XXVII.6 November - December 2020
Page: 14
Digital Citation

Intimate touch

Madeline Balaam, Nadia Woytuk, Marianela Felice, Ozgun Afsar, Anna Ståhl, Marie Søndergaard

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Intimate touch is a provocative concept within which we ground our feminist critical health design work. Intimate touch follows a feminist epistemological underpinning that emphasizes intra-actions between materials as a source of knowing and acting [1]. We are making new apparatuses and discursive practices for intimate touch that through intra-action with the body can produce new bodily knowledge, new understandings, and new matter (e.g., [2]). These intra-actions could also break norms in order to deconstruct problematic knowledge. Intimate touch is a willful push away [3] from our field's norms of understanding the body as abstracted data.

Intimate touch is a willful push away from our field's norms of understanding the body as abstracted data.

Soma design [4] has been our guide, since it emphasizes the body as a fundamental part of how we come to know. And through making and breaking, we develop knowledge on how to create intimate touch with and through technology, understanding what intimate touch is, what it is not, and how we can work with materials to produce it.

Here, we present two of our current projects: Menarche Bits and the Pelvic Chair.

ins01.gif Through an embodied ideation workshop, we explored materials and interactions that could speak to experiences of menarche. We started by following a Feldenkrais lesson on touching and feeling the hip bones, to sensitize ourselves to this evocative area of the body. We were then inspired to design a "tilting pelvis": a flat surface attached to the top of a soft ball, encouraging subtle but perceptible circular (cyclical) body movements.
ins02.gif In the embodied ideation workshop, we also made fabric heat pads filled with rice, which can be heated in a microwave oven. The pads are to be placed on parts of the body that might be painful. The rice can be moved around within the pad, by the wearer or a significant other. We later included these "cushions" in the Menarche Bits kit.

back to top  Menarche Bits: Making a Movement

Premenstrual changes, cramps, and social norms around menstrual cycles can constrain the movements of young menstruators: One might massage the lower back or curl up in bed, be scared of leaking through clothes, stick a menstrual product in a sleeve while searching for a toilet, or even stay home. Sometimes, starting to menstruate leads adolescents to drop out of their sport practices. Menarche Bits seek to challenge these constrained movements. This responds to one of soma design's core principles: widening our repertoire of movements to live better lives.

ins03.gif Menarche Bits is an open-ended prototyping kit to support the creation of wearable, shape-changing technologies for young menstruators. The kit has soft silicone shapes in different sizes and textures that touch the body. The shapes can be worn directly on the skin or embedded in garments. They can be inflated and deflated with an electrical pump, and respond to the wearer's pressure. The air chambers are controlled sequentially to simulate bidirectional haptic feedback.

Menarche Bits was created through a soma design process, where we tuned in to our own menstruating bodies and evoked our lived experiences of menarche [5]. We collected, tracked, and touched our menstrual blood, and followed Feldenkrais, yoga, and breathing lessons to notice experiences that change throughout the cycle. Through workshops we listened to diverse menstrual experiences and used embodied ideation to explore how different materials could come close to the body throughout its cyclical changes. With the aim of designing a prototyping kit to be used with young adolescents—enacting the feminist value of participation—we chose to focus on the actuation of heat and shape-changing materials to draw attention toward the menstruating body. We explored materials, colors, shapes, tactile feelings, sizes, and weights, and picked soft, body-conforming, slightly heavy elements. We sketched circular shapes and objects with rounded corners to reach a playful and organic, yet repetitive and rigorous look. While prototyping, we continuously tried the materials, shapes, and actuation on our bodies to evaluate and iterate on the felt experience.

ins04.gif The kit involves modular silicone bits that can be plugged into one another via tube fittings, allowing the wearer to connect them creatively.

This project uses intimate touch to make a movement. At a small, intimate scale, the technology gently touches the menstruating body, producing subtle movements that drive attention to internally felt experiences, nurturing an appreciation for the changing body and facilitating body literacy. At a large, societal scale, we seek to use this appreciation and knowledge, as enacted by us, adolescents, sports clubs, and high schools, to create a menstrual movement that reconfigures how menstruating bodies can be—and move—in the world. By making the Menarche Bits, and although we experienced menarche (the onset of menstruation) many years ago, we realized that as the technology touches the body, it evokes and touches emotions and memories of this body. We not only resurfaced what they were, but crucially, we also reconfigured what they might be.

ins05.gif The fabrication process started with designing and printing 3D molds and stencils required to make the silicone actuators. For each mold, we cured a first layer of silicone in it, placed a stencil on top, and applied a release agent to mark the area that we intended to inflate. For the non-modular bits, we inserted the tubings before pouring a second silicone layer. For the modular ones, we built instead a spiral channel to fit in the tubings. Finally, we created two units that control the inflation/deflation of the silicone actuators. One unit allows the wearer to define the duration of the interaction, and the other responds to the wearer's pressure.

back to top  The Pelvic Chair: Accepting the Body

In making the Pelvic Chair, we began by working with a Feldenkrais practitioner who specialized in the pelvic floor. Working with her and with our bodies, we discovered the size and strength of our pelvis, the synchronicity and connection between the pelvic muscles and our diaphragms, and the possibility to control and experience the pelvic floor as a whole and in four sections. We found some of these experiences aesthetic, compelling—especially those that gave the feeling of deep relaxation, and a sense of finer motor control over these large muscles.

ins06.gif Menarche Bits is designed to be used in design workshops with adolescents who recently started to menstruate. Their purpose is to make space for conversations and design concepts for body-worn shape-changing technologies that address their menarche experiences.

ins07.gif To understand how to design intimate touch interactions for the pelvic-floor area, we had to engage our own somas and in detail experience the connections and capabilities of the pelvic-floor muscles. These lessons were led by a physiotherapist and Feldenkrais practitioner.

ins08.gif Before and after each lesson, we reflected upon our experiences on "body maps" to capture what had caught our interest, changes, and/or new connections between the pelvic area and other body parts. These were shared and discussed in the group. The body maps worked as articulations connecting back to the experiences and were later used to extract possible interactions for intimate touch.

ins09.gif To get in touch with the pelvic-floor area, we explored different possibilities: strapping something onto the pelvic floor, sitting down to slightly spread your legs to let the body rest on the pelvic floor. We tried these mockups on each other and people in our office. Slowly we altered the shape step by step to a shape that fostered the feeling of being in control, of comfort and safety, where the pelvic-floor area could be touched. We examined and studied how to make the shapes accessible for different body sizes.

From this starting point, we began a tightly integrated loop of material exploration and body inquiry that enabled us to slowly establish materials and interactions that brought to life the qualities of relaxation and control. We brought our own different bodies to this project—ones that are fit and healthy, and ones that are damaged and requiring rehabilitation. We used our bodies, and their differences, to sense the materials and interactions that we were working with, and to critically consider whether this advancing prototype was producing the desired experience—and if not, how these materials and interactions should change in order to give the experiences we sought. The emerging design, the Pelvic Chair, is being made with shape-changing technologies. When someone sits on it, parts of the chair inflate and move—to encourage the user to sit upright, to open their legs slightly. Then the inflatables "touch" different parts of the pelvic-floor muscles, so as to help the user feel and develop an awareness of these muscles.

As we make and break our chair we realize that intimate touch is not a type of touch that attempts to correct or to purposefully train the body. Rather, intimate touch becomes a way of allowing the person sitting on the chair to experience their pelvic-floor muscles without judgment. There is no right and wrong, or good and bad. We design for a pluralism of bodies, and resist the idea that all bodies should conform, or that we should be continually striving to be fitter, stronger, better. We aim for an experience where the sitter becomes aware of the pelvic-floor muscles, and discovers something about their body that they had not known before, or even simply enjoys the sensation of movements drawing awareness to these muscles.

back to top  Final Thoughts

We make to break. We make designs to break with internalized stigma, with oppressive social norms, with restrictive ways of building knowledge. We recognize that this making—in the form of research prototypes or commercial products—cannot be enough in a context of historically unequal global structures. Still, we make to inspire people to start breaking and re-making the(ir) world.

ins10.gif The pelvic floor is an intimate and sensitive area to touch, so the intended touch had to be designed with care and a balanced subtlety. We strived for spurring interest and awareness in the experience tying back to the Feldenkrais. In lo-fi, we experimented with materials of different hardnesses, sizes, and shapes to sit upon. All bodies are different, and experiences of touch too, but materials with more flexibility and ability to adjust to the individual body, such as latex balloons and air cushions, allowed for the touch to be negotiated by the user and thereby hold the possibility to become allowable for many bodies. Harder materials using, for example, linear actuators become more precise and tend to risk being experienced as too abrupt and poky in their appearance.

ins11.gif We continued our experiments with our own custom-made air-filled latex shapes to both fit the pelvic area better and to start to sketch out possible interactions. To gain better control over the air flow, we began to use programmable air pumps. This allowed us to start to investigate the subtle balance of volume, position, and temporality in the creation of shape-changing interactions in this area. Intimate touch is not only about where you get touched—it is also about the quality of the touch.

back to top  References

1. Barad, K. Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs Journal of Women in Culture & Society 28, 3 (2003), 801–831.

2. Campo Woytuk, N., Juul Søndergaard, M.L., Ciolfi Felice, M. and Balaam, M. Touching and being in touch with the menstruating body. Proc. of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2020, 1–14;

3. Ahmed, S. Feminist killjoys (and other willful subjects). The Scholar and Feminist Online 8, 3 (2010).

4. Höök, K. Designing with the Body: Somaesthetic Interaction Design. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018.

5. Juul Søndergaard, M.L., Kilic Afsar, Ö., Ciolfi Felice, M., Campo Woytuk, N., and Balaam, M. Designing with intimate materials and movements: Making "Menarche Bits." To appear in the 2020 Designing Interactive Systems Conference.

back to top  Authors

Madeline Balaam is an associate professor in interaction design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. She works with many wonderful designers and researchers in the pursuit of a critical feminist health research agenda, and particularly in relation to topics associated with the body and women's health. [email protected]

Nadia Campo Woytuk is a designer, artist, and researcher exploring feminist perspectives of technologies, with a focus on women's health. She makes use of bodily approaches and digital fabrication, and is curious to probe the human-machine divide, discovering and designing ways to care for each other in multispecies relationships. [email protected]

Marianela Ciolfi Felice is a postdoctoral researcher in interaction design at KTH (Sweden). Her research on digital women's health explores the intersection between feminist HCI and soma design, currently focusing on menopause and reproductive health. Previously, she obtained a Ph.D. in computer science from Université Paris-Saclay. [email protected]

Ozgun Kilic Afsar is a doctoral researcher at Soma Research group at KTH and MIT Media Lab. Her research explores co-adaptivity in human-robot interaction using on-body robotic swarms as dynamic assistants and co-performing agents. [email protected]

Anna Ståhl is a senior researcher and interaction designer at Digital Systems, Research Institutes of Sweden. Her research focuses on developing soma design as an approach, in particular, through exploring aesthetics in shape-changing interactions through engaging with the body, material, and technology in an iterative design process. [email protected]

Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard is an interaction designer and researcher. Her research interweaves feminist HCI, soma design, and participatory design in exploring digital technologies for menstrual health and bodily fluids. She is a postdoc at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and holds a Ph.D. in interaction design from Aarhus University. [email protected]

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