Emma considered herself perfectly healthy; she worked out regularly and made conscious food choices. She also suffered from chronic constipation, but thought it completely normal — until her mother found out and encouraged her to seek help.
Although Henry suffers from chronic heartburn, it’s rarely the subject of his conversation.
He says this is partially out of embarrassment and partially because it never seemed relevant. He also hinted that it wasn’t very masculine to complain about minor ailments like heartburn. As a result, when Henry shopped for over-the-counter heartburn solutions, he habitually reached for antacids, which were only marginally effective, but were the only product he had heard of. He had no idea that entire classes of products existed one shelf away that could really help him.
How might we reach people who don’t even realize there’s a solution to their problem?
Befriending a new normal
When Jackie came across people she knew on match.com, she treated it as a shared secret: “I didn’t discuss it.” The first time people asked her where she and her boyfriend met, there was an awkward pause. Eventually, she became more comfortable, and “now we are a story that other people tell.”
Jill, a researcher who studies behaviors around online dating, notes that women have an easier time with a site like JDate: “It is easier to admit that you simply want to find a Jewish man, rather than that you can’t find a man at all.” And match.com’s slogan, “It’s okay to look,” sends a reassuring message that online dating falls into the realm of normal behavior.
In contrast, True.com emphasizes “dating safety,” screening members against a US criminal database. The implication? To Jill, it says “This is not normal, and we have to screen for all the crazies we attract.” Not exactly reassuring.
What can be done to remove stigma and reassure people that an offering or activity is “normal”?
Since its approval in 1998, Viagra has become a household name, but erectile dysfunction is still not something Peter talks to his friends about. Ever. Peter compares Viagra’s ‘Viva Viagra’ campaign to ads from competitive products: “Viagra comes across as a drug you would use for fun rather than a fix for an embarrassing problem. It features dancing and partying, not gray hair and messaging about ‘renewing your connection.’”
As with many taboos, a key part of the embarrassment is simply not having the right words to discuss it. These taboos pose a challenge worldwide. For Shefali Vasudev, editor of Marie Claire in India, “In public discourse, sexuality is either lewd jokes or giggling.” Even doctors do not always have the vocabulary for sexual issues. “Gynecologists would tell women after childbirth or surgeries, ‘Don’t have a relationship with your husband,’ instead of, ‘Don’t have intercourse.’”
How might design serve to reframe context and dialogue in tackling potentially embarrassing topics?
IKO Toilet: dignity for all
David Kuria knew that by addressing toilet sanitation, a taboo issue in Kenya, he would positively affect the physical, emotional, and social well being of people living in dehumanizing conditions. So he founded IKO Toilet, a socially and financially sustainable venture that equips informal communities with the tools and skills to manage their sanitation and retain their dignity. The sanitation blocks are managed by the community and serve as a hub for entrepreneurs and community-owned businesses.
Playing with sex
Masturbation has long been a contentious topic, but times are changing. LELO, Jimmyjane, and others have pioneered sleek, designer versions of toys once found only in seedy shops on the wrong side of town. Recognizing the potential of the female market, these companies have created new fun, friendly, and stylish forms quite different from the traditional sex toy. National chains like Good Vibrations and Toys in Babeland offer a safe, comfortable retail experience directed at women.
Positive portrayals of larger people are almost completely absent from mainstream media, which is why the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, featuring non-skinny models, made such a splash. More to Love is a bachelor-style reality show with a twist: the stars are plus-size. Newsweek author Joshua Alston says, “Unlike The Biggest Loser and Dance Your Ass Off, Ruby, More to Love is a show about overweight people that doesn’t relentlessly focus on their efforts to lose the weight.”
Menstrual management products are generally hidden, especially from men. Many recall that day at school when the boys were sent out to play kickball, while girls were given a lesson about feminine supplies. A series of video shorts by Tampax chronicles the adventures of Zack, a high school boy who wakes up one day and discovers he has “female parts” and a period. For the first time, boys are being openly invited to join the conversation in a way that’s playful and even cool.