Saturday, October 13, 2012

Code Red! An app for that time of the month and adjusting to patriarchy in the public toilet

"Desperately seeking a tampon? There's an app for that," reads the headline on CommonHealth, the Boston NPR affiliate's health blog.

As the article says of the Harvard students who came up with this idea, "They came up with a simple prototype: a mobile app that would allow women in need to send out a “red alert” that would ping other nearby users who could rush over and delivery a tampon or sanitary pad or share information on where the nearest working tampon vending machine might be."


Menstrual waste management is one of the most taboo subjects in public health--even more than shit and sanitation. While there is an increased acknowledgement of the need for toilets, there has been no increase in discussions on menstrual waste management. Since it's all interconnected, I have no compunctions about addressing it on this blog.

Poor menstrual management can lead to infections, toxic shock syndrome, discomfort, and a series of social embarrassment. Discussions about menstruation in American society are silenced: men don't want to hear it. Even talking about menstrual issues with other women can be embarrass.

Why are women's bodies seen as abnormal? Women are the ones who are asked to adjust to 'the way things are.' Another example of this is the number of female urinary directors (more or less funnels that let women pee like men) and uneven toilet ratios that cause long lines for women. There are those who say women just need to go faster or need to deal with it or need to remember to carry supplies, but why are women's bodies seen as the abnormal, as the exception? Imagine, if you will, what it would be like if restroom facilities were based on women's bodies and needs. There would be more toilets, more safe design, more mirrors. And there would always be menstrual supplies available, and even perhaps wipes to help clean up menstrual waste in the restroom.

Before you say that that's too much, what if these were the normal supplies in a restroom, the standard set, just as toilet paper and soap are? Toilet paper and soap are the primary needs of men in restrooms; women require more. Public restrooms initially came up as only for men; that assumption has never been changed in the architecture and design of restrooms.

Every woman has, at one point or another, not had the right supply when they need it. It is difficult to deal without it: not using anything can cause an embarassing marking on one's clothes and fashioning a substitute from toilet paper can be problematic because not only does it leak quickly but it can shift. While some places have vending machines, they frequently don't work. So I think this app might be a fun idea, but the fact that there is a need for it--that somehow women are expected to use community ties to adjust to an architecture and system that is designed around men's bodies--is evidence of the quiet influence of patriarchy in modern lives.

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