The gynecological apparatus, designed by men, has a sordid history. An Object Lesson.
The exam table with its stirrups. The cold, metal instruments lying in wait. The drape-sheet hiding the patient from herself. The invasive poking and prodding. A routine trip to the gynecologist can elicit anxiety and dread.
One study attributed “negative affective, behavioral, and cognitive processes” to the pelvic exam, “unlike most other preventative care procedures.” Each year, some 60 million pelvic exams are performed in the United States. Providers use a speculum—the hinged, two-bladed instrument that looks like a duck bill—to inspect the cervix, test for STDs, and obtain pap smears.
For all its beneficial uses, the speculum has a sordid past, one connected to patriarchal authority and institutionalized racism. In the hands of professionalized medicine, the speculum became a tool for (mostly male) doctors to make public decisions about women’s private, reproductive organs. But today, product designers in San Francisco are taking aim at gynecology’s hated device. They’re rethinking the speculum’s jingling screws, materials, and uncomfortable angles to make the pelvic exam less unnerving for patients and providers.