Menstrual machineries

People who read this blog are well acquainted with my interest in pervasive computing and sheep, but I’ve been working on a smaller project for a few years and this year I want to turn it into something more substantial.

I’ve been thinking about it as technologies of menstruation, but I think that menstrual machineries is much catchier, and actually more in sync with what interests me. Machines comprise any number of devices that turn, shape, mold or finish things, and machinery refers to the machines constituting a production apparatus. Menstrual machineries, then, comprise all the devices (material and social) that produce menstruation, and by extension, the menstruating woman.

A quick look through the Museum of Menstruation will give you a sense of the incredibly rich visual and material culture associated with menstruation throughout history, and existing cultural histories range from theĀ  academic to the popular. But I find myself imagining something more along the lines of a catalog of machines: absorbing machines, collecting machines, cleansing machines, relaxing machines, etc.

One of the reasons I find menstruation so interesting is because it makes me wonder about inconspicuous consumption; the $13 billion a year feminine “hygiene” industry produces vast amounts of materials that are effectively hidden from (public) view. Rebecca Ginsberg published an interesting 1996 article on the topic: in “Don’t Tell, Dear” she explains that the consumption of tampons and pads does not lend itself to expressing identity or status as clearly as the consumption of other products because their use is expected to be as discrete as possible. These acts of discrete consumption put women into particular relationships with their bodies, as well as offering other people particular ways of understanding the menstruating woman.

[Image: Screen capture from Libra Invisibles TV advert.]

The “Aisle 8a” episode of animated sitcom King of the Hill does a brilliant job of showing how uncomfortable certain people can be around menstruation, even if it only means going down the feminine “hygiene” product aisle at the local store. And, indeed, any time I’ve lectured on the topic there have been men who expressly tell me that 1) they are uncomfortable with the subject, or 2) the subject is inappropriate for public discussion. I’m fine with the first–all sorts of things make me uncomfortable. But the second quite offends me; I don’t like the idea of shrouding biological processes in mystery and I don’t like the idea of censoring people’s everyday experiences. And it’s that last point that drives this project for me.

What form does this story need to take in order to discourage people from dismissing it out of hand?

Related: Cultural discomfort as design challenge?

1 Comment

  1. Carol Smillie
    27th October 2014

    Even in the 3 years since this blog was posted, things are finally changing. You are completely correct in that is is almost sinister to shroud a biological process such as this in mystery…after all, we’d all cease to exist without it.
    Can we finally be a bit more grown up and accept the whole menstruation process as normal and stop being so pathetic about it pleeeeaaase??
    We launched our DiaryDoll Pants 2 years ago, and after John Lewis saw it as a fantastic opportunity, doors are now opening everywhere, and conversations about periods are far less awkward. I’m particularly encouraged by the fact that this generation of girls are far more open and honest about it all, perhaps because they have access to such horrors as porn and violence on their phones every day?