Rhythm, Restoration, and Time (MFA Thesis Research)
How can we co-create a new (speculative) speculum for survivors of sexual violence for at-home self-examination as a way to critique the symbolically violent clinic-based practice of the gynecological speculum exam? This was the question I first focused on when starting my thesis as a way to provoke conversations regarding care--and more specifically gynecological care--for survivors of sexual violence. After all, taking care of yourself should not feel like re-experiencing trauma, yet for some survivors the speculum exam, including the words and body positioning, can feel like just that. 90% survivors will experience PTSD within the first two weeks and sometimes it can last for or not show up until years or decades after because trauma is embodied.
A prototype of two different sized non-invasive speculums was made for three people to try out while sitting or resting on the floor with a pillow and blankets as well as sitting or resting on a large bean bag.
Insights, quotes, and questions that came up included:
“Doing anything for yourself is hard.”
“It’s more visible with the flashlight, but it feels weird to shine it.”
“It’s like juggling.”
User 3 has an IUD and uses a menstrual cup, so is very comfortable with touch in this area.
Is using menstrual cup a gateway to a self-exam? (it came up numerous times. i.e. how to insert; various sizes.)
One person doesn’t want to use the flashlight. What if you’re about to fall? What if you want to take a photo? Wants to be able to reach out for things or catch a fall. One hand needs to be free.
One person is holding the larger mirror with their leg.
“Sitting is easiest so far.” (said by two people)
Rhythm, Restoration, and Time
However, the biggest finding to come out of the prototyping exercise was that the tools and body positions are only a very thin layer to uncover when talking about the intersection of sexual violence and the gynecological exam. The space, power differentials, language, etc. all are just as important. In other words, the ecology of the practice should also be examined in order to get at this singular tool.
To move forward, I brought together the findings from the prototype along with research regarding PTSD and trauma healing, feminist theory, and the Women’s Health Movement of the 1970s. To say the least, much of this project is influenced by the events of the 1970s.
Within the overlap of these areas, three concepts repeatedly came up: time, restoration, rhythm. These three concepts not only allow us to take a critical look at the clinic-based use of the speculum’s use of time, body positioning and rhythm, they can serve as the core upon which this speculative self-exam is support and built. The question then became:
With the concepts of rhythm, restoration, and time at the core, what conversations objects could I make to begin speculatively redesigning the processes, practices, and tools with survivors that reflected what the research regarding trauma healing and care of sexual violence?
How do survivors understand their own body's rhythm? What are objects and practices that connect us with our own rhythm as well as the rhythm of others? What would it look like or mean for a doctor to be in synch with the patient's internal rhythm beyond listening to their heartbeat? The conversation tools attempt to open up these questions and provide some responses from which to design with survivors.
The concept of restoration within this project is based forty years of PTSD research that has found that trauma is embodied and that talk therapy is not always as beneficial because, as is pointed out In the book The Body Keeps the Score, “the imprints of traumatic experiences are organized not as coherent logical narratives, but fragmented sensory and emotional traces: images, sounds, and physical sensations.” Therefore, embodied practices such as yoga, Feldenkrais, or reiki have been shown to be more successful in getting people back into their bodies and into their lives. I chose a few positions from yoga mudra hand positions to full body restorative yoga poses to begin the conversation of what survivors do, if anything, to feel present within their bodies.
Looking at time, Attorney, Activist and Creative Director of Afro Futurist Affairs Rasheedah Phillips explained it perfectly when she said that for survivors of trauma time is elastic--moving often quickly from the past to the future, and making it very difficult to remain in the present.
To reflect this, I prototyped a board as a way to have conversation about time with survivors. By stretching the elastic band from wherever the person feels they are (the past or somewhere else) they can then connect it to how they are feeling. Whatever position the band crosses is something they can do to help become present and inhabit their bodies. What other positions would people add? What would they change? How would people actually use it and would it still be in this form or medium?