(...) Feminist scholars reveal the risks of ‘datafying’ the female body. Apps and wearable devices such as menstruation trackers lead to menstruators feeling stressed trying to conform to an algorithmic norm and control their bodily changes, ultimately creating a mathematical distance and increasing alienation from their bodies.
There has never been as much technology to assist us in understanding our bodies as there is today. While this might have a lot of potential to support feminist visions towards more equality, there is also a risk at adding pressure by constantly pushing for more surveillance and optimization.
Miriam Steckl, a designer and researcher with a background in health and wellbeing, unravels this topic for us by shedding light on her dissertation on self-tracking of the menstruation cycle. Her research interest stems from her own, predominantly negative experiences with menstruation tracking devices and the societal stigma around being 'emotional'. She was hence motivated to conduct this research and speculate on an alternative present and possible futures. She says: "ultimately, I believe that designing more feminist technologies accelerates the social, cultural, and political shift towards appreciating, embracing, and celebrating the menstruation cycle and the menstruator's body for its incredible intuition, strength, and wisdom."
FemTech does not ultimately lead to feminist futures
Miriam Steckl argues that "although investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers celebrate the skyrocketing of the Female Technology (FemTech) industry as an 'empowerment' for women, feminist scholars reveal the risks of ‘datafying’ the female body. Apps and wearable devices such as menstruation trackers lead to menstruators feeling stressed trying to conform to an algorithmic norm and control their bodily changes, ultimately creating a mathematical distance and increasing alienation from their bodies. Therefore, I am exploring how to make FemTech devices more feminist, inclusive, and supportive of menstruators' connection to their bodies."
Similarly to technology that aims to assist with other aspects of the body, e.g. tools to beautify one's body, to make it more healthy or to optimize in other ways, the narratives often fall into the pitfall of indicating that every person is ultimately self-responsible for their own wellbeing. While this narrative can indeed empower women and gender-underrepresent groups to take control of their own body, it also blends out the reasons why someone feel lacking or unfit - in comparison to a skewed norm - in the first place.
More gender equality through analyzing menstruation technology
By focussing on menstruation technology, Miriam's research contributes to a more equal world in several ways. While the technology industry itself is still predominately male, especially in positions of power, a women are drawn away. Miriam says: "In the past, the very intimate data of menstruators has been violated to make profit. That is why many menstruators in the US, for instance, have abolished their apps after new laws on abortion have been passed last year which only shows how important the topic is."
Additionally, a lot of the past self-tracking apps have been based on principles of behaviour adjustment - in other contexts. Adopting these principles to menstruation devices indicates that menstruation is something that someone can adjust or take ownership of through strength or internal willpower. Miriam explains that, "the menstruating body, however, is not a matter that can be 'controlled' by external forces." Understanding the needs of menstruators as well as the implications of current self-tracking services can help to identify what needs to be done.
When asked about a utopian vision that she strives for with her research, she says that she wishes every menstruator to feel deeply connected, appreciating, and knowing of their cyclical body that is constantly changing and in flux. To get there, researching on how the current technology can become more feminist and actually support menstruators in their daily life is a first step. Hopefully, innovators will take seriously research insights like Miriam's and create more equal access and democratise health technology amongst genders.
We would like to thank Miriam for contributing to IN-VISIBLE Academia and wish her all the best for her research.
IN-VISIBLE ACADEMIA - a platform for Gender Studies researchers
This feature is part of IN-VISIBLE ACADEMIA, a platform for research from the fields of Gender Studies, with the goal to make it more visible and accessible to a broader public from areas of politics, business and administration. For this purpose, we feature a researcher and their work every 4-6 weeks on our Social Media channels. The goal is to help Gender Studies research gain more visibility and thereby to build awareness about its meaning and relevance for society. We thus hope to provide alternative content to the anti-feminist hate speech and backlash that is increasingly associated with Gender Studies on social media.
The open call is still open to all researchers in the field of Gender Studies
You can participate here. This project is run by IN-VISIBLE and MARGHERITA-VON-BRENTANO-ZENTRUM. For us, it is of secondary importance whether you are a professor, research assistant, or doing post-doc research - we are interested in your research if you feel like your results should be made more available to a broader public. We explicitly do not want to exclude anyone on the basis of their academic degree. The only criteria here is that you have had some sort of publication success with your topic and that, accordingly, our community could peek into it. If this applies to you, then you are welcome to participate. The incoming applications will be viewed by us and - if suitable - shared via our channels in the form of features.