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#4 Inquiry

The final project in the Fall term had us addressing the notion of research by conducting a design inquiry into an area of interest–over the course of 4 weeks.

The framework for this prompt was simple:

  • Starting with curiosity, delineate a small space of inquiry
  • Test a method of discovery and finally
  • Formalize your findings

Taking off from my previous studio project, and in-keeping with my research interest in menstrual health awareness, I formulated a broad research question that I would try to explore in this prompt:

How can I use design to enable a world where conversation around menstruation is not taboo, leading to better emotional well-being for menstruators?

Part 1- ‘Menstrual Stories: Sharing Circle Through Art’ Workshop

The first research part of my ‘inquiry’ was to conduct a storytelling workshop session titled ‘Menstrual Stories: Sharing Circle Through Art’. I sent out an open invitation to all menstruators in the MDes program with the goal being to come together as a community to share personal menstrual stories while contributing to the creation of an art piece using symbolic red paint on a blank white canvas.

The workshop was conducted in an empty classroom on the ECUAD campus and ran for approximately 3 hours from 12.30-3.30pm on a Tuesday when no classes were scheduled, with the door open for anyone to leave and enter as they pleased. All art supplies were provided to the participants. I set out the canvas on 6 study tables joined together in the centre of the classroom to create a communal space where the participants would gather around to talk and paint.

A 2m x 1m blank muslin cloth formed the canvas on which the participants would collectively create artwork while sharing their menstrual stories.
Distributing the red paints, brushes and water jars around the table.

The workshop was attended by 6 female students from the MDes Interdisciplinary program between 22 to 31yrs of age. Of the 6 participants, 3 were international students, and the remaining were domestic students from 3 different Canadian provinces.

A simple question – “Tell me about your first period” sparked a nostalgia-induced deep dive into stories about the participants’ first menstrual experience, with each of them recollecting specific details of the environment, people around them, their feelings, emotions and attitudes with the story organically bouncing from one person to the next. 4 of the participants had similar experiences of being around male family members on their first period who made them feel comfortable and cared for. The topic of conversation went from personal stories of first-time menstrual experiences to current ways of dealing with the various physical and psychological aspects of being a menstruating person. 

Images from the workshop

Image consent provided by all participants

At various stages in the course of the session, the participants expressed discontent in the lack of empathy afforded to menstruators in institutional settings like schools, universities, hospitals, and workplaces with a particular point of discussion centering on the necessity for mandatory monthly period leave to cope with debilitating medical conditions like PCOS, PCOD and PMDD that affect menstruating individuals.

A quick ‘feelings assessment’ at the end of the 3-hour session, revealed a catharsis experienced by almost all participants and a desire to partake in similar sessions monthly, where they could openly share their struggles, frustrations, and health conditions with other menstruating individuals.

The communal art piece created by the 6 participants

Outcome & Analysis

Going over my notes from the workshop revealed to me a lack of awareness regarding serious menstrual health conditions especially on the part of non-menstruators. This presents an interesting opportunity to investigate the level of education men have about women’s sexual and reproductive health.

A way forward from here might be to conduct a short survey within the ECUAD male student community, with questions tailored around female health and hygiene issues. To expand on this research area, it might be a worthwhile exercise to conduct a game-show style quiz in various community centres across Vancouver, where I would invite only male participants (18+ years) to answer varying levels of questions (easy to hard) on this topic. The data collected from these exercises, might give me insights into the areas of education that are lacking around women’s sexual and reproductive health, which could drive the intent / outcome of my research.

Part 2- ‘The Bloody Calendar’–Track Your Period Publicly

The second part of my ‘inquiry’ was to carry out a speculative design project within the two MDes studio spaces, located on the third floor of the ECUAD campus. I designed, printed, and handed out ‘The Bloody Calendar’, a physical period tracking device for an entire year starting Dec 2022, to menstruating individuals in the MDes studios, encouraging them to track their periods publicly at their studio spaces.

In addition to the standard Gregorian calendar format, I added a feelings column to the right, with an extensive list of the myriad emotions experienced during a period. In the bottom-left half of the calendar, there is space for menstruators to add how they would like to be treated by visiting colleagues, faculty and other persons visiting their studio space during their menstrual cycle.

The objective with this calendar is to encourage uninhibited conversations around menstruation and to generate feelings of empathy and awareness in non-menstruators by recognizing and acknowledging the complex moods, emotions and struggles that are not often made vocal, but now, visually presented to them on the calendar.

Outcome & Analysis

This is an ongoing project, where I will document the usage of each public calendar every month until Nov 2023. At the end of each quarter in the year, I aim to analyse the quantitative data from the calendar and conduct qualitative interviews to ascertain if the menstruating individuals experienced any changes in empathy levels post participation in the research project. 

Note: One of the menstruators who had displayed the calendar at her desk, with her period dates marked on it, disclosed to me that a non-menstruating colleague inquired about her health after noticing the calendar.

Below are some images of the calendars in use and on public display for the month of December 2022.

The Making Process

This project required the production of multiple copies of the calendar, so I chose Riso printing. I picked a light beige paper that would give it a warm feel and deep blue and red inks that would offer a strong contrast to the paper.

Riso printing 30 sheets
Hand-cutting the pages for each month (12 x 30 copies).
Laying out the cut pages by month for quick assembly.
Rounding out the flat edges using a rounding machine for a clean look.
Punching out holes for binding.
Binding each calendar using a metal ring, so that they can be easily hung up in the studio spaces.
The layout and design of the calendar references old Indian calendar designs.

Parallel Inquiry: Qualitative Research (Interviews)

While the first two ‘inquiries’ were project based, I wanted to undertake a qualitative research project in parallel to gather more information that could lead to further prototyping and inquiries.

I conducted personal interviews with 4 female participants from the Indian diaspora, to record their menstrual experiences in the Indian context and now, in Vancouver. The interviews were conducted at their respective homes, in an informal setting.

I drafted a set of 20 questions that were designed to prompt open-ended responses in a free-form, narrative style, beginning with the participants describing the experience of their first period in detail and further delved into recounting the nature of their relationships with immediate family members, friends, and relatives as they progressed with their menstrual cycles. The second set of questions were focused on the education they received about menstruation – in informal settings through interpersonal relationships as well as in formal settings via academic institutions and medical professionals. The last set of questions centred on their current level of education about menstrual hygiene practices, awareness around new products, health conditions, ending with their imaginations, hopes and expectations for the education of future generations.

Analyzing the data from the interviews with these four women, revealed 3 broad themes:

  1. Continuous menstrual health education in schools starting from age 9 (grade 4) to age 16 (grade 10) for both girls and boys together, instead of a one-time lecture/session. 
  2. Emphasis on psychological support in addition to physiological support from family members, academic educators, and medical professionals.
  3. Ability to openly discuss menstruation with members of the opposite sex without experiencing shame or discomfort.

It would appear that the school was the primary source of information for their menstrual health education but in most cases, it lacked an empathetic approach, with the focus being entirely on the biology of a menses with little room for deep curiosity and questioning. Considering this, I am prompted to carry out observational studies on the current methods of menstrual health education imparted in Indian schools. The data from these observations might then become the springboard for conducting precedence research into existing visual and physical tools such as books, animations, films, videos, toys, games etc. that have been used to aid menstrual and sexual health education practices both within and outside of India. Furthermore, I aim to conduct qualitative interviews with parents, educators, and medical professionals to understand their priorities and perspectives on menstrual health awareness and education. 

Reflection

This prompt pushed me to test out 3 distinct research methodologies that could begin to answer my research question of ‘How can I use design to enable a world where conversation around menstruation is not taboo, leading to better emotional well-being for menstruators?

While all 3 methods used a different set of participants, from varied backgrounds, cultural contexts, ages, ethnicities etc, the data revealed significant overlaps in their experiences and struggles with menstrual health. From the insights I have gained over the 4 weeks of this project, I am even more enthused about exploring this research topic with the goal of creating a world that safeguards and prioritizes both the physical and emotional well-being of all menstruators, where shame and stigma are abandoned for an empathy-driven attitude towards menstruation and women’s bodies. 

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