available; new
information becomes devised and shared through creative and non-traditional approaches.
Moreover, this entails varied levels of engagement and a set of skills that emphasize craft
and making-as-enquiry to explore bodily materiality itself. All in all, this suggests a radical
shift that has just started to enable us to tailor personal experiences with customized
products rather than standardized ones and to speculate on the future directions of intimate
self-care practices.
The toolkits described in this chapter aim to educate and enable women to take up a more
active role in their health and care. Future Flora examines the possibility of using scientific
tools as part of everyday life, one that provides the experience of growing and wearing live
bacteria cultures as a second skin, and Labella extends the body as unclothed in digital
technology; an eTextiles Toolkit that draws from a feminist biology approach to assimilate
notions of embodiment and bodily functions in ways that are conducive to knowledge
production, and TNUC that re-frames and embraces the character of a misunderstood and
misused word as a celebration. These are a series of design interventions that act as
prompts, firstly to break the barriers of silence and taboo associated with intimate care and
urogynecological health, and then to inspire a much-needed active role in self-care. For
woman to become a participant in the culture and the science of their bodies we suggest
that knowledge turns to self-awareness and renewed practices of care. With the dissolution
of boundaries between the body and technologies that are, e.g biologically enhanced or
contraceptive, we see how culture and subjectivity are embedded in these practices.
Nevertheless, it is at such intersections that design in its multiple forms, e.g toolkits,
systems, products, becomes personal. This marks a shift in understandings of health and
care that is crucial and (re)defines female empowerment, one that encourages an increasing
and well-informed dialogue with our bodies.
* We use the gendered term woman to refer to anyone who has a vagina. However, we
acknowledge not all people who have a vagina identify as women, and people who identify
as women do not always have a vagina.
The Human Microbiome Project, a research initiative by the US National Institutes of
Health (2008–2017), investigated the role of microbial flora in human health and disease.
Info adapted from:
The genus Lactobacillus is a taxonomically complex and is composed of over 170 species
that cannot be easily differentiated phenotypically and often require molecular
identification. Although they are part of the normal human gastrointestinal and vaginal flora,
they can also be occasional human pathogens. They are extensively used in a variety of
commercial products including probiotics
The polymorphic fungus Candida albicans is a member of the normal human microbiome.
In most individuals, C. albicans resides as a lifelong, harmless commensal. Under certain
circumstances, however, C. albicans can cause infections that range from superficial
infections of the skin to life-threatening systemic infections
The hacker culture is a subculture of individuals who enjoy the intellectual challenge of
creatively overcoming limitations of software systems to achieve novel and clever
outcomes. The act of engaging in activities in a spirit of playfulness and exploration is termed
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Braun, V. & Wilkinson, S., 2001. (2001) “Socio-cultural representations of the vagina”,
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... Today researchers, artists and designers increasingly engage with living organisms in textile design processes. Bacteria (of different kinds) for example are explored in womens underwear to support the skin flora (Tomasello & Almeida, 2020), they are utilised to dye (Chieza & Ward, 2015), grow (Lee 2007) reinforce textiles (Beyer, 2019) and to make them move (Yao et al., 2015). ...
... The fourth category that is presented is speculative biodesign futures, which are projects that illustrate a certain future that is not reality today. Giulia Tomasello's project "Future Flora" falls under this category (Tomasello, 2020). ...
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The emergence of biodesign opens new ways for textile design and production processes by e.g. using living organisms directly for growing or dyeing textiles. Researchers and designers who engage in such practices often describe their processes as a collaboration with the living. Since maintenance or acts of caring are often fundamental for a successful result, supportive environments for the living are created. However, most of the organisms are only used to carry out a specific task given by the designers’ intention, e.g., excreting pigments to dye a piece of silk, and are killed after the successful completion of the “collaborative” project, which is one of the reasons why the anthropocentric perspective remains an integral part of the textile design process. This research aims to challenge the anthropocentrism inherent in textile design methodologies. Drawing from the work of Donna Haraway, in this exploratory paper, I advocate for exploring more than anthropocentric and multispecies perspectives to textile design by understanding the textile design practice as a way of being-with and staying-with, rather than as a solution-driven practice. Therefore, I revisit and reflect on three stories that derived from encounters between humans and insects in shared textile contexts. The stories on multispecies cohabitation resulted from the autobiographic research ‘Textile Farming’. Weaving connections between contemporary approaches to design, this paper proposes a conceptual framework of the levels that designers can engage with the living e.g., designing with, for, or together with living organisms up to living-with and becoming-with. I found these reflections to offer valuable perspectives to reflect on, analyze, and discuss processes in which living organisms play a role. Consequently, the paper contributes to reflective practice and opens up the textile design practice towards open-ended events as a more than anthropocentric approach to designing textiles.
... A feminist materialist perspective engages care and the body with the materiality of fluids that partake in material experiences of living and the bodily processes involved in matter, such as that of anatomy and physiology. For example, in exploring the body in bio(techno)logy, Tomasello and Almeida (2020) investigates the extent to which bodies are built for and require a lifetime of care -care that relies on everyday knowledge, is affected by misconceptions, stigma or taboo. Care that implies bodywork, which often involves parts of the body that are hidden, involved in sexual functioning or human waste, is tabooed to the extent that it can be a barrier to pursue better care. ...
... DIYbio or citizen science. It is the delicate interaction of nurturing microorganisms at home, inviting women and anyone with vaginal fluids to become participants in the culture and knowledge of science, using ready to wear familiar accessories (intimate wearables) that may encourage an increasing and well-informed dialogue with our bodies (Tomasello and Almeida 2020). Future Flora attends to the role of the microbiome in human health and consists of a vaginal microbiota-based kit that is "as discrete in size as it is disruptive in terms of social and cultural impact" (Fontana 2019). ...
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This paper explores the intersections within bodily materialism and future textiles by inquiring into embodied practices and materiality in care. By placing the body as a site of research, it centres around concepts of bodily care and the body as an ecosystem, one that is always in flux and considers the fluidity of bodies and bodily fluids, such as urine, discharge, breath and sweat, as fluids with potential to design with. It looks at how bodies are acted upon by outside forces, and explore more-than-human relations as co-creators in co-habiting the space of the body and that around it. To illustrate this, the paper introduces a series of design research artefacts that take a variety of approaches to exploring the materiality of care in the everyday. First, an eTextile toolkit that aims to create bodily awareness through hands-on engagement with textile crafting technology, then a biotextile harvesting toolkit that involves the raw material of the intimate body that explores DIYbio in the context of the home, and lastly a set of wearable living material-based explorations that recognize biomimicry and symbiotic relationships in designing for chronic stress. In embracing notions of bodily materialism, this paper explores the bodily abject i.e. fluids and the more-than-human as crucial to engendering new modes of knowing in intimate and personal care through textile-based materials. The paper engages critically with textile design research and practice by placing material that embraces care as ambivalent at the forefront and thus challenging traditional approaches to health and care and, importantly, the design of future textiles.
... Future Flora is a harvesting kit designed for women to treat and to prevent vaginal infections ( figure 3). This kit is composed of an inoculation loop, a spreader, a pipette with freeze-dried bacterial compound and the nutrient agar-agar recipe, plus an instruction leaflet providing the necessary steps to grow and harvest one's own pad at home [25]. These tools -once institutionalised and only accessible to experts in a lab -are easy to obtain and are widely used by communities interested in e.g. ...
... DIYbio or citizen science. On the one hand, the delicate interaction of nurturing microorganisms at home invites women to become participants in the culture and knowledge of science [25]. On the other hand, what does such participation mean as an intimate practice of self-care? ...
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Textiles have a long history of supporting personal health and wellbeing, and textile innovations concerned with the body abound. This paper delves into the biology of the body and brings to the fore its materiality as embodiment to reimagine modes of knowing in intimate care through textiles. It introduces two designerly studies of intimate care in women to advance that material engagement enables knowing and that the fabric of the body is a material of care in itself. In this paper, I embrace an epistemic practice that entwines a feminine sociocultural imaginary that challenges traditional approaches to health and care and, nonetheless, the design of textiles.
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Designing for intimate care remains an underexplored area of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): while technologies for health and wellbeing might be plentiful, technologies for intimate care are limited. Intimate care is associated with personal hygiene, bodily functions and bodily products, and is a lifetime practice that requires well-defined interventions – by the self, or supported by others. With a move to experience, HCI has explored and responded to some of the concepts of intimate care in recent research, by addressing taboo and life disruptions. However, a wider understanding and conceptualization of intimate care work is missing from the broader HCI discourse on health and wellbeing, as well as a distinct framework for negotiating the design of technologies of intimate care. Addressing this space is noteworthy, within a field that designs technologies to support, enhance, and improve human life (Kannabiran et al. 2011). It is possible that this is related to uncertainty regarding the challenges that technology might bring to intimate interactions, particularly the challenges faced in practices that encompass bodywork and proximity to hidden parts of the body, and the impact of troublesome topics upon wellbeing education. The aim of this research is to enquire into the integration of digital technologies and intimate care towards the development of technologies for engagement with intimate care practices in women. I seek to investigate a methodological approach with a focus on the woman to understand the challenges of designing for and with intimate care; explore the qualities of such woman-centered approach in practice. In this thesis I present three case studies that incorporate empirical methods and new designs that I developed throughout this programme of research. These include 1) ethnographic observations of women’s health physiotherapy within a clinic to understand the components of intimate care within a professional setting; 2) a design toolkit that explores e-textiles for teaching female pelvic fitness, delivered through a series of workshops in which discussions that blended humour and laughter made it entertaining and less embarrassing to ask questions and to express curiosity about intimate bodies; 3) Labella, a probe/intimate wearable for self-learning about hidden parts of the female body and a technology which encompasses embodied interaction, that aims to contribute to breaking down the taboo of looking at oneself to help reduce the barrier of self-care. Furthermore, Labella aims to support knowledge of the other, while exploring perceptions of esteem and reliance towards practices of care within the body. These three case studies begin to explore and offer insights on how designing for intimate care is entwined in woman-centered approaches to design. This thesis contributes to interaction design research and outlines a framework for designing technologies for and with intimate care in women. The research highlights how intimate care pervades personal and professional settings, and its significance throughout the lifecourse. Specifically, I contribute to an underexplored area of HCI, women’s health (outside maternal health) by focusing on a woman-centered methodological approach. In doing this, I explore this approach in practice through challenging existing practices of care within women’s health and by offering novel design concepts and devices, in which I explore humour in design as a method to support learning of sensitive topics and as a tool to diminish the taboo nature of the interactions. Lastly, I propose woman-centered design as a novel form of inquiry in design practice research.
Conference Paper
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Women's understandings of their own intimate anatomy has been identified as critical to women's reproductive health and sexual wellbeing. However, talking about it, seeking medical help when necessary as well as examining oneself in order to 'know' oneself is complicated by social-cultural constructions of the vagina, i.e. it is something private, shameful and not to be talked about. In response to this, we designed Labella, an augmented system that supports intimate bodily knowledge and pelvic fitness in women. It combines a pair of underwear and a mobile phone as a tool for embodied intimate self-discovery. In this paper, we describe Labella, and its evaluation with fourteen women, aged 25-63. We show how through situated embodied perception Labella empowers 'looking'. We highlight how the simple act of augmented looking enables the construction of knowledge which ranges from establishing the 'very basics' through to a nuanced understanding of pelvic muscle structure. Finally, we highlight the role of awkwardness and humour in the design of interactions to overcome taboo.
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Although the vagina is a rare topic in the social science literature, numerous socio-cultural representations of the vagina can be found throughout Western societies. Such representations offer a range of cultural resources for making sense of the vagina and its functions, and have implications for women's health and well-being. In this paper, we identify and overview seven persistent negative representations of the vagina: the vagina as inferior to the penis; the vagina as absence; the vagina as (passive) receptacle for the penis; the vagina as sexually inadequate; the vagina as disgusting; the vagina as vulnerable and abused; and the vagina as dangerous. In the last sections, we argue that in order to promote women's sexual and reproductive health, it is necessary to challenge such negative representations, and we offer some alternative - and much more positive - representations of the vagina.
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This is an interview with Professor Lynda Birke (University of Chester, UK), one of the key figures of feminist science studies. She is a pioneer of feminist biology and of materialist feminist thought, as well as of the new and emerging field of hum-animal studies (HAS). This interview was conducted over email in two time periods, in the spring of 2008 and 2010. The format allowed for comments on previous writings and an engagement in an open-ended dialogue. Professor Birke talks about her key arguments and outlooks on a changing field of research. The work of this English biologist is typical of a long and continuous feminist engagement with biology and ontological matters that reaches well beyond the more recently articulated ‘material turn’ of feminist theory. It touches upon feminist issues beyond the usual comfort zones of gender constructionism and human-centred research. Perhaps less recognized than for instance the names of Donna Haraway or Karen Barad, Lynda Birke’s oeuvre is part of the same long-standing and twofold critique from feminist scholars qua trained natural scientists. On the one hand, theirs is a powerful critique of biological determinism; on the other, an acutely observed contemporary critique of how merely cultural or socially reductionist approaches to the effervescently lively and biological might leave the corporeal, environmental or non-human animal critically undertheorized within feminist scholarship. In highlighting the work and arguments of Lynda Birke, it is hoped here to provide an accessible introduction to the critical questions and challenges that circumvent contemporary discussions within feminist technoscience as theory and political practice.
In my first chapter there were allusions to what I called the peculiar temporalities of ‘women’. But what are the consequences of this for feminism; what does it mean to insist that ‘women’ are only sometimes ‘women’, and wouldn’t this suggestion undercut feminism anyway? As part of my argument that it would not, we could start with a fairly straightforward version of what this temporality might be.