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Connecting Females and their Bodies

Connecting Females and their Bodies
From going to work with a painful infection to not feeling comfortable enough to talk with your doctor about your vaginal condition. From feeling ashamed about your period to struggling through vaginal infections or more serious complications without any knowledge or health assistance. These are health issues that females all around the world face once during their lives. For some, this could happen every year. For some, this could happen many times within a single year.

Alma targets the barriers that stop females from reaching out to resources or professional help during health crises. These crises are mostly caused by a lack of quality education in health and sexuality, religious taboos and cultural restrictions. Alma’s aim is to empower females to take control of their bodies and to provide education on how to interiorise health changes. By taking advantage of this knowledge, along with support from health experts and other females that share similar experiences, females may take actions that are in line with what is best for their health. In doing so, we can normalise intimate health issues and bring many others closer to solutions.

Not every female’s story is the same. Wanting to gather female-centred material (information) of our own before Alma becomes a reality, we started organizing workshops in Rio de Janeiro (Brasil), Milano (Italy), Bangkok (Thailand), Basel (Switzerland), Penang (Malaysia) and Favara (Sicily, Italy, online).

For these workshops, we requested the help of UX designers to develop trust exercises, sharing activities and a comfortable environment to help females to share their experiences. We also got invaluable insight and direction from two sociologists recommended by the Re-Fream team, on the language used to address participants and the correct way to gain trust and confidence in such a delicate topic as vaginal infections. These workshops were a success and allowed us to gather a lot of information and ideas from the participants that later on would be used on the User Experience of Alma itself. 

Through our workshops, we realised that all females are subject to sociocultural taboos and prejudices regarding their bodies and health, independent of their individual backgrounds.

However, there were noticeable differences from country to country due to superstitions and the primary educational level on this matter. For most of the females, the main sources of information were their female role models, their families and close friends, with whom they maintained a level of openness in communication. However, we found that in many situations, it was in fact the partner of the female who spoke out about health issues, incentivising greater proactivity in engaging with health problems. We must always keep in mind that a culture may be very restrictive, manifesting or suppressing behaviours based on stigma. As a consequence, many females may neither be able to take care of themselves nor open up and address their situation.

With Alma, we wanted to be as inclusive as possible, considering all perceptions regarding the use of technology in the context of intimate health issues.

We found that the conversations that came up during the workshops gave us meaningful insights that were necessary for defining a holistic product that females all over the world could appreciate. By carefully examining the emotions surrounding intimate health, we started to find a direction for a fashion design that could communicate how data should feel like and how we are connected to our bodies.

During the workshops, we discussed with each participant their different approaches toward vaginal self-care, whilst also carefully examining the emotional consequences of changing routines, and the feelings of impotence and uncertainty. 

We then focused on education, how it underscores the differences in behaviour from person to person and the fact that the source of that education varies from their family to medical experts and school programmes. In certain cases, having a strong role model empowers young girls to take action and gain control over their bodies. However, this does not always occur and we believe that education should be the key enabler to remedy this problem. When access to basic sexual health education is lacking, incorrect behaviour originating from religious orthodoxy or cultural traditions may take over. The taboos imposed by cultural norms can affect the ability for females to take care of intimate or sexual health issues, causing some to even ignore crucial signs of poor physical and/or mental health. 

Finally, we talked about the state-of-the-art in intimate health products and practices, exploring the user requirements that should be addressed in future products. We discussed the concepts of privacy and community sharing of information, whilst also touching on the importance of feeling heard and supported, and the significance of being integrated into the health system to feel proactive in the care of one’s own body.

To dive deeper into the needs and specifications that Alma’s future product should fulfil, we surveyed close to 350 females from across the world (predominantly in Europe) with ages ranging from 15 to 61 years old.

The survey asked each respondent to voice any concerns toward technology in intimate health, whilst also looking into any body metrics that they would like monitored with regards to their intimate health and how Alma’s product should be designed to enable this. The answers we received were myriad, with interest in tracking factors related to diet, blood pressure and body temperature. There was also a strong desire for education on infections and how these relate to vaginal fluids. Such information would allow females to interpret how their routines influence the odour, texture and colour of their vaginal fluids.

At the beginning of June, Isabel joined the Alma team. She is a Medical Anthropologist and has been directing the User Experience Analysis. Alongside Giulia, Julia, Robin and Max from Fraunhofer IZM, qualitative analysis of the results from the workshops has been evolving to give rise to the definition of 8 Personas, or potential future users, of Alma. To differentiate between the many user situations and perspectives, we decided to categorize (consider) the data on the basis of several criteria:

  • access to technology and the will to use it
  • access to education
  • willingness to share and form a community.

 By coming up with 8 distinct user experiences based on the above criteria, we were able to understand many of the requirements and restrictions arising from the different experiences that Alma must consider.

On the other hand, Ryo, Tommaso and Eve focused on the quantitative analysis of the survey results, helping to understand any correlations between answers for different questions and therefore trends in the respondents’ answers  (e.g. For respondents that have had more than 3 vaginal infections per year, how willing are they to share information and experiences to form a community of support). 

After compiling all of the insights, Robin created a Planetarium, a tool that helps us to create a story-line along with the user journey that could include values and concepts such as sustainability and social involvement, leading to a business structure that gathers all the services, products and tools that Alma can offer to its users. The Planetarium has been a great system to gain perspective on the project and bring some clarity to all the trends and global connections we found, whilst also giving priority to those more relevant and discard the ones that could affect and worsen the experience for others.


Since we believe that sharing knowledge is the key to creating a healthy community, we wanted to share with you some insights from our experiences that we have gathered from this long process of user research:

**The meaning of intimate care

Due to taboos and social impositions, intimate healthcare is understood as being on the same line as sexual health. It is true that many practices towards a healthy routine and lifestyle connect both sexual and intimate healthcare, but the main link lies in the taboo and shame on intimate problems and the concept of purity and the body of a females kept intact. 

Hygiene can be a tool to stay healthy, but more with a hiding performance with the aim to display that purity image. 

Many females also suffer from a disconnection from their own bodies when a problem that changes the way it behaves appears. Through intimate care and products like Alma, we can regenerate the bonding with our genitals and recover our sexual and physical identity.

**Educating when there is no education

The lack of education on intimate health matters forces both girls and boys to first learn by imitation. This is a successful practice when there is an open figure with expertise, but without it young people tend to fall into self-educating. Since the sources of information are not normally very clear or accessible, misinformation regularly occurs. The vast amount of data and the inability to discern what is right leads to malpractice, even scaring females and keeping them from being very active. When this happens, females tend to resort to health systems (if accessible) and allow the health-care professionals to take care of them.

Furthermore, there is neither a unified vocabulary nor an agreed-upon way of speaking about the female body. This leads to problems such as a lack of a public voice when discussing issues of female health, reinforcing existing taboos and not having the tools to educate or even ask questions. For example, conversations with health specialists who look only from a clinical perspective and lack empathy lead some females to feel even more separated from their bodies and ultimately reject their advice. Hygiene is spoken of only when the body is objectified, and therefore the biggest drivers to consciously acknowledge the need for intimate care practices are menstruations and infections, as they are socially constructed in terms of dirtiness, lack of hygiene and impurity of the female body. 

**Underwear and its key role in self-care

Underwear can be the first trigger to understanding if something is wrong. Discharge leaves a mark that is difficult to ignore. Just by observing and monitoring it, we can recognise how our body changes

Depending on the underwear we use, it can facilitate the appearance of vaginal infections or symptoms such as odour, taste and discomfort. This can lead to a lack of self-esteem and disconnection from our intimacy and identity. On the other hand, underwear can be used as a tool to empower a change in our daily behaviour, helping us to stay in touch with our bodies.

Freshness and cleanliness are the two major sensations that females look for in their underwear and intimate care. A comfortable and breathable product that connects with the user’s lifestyle and represents the female’s eroticism can empower the wearer to be more self-conscious and present with their intimate care. Products like Alma should focus on giving a sense of safety and control, while still maintaining the essence of the person wearing them. 


Our two new integrations to the Alma team:

Ryo Mizuta– Ryo is currently finishing a PhD at the University of Cambridge in the department of electrical engineering, where his research focuses on the production and characterisation of two-dimensional nanomaterials such as graphene for applications in future electronic devices. Outside of his research, he is strongly passionate about exploring commercial opportunities for nanotechnology in general, particularly in the healthcare space. 

As a team-member of ALMA, Ryo contributes his expertise in nanotechnology, materials science and data analysis towards the production of a prototype biosensor, focusing on the sensor hardware development.

 

Isabel Farina– Isabel has a multidisciplinary background from human rights, sociology, Narrative medicine and healthcare systems studies, which feed her passion for medical Anthropology.

She’s starting an interdisciplinary PhD in management engineering and service design at Politecnico of Milan, looking to the healthcare model of Social Prescribing from UK to Italy. She has previously worked as Research Lead at the design company Experientia,and as consultant for DEAR Onlus and Mad In Design, both associations engaged in human-centered design and participatory design for health and fragility. She has also developed Inside The Bodies a creative narrative medicine workshop for gender health. Isabel recently joined Alma’s team, as medical anthropologist and supporting the team with UX research and qualitative analysis. She loves to mix art, research and health topic especially with social and political relevance.

Follow @gitomasello and @femalebiophilia on Instagram for daily updates on Alma and other projects by Giulia Tomasello.
Thanks for reading! More info on gitomasello.com

 

Hub Berlin - Giulia Tomasello
Author: Hub Berlin - Giulia Tomasello

Giulia Tomasello is a designer innovating in women’s healthcare combining biotechnology and interactive wearables. Winner of Re-FREAM and STARTS Prizes both awarded from EU Horizon 2020 for her projects Alma and Future Flora. This year winner of World Omosiroi Japanese Award for her multidisciplinary work. By designing alternative scenarios and acting as creative thinker, Giulia questions our notions of wellbeing to develop innovative tools in the intersection of medical and social sciences.Coded Bodies is her teaching platform designed to learn basics of soft wearables and the exploration of biological textiles. She is currently visiting lecturer at Politecnico of Milano.

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