The world of materials is often considered predictable, repetitive and reliable. Yet because of the materials revolution, it is becoming more unpredictable. This project began with concerns about the long-standing separation in materials research of three different sets of approaches: in engineering, in design, and in social science. It began to consider how ethnographic work might find ways to bring together these very broad approaches fruitfully in materials innovation work, and as a part of this journey it was focussed to develop a socio-cultural exploration of how ‘change’ in the sensory predictability of the material world is experienced in menopause. Materials engineering is often interested in questions of success and failure, and this was re-phrased for anthropological purposes into understanding contexts, cultures and feelings of change.
- What is ‘change’ for people experiencing menopause?
- How is the self constructed during change or anticipation of change?
- Does a fear of loss of control over sensation correspond with issues of maintaining identity?
- How do people pragmatically deal with environments where sensations of materials may change? (eg. in terms of temperature)
- What role do the sensory properties of materials play in social life?
- What are the issues of invisibility, stigma or un-spokenness around menopause, and what can these tell us about material sensation?
We are increasingly able to engineer and manufacture materials, adapting different aspects of the composition of substances. This radical shift has shaken up the whole field, challenging what we think materials are, and how we think materials engineering and design interconnect. In the context of the shift, anthropologists of materials and design may be able to play a role in informing the social potential of material properties for product design, through researching how materials and properties work in social life.
Our team re-framed this issue through an exploration of menopause, as a key opportunity area for examining changing sensation, as a way to explore how materials properties have relevance within peoples’ lives. People experiencing the menopause would have an invested interest in the properties of textiles and clothing, including thermal properties, their tactile feeling, and various visual properties. They comprise a major commercial market segment. The topic is also significantly under-explored by social science and social research in general.
The project quickly found that, like materials properties, menopause is a difficult topic to research. It is surrounded by silence, and even people experiencing it find it takes them almost by surprise, while those who have passed through it may think it is not relevant to them. It was necessary to consider this silencing in more detail, and also ask whether there are any parallels with researching materials: perhaps both bodies and materials are expected to be consistent and predictable, such that focussing on moments when they are constantly changing are culturally hidden.
“Imagine waking up one day and the body you’ve known for 45 years isn’t there anymore.”
Menopause as a Human Rights Issue
Menopause has a sense of taboo. There is a reluctance to talk about it, to make sense of change and how this change is perceived by others. The feeling of losing ‘value’ or ‘usefulness’ as a woman is parallel to the sensitivity of how we think about menstruation. Anthropologist Emily Martin argues that the link to fertility presents the female body and function with social tensions and “the connotation of a productive system that has failed to produce, it also carries the idea of production gone awry,” in her book The Woman in the Body.
Activist initiatives have recently worked to end a range of stigmas about womens’ bodies which have rendered fundamental aspects of their health private and socially invisible, often hidden behind a medical language which extends into daily life. Sweden has promoted dancing-singing tampon videos, to teach kids about menstruation. Girls in rural areas in East Africa who miss school because of their periods are taught to make reusable sanitary pads and ways to improve menstrual hygiene. A womens’ issues here becomes a human rights issue.
Because of these kinds of social barriers, there has been a danger of creating un-grounded stereotypes around menopause, as well as inequalities that ignore the diversity of needs. For a normative bodily issue, which the majority of people experience, the diversity of menopause experiences is under- explored.
“Clothing was generally not significant… That changes, strangely, when you’re turning 50. Dressing well is actually becoming more important.”
The group interviewed a range of women going through menopause as well as physicians and experts in various medical fields. The research revealed the variability of symptoms experienced by women and the different types of ‘disruptions’ caused by change. It affects people in different ways, at home, at work, and the responses they receive from health services also varies. Menopause remains most visible for women in a particular age group, but it is not exclusive to ageing: premature menopause results from certain health conditions, or treatments and surgery like hysterectomy.
“It feels like I’m wrapped up in
lots of layers of stuff.”
To see the body as a site of change is to highlight the uniqueness of personal experience; not one size fits all. For some of the women who participated in our project, the experience is more physically challenging, for others more often mentally and emotionally difficult.
Women described many ways in which they encounter unexpected sensations, particularly with hot flushes. Most women find ways to adapt to these, changing their clothing stylistically and functionally.
“One thing I’ve noticed is I can trigger them – I always wear scarves around my neck – so I haven’t got one on. So if I wear scarves now it makes me hot, I get hot flushes.”
As women experience menopause, they can help us think about the blurring of boundaries between wearable materials, such as textiles, and the body. The experience of menopause, especially hot flushes, challenges peoples’ sense of control, and prompts the questions ‘who is in control?’ and even ‘whose body?’ In a situation of change, womens’ strategies are not all similar, and have an ontological dimension. Different strategies may focus on mind, on body, or on materials and products, and in each case a woman may be instantiating a different sense of self, with a different locus for identity and selfhood:
This work has clear resonances with much wider ideas in anthropology about the range of ways people think about themselves culturally, in terms of relationships between mind and body, and between human and natural.
Our work also considered different cultural frameworks for what change is, and developed a set of cultural probes for the exploration of the issues presented by menopause:
Menopause is not only a medical issue, but a question of everyday life, and one to which materials engineering and its intersection with fashion is crucial. The strength of this project may lie in its potential to assess current attitudes and needs based on lived experiences that begin to unpack the challenges and opportunities this big topic offers for future research.
Posting by Daphne Stylianou, Adam Drazin
Work Conducted By: Nicola Dillon, Cheer Huang, Lucy Adjoah Armah, Daphne Stylianou