Justice Rug/ Rattvisematta

Rattvisematta, Provoking debate around the Swedish Pension System

Project Report for Bachelors project at Konstfack Stockholm, Spring Semester 2018

Introduction

Today Sweden has a feminist government, but what does that mean for systemic equality or rather the lack of it? From my short time in Sweden, I have been amazed at the level of progress of gender equality here that has been enabled through discussions and actions. With the #metoo and #timesup anti-sexual harassment protests at the forefront of mainstream media attention, now feels like the right time to also bring other structural, feminist, discrimination and equality issues to the forefront of public debate and discussion.

For this personal in-depth design project have chosen to explore the built-in injustices that play an intrinsic role in the Swedish pension system. In my project, I have been exploring methods of developing and using engagement artifacts as pedagogic tools, protest objects and conversation starters for the Swedish pensions debate. Part of this has been working to develop ways to visually, physically and spatially represent injustices in the system to engage more people in the pension system debate, as well as raise questions about equality beyond pensions to other intrinsically unfair infrastructures. I have researched and designed through an intersectional and intersectional feminist lens, considering the notions of family and immigration in 2018. I have also touched on the ideologies of statist individualism, justice, nationhood, ethnic belonging, freedom and deservingness/ worthiness, as part of investigating the main narrative of the discussions within parliament and pensionsgruppen, the cross-party government workgroup on pensions.

Intentions

This project is an example of adversarial designed as coined by DiSalvo. It is not design for politics or political design, but rather design to provoke political discussions. “For democracy to flourish, spaces of confrontation must exist, and contestation must occur. Perhaps the most basic purpose of adversarial design is to make these spaces of confrontation and provide resources and opportunities for others to participate in contestation.”  (DiSalvo, C., 2012)  This discursive design project is an exploration of designing for political debate, by “articulating agonism through design” (DiSalvo, C., 2012).  although I’ve taken this approach I’ve extended the notion of agonism through confrontation and contestation to include raising awareness of political issues through facilitating debate and discussion. My project aims to design tools to engage people in political debate surrounding the Swedish pension system.  It is an attempt to  “engage in a micropolitics of disruption, intervention, and education” (DiSalvo, C., 2012) by collaborating with a grassroots level political activist group, Pensionsrattvisa.

In my project, I intended to work with the group in a collaborative manner, to co-design a tool that will enable and empower them to communicate their campaign messages to a broader reach of people through creating a space and tools to facilitate discussions and debates about the pension system.

Design Method

I began this project by listening to online feminist podcasts, watching debates on youtube and interacting with online feminist groups and reading news articles which enlightened me to the inequalities and injustices built into pension systems around the developed world, as well as some of the political aspects of how pension systems work. Further reading confirmed that this is a major issue of concern in Sweden, which has sprouted activist groups including Tantpatrullen and Pensionsrättvisa, as well as drawn the attention of political parties, including Feministiskt Initiativ, as well as multiple trade unions. The project kicked-off when I attended a Feministisk Initiativ event where they were using the issue of pensions as part of their campaign to promote their party, and I  met Farida, who leads the agenda on pensions with FI. In this project, it was very important for me to remain politically independent and unaffiliated so that I could design for the context of independent campaigning for social justice, rather than for politics or a political context. I also felt like this was the context in which my objective viewpoint was a real asset. Farida told me about Pensionsrättvisa (Pensions Justice), a politically unaffiliated group that campaigns for fairer pensions for groups of people who are disadvantaged or whose work is undervalued by the system. The Pensionsrättvisa group is mainly made up of female 2nd generation migrants to Sweden who feel disappointed, fearful, and cheated by the government that upholds a system that is structurally rigged against them, as well as other major groups such as Swedish women. The group has an intersectional agenda and campaigns to spread awareness for the problems which they hope will eventually lead to a complete overhaul of the system.

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Feministisk Initiativ event

The second member of the group that I met was Loretta Platts. I visited her at Stockholms Universitetet, where she works as a researcher investigating pensions. Loretta’s views and opinions were particularly valuable since she was able to provide a fairly objective overview of the pension system and compare it to the UK pension system, on which she has previously worked, and I am somewhat familiar.

It was at this point I began to understand what Pensionsrättvisa were campaigning for- an awareness of the highly privatised system that merits paid work within the Swedish commercial sector, without meriting lower paid care sector and education sector work or other unpaid work such as domestic work. The pensions system mirrors the inequality in the labour market. On top of this, during the working life society places more value on paid work it is possible to value unpaid work in the pensions system and iron out inequalities felt during working life.

Gender is also a key factor here since “Since the end of the 1950s, Sweden has moved from a system of single-earner to double-earner households”, as well as this, “With the major reform of the Swedish pension system in 1998, pensions became more closely linked to the lifetime earnings of the individual.” (Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) With this system, a parent who takes time from work to look after children is at risk of having a lower pension than their partner who continues working. Groups who are most at risk from losing out are single mothers, and with the rising popularity of women choosing to have children alone, and with 50% of Swedish adults living alone this is a growing issue. “It should be noted that in many countries, the risk of poverty at an older age is higher for women than men” (Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) so this is not unique to Sweden, but with the state’s focus on individualist policies it’s a problem that the inequalities between genders aren’t ironed out during retirement.

It is also felt that Sweden doesn’t value the contributions of migrants since in the current pension system immigrants need to have lived in Sweden for 40 years (by age 65) to receive the full garatipension, otherwise the pension amount is reduced by a factor for each year until they hit the minimum level of the äldreförsörjningsstöd. “In recent decades Sweden has received an increasingly large number of middle-aged and older migrants, many originating from middle- and low-income countries.”(Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) It is also difficult for these older migrants to obtain a Swedish occupational pension since “the number of years before becoming established in the Swedish labour market as a worker increases rapidly with age at immigration among migrants from middle- and low-income countries.” (Gustafsson, Mac Innes & Österberg, 2018) The combination of these factors has a devastating effect on the quality of life for retired migrants.

When I met Loretta I was also convinced to change the way I approached the topic of pension inequality. Prior to this I was convinced that pensions were a problem for older people, however, discussions with her led me to realise that pensions are an issue for young people since they have time to fix the system before it impacts them directly.  Going forward from this I decided to focus my inquiries on people younger than 40.

I began my investigation into young peoples relationship to pensions, and pensions’ place on the political agenda by attending a youth political debate at SACO union with members of Pensionsrättvisa. All of the speakers were under 35 and male, and although everything was in Swedish I was still able to grasp that few of the debate topics or issues brought up were of real importance to Pensionsrättvisa, and the speakers seemed entirely ignorant of how the system worked and entirely naïve to the realities of the problems within the pension system. This experience led me to understand where on the journey to a fully reformed fair and equal pension system Pensionsrättvisa is and that is right at the beginning of the journey. I recognised that for the changes they want to see to begin to be discussed they need to shed light on and spread awareness of the injustices in the pension system in both political and general public spheres. I found a distinct lack of visual material to support these discussions, so decided to proceed by developing some visual materials myself. On pensionsmyndigheten.se (the government pension authority) they use triangles represent the parts of the pension. I see these triangles as direct propaganda since the perfect triangle isn’t a reality for many pensioners in Sweden.

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Visualisation of “Real” Pension Triangles

I hacked pensionsmyndighetens visual language to make a series of triangles that visually questioned this propaganda and could be used in discussions on equality.

Further frustration is found in that the pension system works well for the ‘ideal citizen’ but punishes those who deviate. In order to facilitate discussions on the idolisation of and advantages felt by ‘perfect citizens,’ I began to work with making and hacking objects, The first objects I hacked were 50s style American dolls of a pilot and air hostess. The woman was depicted as tall, impossibly thin and blonde, the man was also tall and blonde with a muscular physique.  They represent a normative, heterosexual white “couple?”. The dolls come with a series of outfits, including multiple work uniforms for different occupations, as well as casual clothes. These dolls shocked and offended people when they were used as a tool to talk about the pension system and its idolisation of white Swedish born middle class working men. However they were not the ideal tool for discussion, since the shock factor got in the way of real discussions of a system that supports prevailing cultural ideals.

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Workshop with Paperdolls

For the next iteration of the dolls, I took a different tack, choosing to instead represent the diversity of people living in Sweden. This focus is something that carried throughout the project to my final proposal.  I chose to have these dolls either in casual clothing or underwear to represent them without class or occupation, and to focus on race and gender, which are two main factors that disadvantage people within the pension system, irrespective of profession or other factors. These dolls proved to be incredibly useful in workshops with Pensionsrättvisa since they provided a visual and physical representation/ manifestation with which to discuss groups of people who are profoundly disadvantaged in the system. We used the dolls as a tool to provoke empathy and to visualise the system on a human level while reading academic reports. Since the reports represent groups as statistics and use complicated terms and not always obvious demographic groups that can make the report read as biased, the dolls made it easier to dissect and analyse the information through discussion.

I have explored creating space for protest in a range of environments during the course of my project as well as considering utilising humour in my approach. An example of a project that does this is “Kittens Editorial Collective features radical leftist writing only alongside pictures of cute kittens” … “In the absence of “properly political” visual expression at hand, the stuff that is readily available, the internet’s equivalent of cardboard gets politicised. Another example of a campaigner that used humour is Alice Skinner, a female cartoonist that uses “tongue in cheek illustrations” to raise feminist and equality discussions. Although most of her work is displayed on virtual platforms, I find it inspiring as the cartoon medium makes it accessible to wider audiences through humour. “The joke has the capacity to resist and overturn the frame of reference imposed by any political status quo” I explored using humour to highlight social injustices by creating some memes about the system.

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Although I found the humour to be powerful for highlighting specific issues, the complexity of the pensions system was lost in this format. Perhaps a more skilled comedian could find ways to navigate and represent complex issues, however I decided to stick with using artefacts and visualisations as empathy tools for understanding injustices.

As my understanding of the pension system grew, as did my desire to help others learn about the complex system. I was also interested in bringing protest into the home environment and exploring how children and their toys and games could form part of an activist protest.

I decided to work with the monopoly game board and game structure since I felt that it could act as a provocative symbol for the intrinsically financial and capitalist aspects of the pension system. I took a similar stance to Kristi Hollinger, with rules for monopoly in a stratified society (University of Missouri, n.d.) by rigging the game so some were privileged and others disadvantaged, by assigning personas to the 2nd generation of paper dolls I had been using and using the dolls as counters in the game. Some of the disadvantages that I built into the game included being a migrant, having children, taking extended sick leave from work and looking after elderly parents or children who need extra care.

I tested the game with some young people who were unfamiliar with the pension system and they found it shocking and educational, as well as fun. However, similarly to the 50s American paper dolls the game provided shock but didn’t facilitate discussion.

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Testing the Monopoly Game with Young People

Next, I brought the monopoly game and dolls to a meeting with members of Tantpatrullen. I asked them, to tell me about the problems in the pension system, which they did at both a systematic level and through their own personal stories. I asked them to use clay to visualise the injustices in the pension system. This garnered a range of forms and representations, but to my surprise, they also “hacked” the monopoly board and dolls to illustrate their points.

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Hearing Personal Stories with Tantpatrullen

I found their painful stories emotional, and I gained a deeper understanding of the suffering caused by an unfair system. However, each individual story is highly complex, and as such, make it difficult to visualise broader systemic flaws that affect many people. It is easy to get caught up in personal stories, however, they do not communicate the built-in systemic injustices. With this insight, I felt it to be important to find a language that could communicate broad injustices for groups of people.

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Hacking the Monopoly Board

I decided to upgrade my paper dolls to Barbie and Ken dolls since I felt that they were life-like enough to provoke empathy, whilst not being seen as real individuals. I was first drawn to Barbie and Ken as I see them to be an example of idealised human form in contemporary life. The pension system can be said to be based on the “ideal” citizen, as it unfairly favours the Swedish born male.  In contemporary Swedish society, Barbie is seen as a controversial toy, because it is said to promote unrealistic ideals to children. I think that the pension system should also be a source of debate for also only representing “ideal” citizens.

I also recognised that the key function the monopoly board played for Tantpatrullen was in providing a platform to discuss the multi-faceted and complex issues related to the pension system. I made the decision to scale up the game board to be a rug that would create a space to discuss the pension system and to use visuals such as those from the visualisation workshop with Tantpatrullen to facilitate those conversations.

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Image from 2017 Womens March, credit USA Today

I also like to considered utilising elements of craft, “The beauty of craft is that at first, it can seduce its audience. People are drawn in by the sheer skill and time taken to create a  piece. I believe this allows a dialogue to open up where the viewer can be challenged intellectually. There is an expectation that craft work is gentle, decorative and safe- but once an  audience is engaged it is the ideal place to explore radical and controversial ideas.” (Flood & Grindon, 2014) The pussyhat project is an example of a craft-based feminist protest object that focused on inclusion.

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Group Making Pussyhats, credit The Pussyhat Project

The object acted as a symbol for their campaign, whilst also uniting people through making the hats. By publishing an open source knitting pattern online, the pussyhat project allowed those who were unable to attend a Women’s’ March in 2017 to participate. The project explored notions of women’s’ craft and the power of the handmade to enable women to feel like they could physically make a difference to the current social situation. This example is particularly important since the project was so widely adopted. However, in the context of 2018 Women’s marches, there have been questions of whether pussyhats are truly inclusive since some say they are a literal symbol of white female genitalia, and therefore exclude women of colour and promote Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. I would like to ensure my work is as inclusive as possible, whilst raising social issues.

I intended to make the rug a tool that would be as useful as possible, and something that would be as adopted and used by campaigners so I decided to use collaborative design techniques with Pensionsrättvisa to design some of the elements of the rug to represent issues of importance to them.

I held a workshop where like with Tantpatrullen I asked them to use coloured clay to visualise the injustices they saw in the pension system. Each member came up with several symbols, which were a mixture of both issues on a systemic level, as well as some of their personal experiences. I then asked them to cut out shapes from coloured, patterned paper to symbolise these injustices. 

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Collage of Visual Elements

These visualisations formed the basis for the aesthetic design of the rug.  I took some aesthetic and process inspiration from Matisse’ cut-outs, as I developed the brightly coloured abstract forms on the rug by collaging the elements from the workshop with my own symbols and visualisations of what I had learned was important to the group. I also drew on Josef Frank’s rugs as an aesthetic reference. They also employed a strong use of colour, and abstract shapes that dominate a room.

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Joseph Frank, Matta nr 1

At the co-design workshop, the members of Pensionsrättvisa began to use their visualisations to debate amongst themselves about the system, as well as to educate myself about some of the injustices, the carpet creates a physical space on a larger scale to do the same thing.

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Co-design Workshop

I ideated and sketched out ideas before presenting a full-scale paper model in my 75% presentation.  After the presentation, I took the prototype back to Pensionsrättvisa where we tested it with passers-by and refined the final design.

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Testing the Paper Prototype

Design Proposal

My proposal is a large rug, size 8A0 (3364 × 2378) that creates a space in which to discuss the pension system as well as acts as a tool to facilitate these discussions and debates. Since I used co-design methods to create the rug the people I have been working with feel engaged with the project and like they have real ownership over the outcome. An example of this is that I directly took the red wave-like symbol from the co-design workshop, and now it acts as a visual reference for a personal narrative.

The rug is made up of sections that represent different groups of people in the system, as well as allowing the rug to be transported easily in several pieces. The colours are bright and eye-catching so that the rug will be seen from a distance. A key part of the design is that the shapes on the rug are fairly abstract representations of concepts, which facilitates the dialogue between the people standing on the rug. Since different activists have different focuses the rug will change meaning depending on who is using it.

Summary and Reflections

In this project, I set out to design boundary objects to empower and enable Pensionsrättvisa to bring the pensions debate to wider audiences.

In this project, I challenged myself to research and collaborate with several groups of people and to practice and develop my co-design methods in a truly collaborative participatory design project.

I found the topic of the Swedish pension system to be multi-faceted, sensitive and complex since it personally affects the quality of life of everyone who lives in Sweden, and those who I collaborated with had personal first-hand experiences of the injustices in the system.

My proposal is not a critique of the system, nor does it focus on my personal views, however, it is my visualisation of the campaign story and personal narratives of Pensionsrättvisa in the form of a boundary activist object that functions as a campaign tool for the group.

I have found it incredibly rewarding to work with members of Tantpatrullen and to collaborate with Pensionsrättvisa. I intend to continue working with Pensionsrättvisa beyond this project to further develop the monopoly game as well as other games that fulfill the need for non-biased pedagogic tools to explain and teach about the pension system.

During the exhibition, it was fantastic to see members of Pensionsrättvisa using the rug as I’d intended. It was difficult initially to get people to walk on the rug, but after a few days the rug started to get a bit dirty and people felt more confident walking on it. I think this is an issue relating to the context of the exhibition, and shouldn’t be a problem when the rug is in other environments.  I could tell that the members of Pensionsrättvisa enjoyed using the rug as a tool, and also telling people about their involvement in making the rug. The rug seemed to be also well received by members of the public, who felt able to talk about their own experiences with the pension system, with the help of a visual aid.

I hope that the rug will prove to be an invaluable tool for Pensionsrättvisa going forward and that it will contribute as a visual and physical reference in the growing pensions debate.

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The Rug Being Used at the Konstfack Spring Exhibition 2018

References

Anxo, D., Pailhé, A., Flood, L., Solaz, A., Mencarini, L., & Tanturri, M. (2007). Time Allocation between Work and Family over the Life-Cycle: A Comparative Gender Analysis of Italy, France, Sweden, and the United States. IZA, (DP No. 3193).

Blog. (2018). PUSSYHAT PROJECT™. Retrieved 15 January 2018, from https://www.pussyhatproject.com/blog/

Creutzet, A. (2017). Välkommen till jobbet! Rättigheter, möjligheter och skyldigheter för dig som är ny på den svenska arbetsmarknaden. Stockholm: KPA Pension.

DiSalvo, C. (2018). Adversarial Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Flood, C., & Grindon, G. (2014). Disobedient Objects. London: V & A Publishing.

Gandini, E. (2016). The Swedish Theory of Love. Sweden.

Gauntlet, D. (2011). Making is Connecting, The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Gay, R. (2014). Bad Feminist (1st ed.). New York: HarperCollins.

Gustafsson, B., Mac Innes, H., & Österberg, T. (2018). Older people in Sweden without means: on the importance of age at immigration for being ’twice poor’. Cambridge University Press.

Lindberg, E. (2018). Pensionssveket, Ett ohållbart pensionssytem. Katalys – Institut För Facklig Idéutveckling, (No:36).

MacLuhan, M., & Fiore, Q. (2008). The Medium is the Massage. London: Penguin Books.

Malpass, M. (2017). Critical Design in Context. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

McCormick, C. (2017). Magic City, The Art of the Street. Årsta: Document Press & From Here To Fame Publishing.

Metahaven. (2013). Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design, And Politics (1st ed.). Moscow: Strelka Press.

Över 150 000 kvinnliga pensionärer lever i fattigdom. (2015). ETC. Retrieved 10 January 2018, from https://www.etc.se/debatt/over-150-000-kvinnliga-pensionarer-lever-i-fattigdom

Pensioner, Vi har ett pensionssystem som är blint för det obetalda arbetet. (2018). Feministiskt initiativ. Retrieved 12 February 2018, from https://feministisktinitiativ.se/politik/en-ny-syn-pa-arbete/pensioner/

Sydney Opera House Talks & Ideas. (2015). How to be a Feminist Panel, All About Women 2015. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jzcs4ti_bdI

Tantpatrullen. (2018). Tantpatrullen.se. Retrieved 1 February 2018, from https://tantpatrullen.se/

University of Missouri. Teaching Justice, Solving Social Justice Problems through University Education. Ashgate.

Menstrual Cup for Girls

Challenging accepted menstrual hygiene norms by presenting a relevant menstrual hygiene and education proposal for young girls in Sweden today

Konstfack, Autumn Semester, 2017

INTRODUCTION

For this personal in-depth design project I have decided to focus on menstrual hygiene products. A field of products that I believe has very narrow offerings. Menstrual products are used differently by each individual in an attempt to fulfil their unique needs, but the one commonality between them all is that no product on the market is even close to being perfect. As a field that has seen little innovation over time and affects roughly half of the world’s population at some point in their lives, there is huge opportunity for development in menstrual hygiene. This project focuses on the context of Sweden and developed societies within Europe and presents a relevant proposal for menstrual hygiene and education for young girls in Sweden today.

INTENTIONS

I decided to investigate menstrual products, with the goal of designing a product or service that responds to the needs of women and girls in Northern and Western Europe, as highlighted by my own ethnographic research. I identified the need to consider cultural tensions surrounding womens’ health and menstruation, which vary greatly throughout the world.  Approaching the subject through a practical lens and focusing my research on the experiences of others rather than my own experiences I aim to create a well balanced, practical and well-informed proposal.

The world feminine hygiene market is growing, dominated by disposable sanitary pads and is expected to reach $42.72 billion by 2022. (Potdar, M. 2015) While disposable sanitary products may be the best option in places where hygiene standards are low and access to clean running water is limited, this is not the same environment as what is considered to be developed societies within Europe. My intention is to design a solution to menstrual care and hygiene for women in the increasingly sustainability and health conscious Swedish society.  My goal is to develop a product or service that will help women to learn about and appreciate their bodies, tackle misconceptions of menstrual hygiene, prioritise ergonomics and ease of use and ensure environmental impact is at a minimum.

Menstrual Cup patent drawing
Figure 1

Menstrual cups; defined as a product that is inserted into the vaginal canal during menstruation, to collect menstrual fluid have been commercially available in the US since 1937(Finley, H. 2017) when the American Leona W. Chalmers patented a product that looks almost identical to the main brands of Mooncup, Lunette, and Divacup today. My intention is to challenge the accepted standard of reusable menstrual hygiene products to create a product that is truly designed for comfort and ease of use for women today.

DESIGN PROCESS

I started this project with the broad theme of menstruation but found a focus on the attitudes people have towards menstrual products. I conducted online research to learn about different menstrual products available in Europe and the US. I was amazed by the number of different products I came across and recognised the need to discuss them with women to learn about their attitudes towards them. I started my ethnographic research with a group of menstruating women aged between 20 and 26 from diverse European and US backgrounds. I went on to work with the same core group of 10 women, along with others throughout my project. I will refer to them as my research group throughout this report.

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Figure 2

Using photographs and physical examples of a broad range of menstrual hygiene products as prompts, I learned that there are many different cultural tensions surrounding the choices women make in their intimate hygiene products. Statements such as “in my culture, you only get tampons when you’re not a virgin anymore”. Cultural differences were particularly prevalent since my research group was predominantly made up of international students. Comments such as “that’s gross” and “I don’t want to be touching up there” suggest that in our sterile world menstruation feels dirty and unhygienic to women, where of course it is a natural and frequent biological process. At this point, I began to fully realise the importance of my proposal challenging these perceptions, and encouraging self-care and interest in one’s own menstrual health. I was curious to learn if men held the same opinions, so I conducted a survey online. Questions included “how do you feel about menstrual blood?” which gathered very varied responses, most were indifferent, but a few were very negative, such as “uncomfortable” and “don’t want to see it”. I also queried how much education they had received on menstruation at home and at school. With the mean rating for school education 42% and home education 21%, it was clear that menstruation has not been openly discussed with boys in the majority of homes and in many schools. I recognise that this is an aspect of menstrual education that needs to be challenged and plan to address this need in a future project.

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Figure 3

In order to better understand some of the diverse personal challenges that each individual menstruating woman faces I decided to design and deploy research probes. I asked several women to keep journals about their menstruation. The journals had very few prompts or questions to encourage the woman to consider the journal as a private and personal artifact, in which she could physicalise her thoughts and feelings and decide the most important information to be included. As well as providing me with interesting insights, most of the women reported that they had never paid much attention to thinking about their menstruation or its psychological impact, and found it to be a valuable personal exercise to manifest their feelings in a physical form.

In all of my research group engagements, I worked with both people who used disposable sanitary pads and tampons, as well as those who used reusable menstrual cups. By observing through a practical lens, menstrual cups could be described as an overwhelmingly more favourable option than any other disposable or reusable menstrual product as they are easy and quick to clean, cost-effective and produce very little waste. I felt it important to consider the cultural tensions and perceptions that dissuade women from choosing to use menstrual cups.  From discussions with my research group as well as extensive online research in forums and on youtube, I have drawn the following conclusions.

Many women don’t feel comfortable touching their vulva and vaginal canal during their menstrual period. I have observed that this is partly due to the perception of menses as unhygienic and something that should be carefully wrapped up and disposed of in a special sanitary bin. The use of applicator tampons is proof that some women wish to remain at a distance from their menses.  There is also a learning curve to using a menstrual cup which is off-putting for many women.

Before and after each period menstrual cups require sterilisation by boiling. Through research group discussions I learned that this is a barrier as they would wish to be able to clean their menstrual cup in privacy, away from male family members or flatmates. Part of the secrecy and shame is fuelled by the object itself, as most are clear white in colour and stain a rusty brown colour over time from the iron-rich menses.

Another perceived barrier is that most women prefer to rinse their menstrual cup under water before re-insertion after emptying. In most public washrooms the sinks are out with the cubicle, making it uncomfortable to rinse a menstrual cup since this is not currently socially acceptable in European culture. In theory, the majority of women shouldn’t need to empty their menstrual cup when they are out. However since popular disposable products do require changing throughout the day and most women will have had a menstrual period related ‘accident’ in their life, with blood seeping through on to clothing causing deep shame and embarrassment, women naturally feel cautious and concerned that they may need to empty their menstrual cup while they are out.

I was surprised to learn that some women are scared to use any internal menstrual hygiene products at all due to fears of toxic shock syndrome, a life-threatening illness that has been associated with tampon use.

Many women buy menstrual cups and try them before deciding to return to other forms of period protection. One of the main reasons for this is that they find them uncomfortable. Little thought has been put into the design of menstrual cups, with most looking like stylisation and ease of manufacture has been put before comfort. All women are shaped differently, and this has been partly addressed by different sizes of cups for women who have and haven’t had children, as well as specific sizes for women with low and high cervixes. Another issue is that many women with sensitive bladders find that using a menstrual cup makes them need to urinate more often which is an inconvenience.

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Figure 4

Alongside the analysis of menstrual cups, I began making quick sketch models of some of my initial ideas for an improved menstrual cup. I spent time in the clay workshop modelling forms that I felt addressed some of the common problem areas I had identified, of ease of folding and insertion, ergonomic shape to relieve pressure on the bladder as well as ease of removal and cleaning. 

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Figure 5

I found it difficult getting a sense of the objects since the material was so far away from the traditional silicone that’s used for menstrual cups. To get a better sense I took some of my most promising clay forms and made silicone moulds using moulding silicone in order to mould the forms in a thin flexible silicone by pouring in, rotating and pouring out of the mould.  I moulded each form twice, first with a thin layer of silicone, and then with a thicker layer. Some were more successful than others. One of my initial casts came out extremely thinly mistake, and I considered this a failure, but on reflection, I realised that I could push the material to the limit and that thinner could be better.

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Figure 6

In order to develop the cup to be the optimum shape I met with my research group again and asked them which looked the most friendly, unobtrusive, easiest to fold and insert, most comfortable to wear, and easiest to remove, empty and clean. From these discussions, I learned that there should be clear signifiers such as ridges and dimples to show where to fold the cup,  how to hold it and which way round the cup should face when inserted. I also learned that one had a stem that was difficult to grip on to as it was too short, while the others had stems that were considered much too big and that this was a point that I should develop with care.

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Figure 7

Through working with the mixed research group of women in their early 20s I realised that this was a complex and broad group of users to work with, since some had tried a menstrual cup and loved it and others were completely disgusted by the idea, on top of the fact that all women are individually shaped and have very varied individual needs. At this point I decided to narrow my user group and aim my proposal towards young girls, having their period for the first few times. I consider it to be of more value to build positive perceptions of menstruation in young people rather than to try to change perceptions in older women. Throughout the project I was certain that my proposal should include a resource to help educate women about their bodies, and for them to learn about their own anatomy by using the cup. Considering that menstrual hygiene education in several European countries is brand sponsored it is logical to consider that my proposal could integrate state-funded education.

In my research, I came across the Essity Hygiene Matters Survey 2016 (United Minds, 2017)

from attending an exhibition at Fotografiska (Borg, 2017) which highlighted several matters to me, including that 16% of women and 29% of men in Sweden face some discomfort buying menstrual hygiene. The survey found that globally 7 in 10 women never talk to their partner about menstruation, and within Sweden only 17% of women have talked to their daughter about menstruation and just 7% of men. Since parents are expected to educate their children on basic hygiene such as hand hygiene and dental hygiene, it seems incredible to me that parents today do not consider menstrual hygiene to be of the same importance.

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Graph 1

 

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Figure 8

I decided to test some other reusable menstrual hygiene products including Thinx brand ‘period panties’.  On their website, in emails and on their packaging they say “our mission is to totally break the taboo surrounding menstruation” and “we aim to eliminate shame, empowering women and girls around the world.”  The New York company has had plenty of media coverage and large advertising campaigns, and attractive branding as shown in the image below, making them seem a trendy option. However, showing them to my research group gathered mixed feelings, with some thinking they looked comfortable and others considering them unhygienic, “wearing them all day long is so unhygienic, you can’t just sit in a puddle of blood all day”.

Another product that interested me was the flex menstrual disk, a product work internally that must be changed every 12 hours. The flex menstrual disk is inserted and removed differently to a tampon or menstrual cup, and sits at the top of the vaginal canal just below the cervix, in the same way as a contraceptive disk.

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Figure 9

To help me understand the product from a first time user ’s perspective I asked a woman from the research group, who has only ever used sanitary pads to test it for me.  She reported that it was very easy to insert because it remained in the narrow folded shape, and only required one finger to be inserted alongside the disk, unlike with a menstrual cup which can be more fiddly. However, it took several attempts to get the disk sitting in the correct position and then was difficult and painful to remove. From this insight, I was able to recognise that the insertion method of the menstrual cup could be improved by using a similar one to the menstrual disk. I made a model of a menstrual cup with a very soft body and harder flexible rim, however,from making the prototype I could see that it would be easy to insert the cup but tricky and very messy to remove it.

To gain a deeper understanding of my end users I asked my research group to tell me about when they first started menstruating, through a series of open-ended questions. One said “I was only spoken to once at 11”, and described starting menstruation as “such a shock” and “uncomfortable”. This exercise also highlighted the variety of sources young girls learn about menstruation from, other than their own mother, including the school nurse, the P.E. teacher, and biology teacher. It seems to me that different societies use different paternal substitutes, but the feelings surrounding these experiences were negative, suggesting more positive education would be best implemented in the home.

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Figure 10

With this knowledge, I created an activity booklet and workshop that I undertook with a 10-year-old girl, which helped me gauge the level of appropriateness for intimate education in young girls. I was also learned about aesthetic preferences in menstrual products, as she preferred non-patterned pastel coloured packaging in pinks, purples, and blues.

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Figure 11

Following on from my research group responses I looked into common resources that are used to educate girls. One popular method is by using books, as this allows the adult to avoid conversations on the subject, and the girl to learn independently. This helped me to recognise that the educational resource should facilitate conversations in the home, as well as support independent learning.

I discovered examples of an intimate education resource online in the form of a project called “OMG Yes”. The project focuses on female sexual pleasure and presents scientific findings in the form of educational videos with real women talking frankly about their experiences, as if with a friend. The website also features explicit instructional videos, however they feel completely practical and de-sexualised. I recognised that this resource is a very good example of comfortable and practical intimate education, leading me to develop a similar concept based on menstrual education.

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Figure 12

PROPOSAL

My proposal is a government-run and funded service that removes menstrual education and care from schools and places it firmly in the home where it facilitates conversations between parents/ guardians and their daughters. The idea of menstruation will be planted at age 10 using an online platform with friendly factual videos of real women talking about menstruation, which will encourage and prompt discussions with the girls parents/ guardians. When a girl has her first menstrual period she will be able to view more informative videos about hygiene, and will receive a menstrual kit that will include a menstrual cup that can be cut to size.

With this model, the government can ensure that no young girl ever suffers period poverty, and has a good education on menstrual hygiene and intimate health, as well as the confidence to discuss any problems or concerns with parents/ guardians. This method will also drastically reduce the amount of used menstrual products sent to landfill.

SUMMARY AND REFLECTION

In this project I set out to respond to the menstrual hygiene needs of women and girls in Northen and Western Europe and found focus in the important user group of young girls new to menstruation.

In this project I challenged myself to research with many people and to practice and develop my ethnographic research techniques and methods. I also explored using blogging alongside my physical sketchbook as a tool for project documentation, which allowed me to easily bookmark and comment on digital references, as well as document my own work in multiple streams by uploading my pictures in to blog posts.

I found the topic of menstruation to multi-faceted and complex. In Scotland today there are several pilot schemes offering free menstrual products to those in need, while in England the #freeperiods campaign is calling for similar schemes. While there is little data or evidence of “period poverty” in Sweden there is a growing awareness and sensitivity to gender politics and their role in a fair and equal society.

My proposal is not a campaign against so-called “period poverty” but rather a critical proposal that challenges the troubling accepted norms and attitudes towards menstrual hygiene and education, as highlighted by the Essity Hygiene Matters survey, as well as my own research.

With such a broad starting point in an industry that has seen little innovation and holds so may opportunities, a key challenge of the project has been finding a narrow focus, informed by my research that felt relevant, important and valuable.

I have found it rewarding to work with women to develop the form of the menstrual cup. and to begin to develop the form of the menstrual cup, and to begin to conceptualise the educational resource. I recognise that much more research and development would be required to propose a truly valuable proposal for the educational resource. If I had the time to develop the proposal further I would explore how real life conversations with parents/ guardians could be facilitated by the web resource, as well as how education for young boys could be integrated into the system.

I hope that my proposal will succeed in highlighting menstrual hygiene related issues and act as a critique on the current systems and attitudes. 


REFERENCES

Borg, I. (2017). Hygiene – A Circle of Life. [Photography] Stockholm: Fotografiska/ Essity.

Delaney, J., Lupton, M. and Toth, E. (1988). The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation. 2nd ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Fabianova, D. (2013). TEDxBratislava, The Menstruation Taboo.

Finley, H. (2017). Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. [online] Mum.org. Available at: http://www.mum.org/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2017].

Frances-White, D. and Brister, J. (2017). 77. Period Poverty with Gemma Cairney, Amika George, Grace Campbell. The Guilty Feminist.

Girlguiding UK (2017). Girls’ Attitudes Survey. [online] Available at: https://www.girlguiding.org.uk/globalassets/docs-and-resources/research-and-campaigns/girls-attitudes-survey-2017.pdf [Accessed 10 Dec. 2017].

Hagen, S. and Frances-White, D. (2016). 23. Periods with Evelyn Mok. The Guilty Feminist.

Plan UK International. (2017). #FreePeriods – research on period poverty and stigma. [online] Available at: https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/freeperiods-research-on-period-poverty-and-stigma [Accessed 14 Dec. 2017].

Potdar, M. (2015). Feminine Hygiene Products Market by Type and Distribution channel – Global Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecast, 2015 – 2022. Allied Market Research.

Stein, E. and Kim, S. (2009). Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. 1st ed. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

United Minds (2017). Hygiene Matters Survey 2016/17. [online] Stockholm: Essity. Available at: http://reports.essity.com/2016-17/hygiene-matters-report/hygiene-matters-survey-2016-17.html# [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017].