More than Human Centred Design


Designing with Intimate Materials and Movements: Making “Menarche Bits”

  • Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Ozgun Kilic Afsar, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Marianela Ciolfi Felice, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Nadia Campo Woytuk, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Madeline Balaam, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Corresponding email(s): mljso@kth.se
  • Project webpage
  • Research group webpage
  • ACM DL Link: Associated Paper or Pictorial

We have designed an open-ended prototyping kit called Menarche Bits. The purpose of Menarche Bits is to open a design space for young adolescents to create body-worn technologies that respond to their menarche experiences. Menarche is the first menstrual bleeding and it usually occurs between the ages of 9-15. Starting to menstruate is a crucial bodily transition and a time where the body changes a lot. New experiences of bodily fluids, menstrual cramps, and changes in mood can drastically change one’s everyday life in various ways. The aim of Menarche Bits is to support young menstruators to make space for their experiences of menarche and trust their menstruating bodies. Menarche Bits consists of heat elements and shape-changing actuators. These bits can be worn directly on the body by being pressed to the skin, or they can be inserted into pockets in a stretchable fabric as part of a garment. Menarche Bits is supposed to be used in design workshops with young adolescents who recently started to menstruate.

Who is the target audience and why design for them? The target audience for Menarche Bits is young adolescents who recently started to menstruate. While menstruation will follow many years to come, the first experience and the first years of menstruating are crucial for establishing knowledge and compassion with the menstruating body. Starting to menstruate can influence many parts of one's life, such as one’s body perception, social relations with friends and family, and participation in school and sports activities. While some people celebrate the onset of menstruation, it can also be a negative experience associated with shame, pain and lack of knowledge and communication. We believe it is crucial to destigmatise and make space for experiences of menarche, and support young adolescents to trust their own body. We are particular interested in how menstrual cycles influence young adolescents' participation in sports activities. Thus, the intended target audience for Menarche Bits is young adolescents who started to menstruate and who do sports. However, as Menarche Bits are designed for a variety of menstrual experiences to create on-body sensations, they can be used by all menstruating bodies.

What were the challenges or limitations encountered in this project? During the design of Menarche Bits we encountered several challenges, both related to the topic and the design and development of the technology itself. Menarche Bits was designed through a soma-based research through design process. We chose to attune to our own menstruating bodies and work with our own previous menarche experiences before involving people closer to menarche into the project. We expected that taking a somaesthetic approach to menarche could pose several challenges, as menarche is a sensitive topic that is uniquely experienced and it involves intimate areas of the body, which can make such a process uncomfortable or awkward and challenge social rules and personal limits. In addition, the lived experiences of menstruation can be repressed and habitual which can make them difficult to engage with. For these reasons, it became important to establish and nurture a safe, trustworthy and playful environment, and leverage defamiliarization methods to “make strange” how we moved, felt and lived our menstruating bodies.

What are the opportunities and next steps for this project? We have found shape-changing technologies to be a curious and evocative material in connection with the menstruating body, due to their ability to continuously change form, state and behaviour. Our preliminary experience of using Menarche Bits is that they can facilitate intimate interactions in close contact with the changing body. More precisely, we are looking into the opportunities of 1) designing for movement through actuation, 2) changing shape with the changing body, and 3) corresponding to the materiality of the body. Our next steps are to invite young adolescents to design workshops where we will open conversations about experiences of menarche and menstrual cycles in sports, and use Menarche Bits to respond to those experiences. Other future work includes developing the material qualities of Menarche Bits with PDMS-based materials and the possibilities of using bodily fluids to activate them.

To the Demo Visitors: Menarche Bits is supposed to be experienced on the body, and not through a screen. Still, we would love to hear visitors’ feedback on our project. What is your first impression of Menarche Bits? How do they make you feel? What do they make you think? While you cannot actually touch Menarche Bits, how do you imagine the feeling of them as they touch your skin? Think of your direct or indirect experiences of (the first) menstruation. How do you imagine that Menarche Bits could be used for unique menstrual experiences? How do your think they could be developed? We are curious about how other people of various bodies, cultures, and expertises would interact with Menarche Bits. Please reach out to us, if you are interested in chatting with us. We hope that Menarche Bits can contribute to designing with intimate materials and movements of the menstruating body. We believe it is crucial to nurture bodily intimacy in sensitive and taboo topics, and to make space for new movements and for being human in times of change.