It’s like Yakult for your vulva
Human beings are 90 percent bacteria. For Giulia Tomasello, that’s not gross at all. Instead, the Italian designer is leveraging our microfloral composition to transform the approach to women’s vaginal health.
While studying a masters in Material Futures at Central Saint Martins, Tomasello started to experiment with the idea of a bacteria kit that women can put inside their underwear to stay healthy and prevent viral infections such as thrush – which is said to affect a staggering 138 million women worldwide. The result was ‘Future Flora’. The project helps to recalibrate the notion of bacteria as something that’s harmful or negative by empowering women to self-care. Like Yakult for your vulva.
“The approach with bacteria can sound quite freaky,” she explains, “but it’s what makes up our skin microbiome. We are dealing constantly, on a very subtle level, with the relationship that we have with them.”
The kit allows you to swab and then cultivate your own live bacteria culture at home, which can be worn on a sanitary pad-type insert in your underwear. The healthy bacteria on the pad creates a hostile environment for bacteria that causes yeast infections. It also restores and maintains a balance for microflora in the vagina. “I started to be interested in this relationship that you have when you are growing your own living organism, something that you actually have to nurture and feed.”
Giulia’s investigation into natural well-being was very DIY. “I started by growing things in my room” she explains. “I was growing Kombucha and then I started growing bacteria. My endpoint was trying to understand the biotechnology in this case, with solutions to social problems and needs.” Scientists were on hand to flag anything which erred on the side of danger.
These experiments mark a whole new horizon for self-care. “Imagine if biohacking became a household thing,” Giulia poses, thinking about the possibilities for real ownership of our bodies if we could medically understand what was going on with them. “We could have an incubator, know how to grow bacteria and use this knowledge to cure our own vaginal infections.” Does she think that’s actually possible? “We are not in the right time,” she says, “It could be possible in 10, 20 years, but Future Flora is really to give you an idea of what it will look like, and what it will be. Because at the moment we don’t have sterile environments at home.”
The perceptions of BioTech and MedTech are already changing rapidly. Giulia explains that “when I graduated, people thought of Future Flora as really frightening. It was perceived as a provocative project.” Three years later, the same project has been awarded the 2018 STARTS Grand Prize for an artistic project that has “strong potential to influence or alter the use, deployment or perception of technology.” The recognition mirrors a wider biohacking trend, which has also seen people experiment with everything from mindful breathing techniques to in-built microchips.
It’s interesting that the acknowledgement for Giulia’s Future Flora project coincides with a wider shift in society’s understanding of what beauty is, and what femininity can be. At a time when archaic constructs around beauty are being smashed apart, a new era for openly addressing, thinking and talking about what’s going on “down there” is finally upon us. We are taking ownership of the visceral. To that end, Giulia is also working on a new research project called Alma, notably with three male scientists. Alma is a wearable biosensor to monitor vaginal discharge, detect PH and lactic acid, and help to prevent vaginal infections.
“Sometimes we don’t feel comfortable going to seek medical advice or going to the gynaecologist. There is a big miseducation about the health of our reproductive system.” Information means power. If you study your own bacteria, you can do something about it. Giulia’s hope is that the more educated we are, the more enabled and empowered we are to make positive changes. “When we are informed, especially if something is happening in the vagina, then we change our behaviour to prevent sickness. It’s trying to bring this awareness to something like vaginal discharge when we have never really known what it is.”
Creating datasets in a medical area that has historically been ignored is also crucial for enabling medical innovation in the future. Giulia explains that her aim is “both to create awareness for women, but also data for researchers to continue and get deeper with these kinds of studies. We don’t have a prevention because we don’t have data. My question is: why don’t we have data?”
While Giulia focusses on turning these initial prototypes and research into viable home alternatives, her advice for self-care and wellness “is to become more aware of our own bodies and our anatomy and our cycle of our vaginal flora during the month. Trying to understand more about our vaginal discharge, and what it says about our diet, our fertility. I believe that as women we are controlled by what's going on there. Especially in our womb. I believe that our brain is there, which guides our feelings and our instincts. The more we know what is happening in our vulva, in our uterus, in our reproductive parts, the better and more confident we can feel about who we are.”
Director Maja Zupano