Speculative Design: Our Shadows, Our Selves: Reimagining (Mental) Health

Please note: this writing sample was adapted for “Reimagining (Women’s) Health: HCI, Gender and Essentialized Embodiment,” a 2020 TOCHI conference paper that is currently under review. I am the second author of this paper and the author of this excerpt, including the zine featured below.

For this section of our paper, I sought to speculate on how we might design an accessible text to serve as an evocative object1 for rethinking what has henceforth been constructed as “women’s (mental) health.” We might first begin by rethinking what it is to be a woman as it relates to the ascription of femininity. The verb to “feminize” is used in this section to refer to any social identity being ascribed as feminine by an external entity, be it an individual or system. This is because femininity has historically been weaponized by those in social power as a means of justifying the subjugation of those ascribed as feminine. Worth noting, is that femininity is an almost globally devalued characteristic that is coupled with disproportionate expectations of social, emotional, domestic, and reproductive labor2,3. In this way, feminization could serve as postmodern object to think with1 that could potentially cut across identities that have share common wounds4 related to this feminization.

The aim of this postmodern reframing is to disrupt the reification of essentialist, harmful discursive frames in women’s health. However, I am also cautious about the potential consequences of this cutting across and would like to caution any future work to actively reflect with explicit documentation who is and who is not being included in research or design and why. Specifically, femininity within healthcare here is speculated with as a way in which we might think more deeply about context, i.e., the lived experiences of identities who are typically feminized with cisgender women, such as trans, non-binary, and intersex people. This text seeks to answer a generous read on findings outlined in previous sections of this paper of almost exclusively essentialist and biological understandings of womanhood within healthcare, but perhaps particularly human-computer interaction (HCI) and healthcare given its intersection with masculinized culture and technologies.

Because of this intersection, healthcare-HCI researchers in particular may not be able to see outside their lived experiences and belief systems yet given the institutional barriers that permit diversity on our teams, while also promoting silence on this absence. However, this read requires a similarly generous read from the HCI communities we are asking to think differently in that myself and my co-authors are sharing knowledges informed by our lived experiences on the margins of who and what is considered in healthcare. Of course, our speculations are not enough, even when taken together. Thus, this read implores that this field think more critically about what bodies matter5 and who gets to become a designer or researcher or healthcare practitioner in the first place and what that means for public health.

The concept of the prototype text featured above is titled “Our Shadows, Our Selves.” This text is inspired by Our Bodies, Ourselves mentioned in an earlier section. However, the aim of this text is to make mental health knowledge accessible to the participant. Specifically, this zine thinks with Carl Jung’s theories of the Self to pose questions to the participant about the nature of their Self and the human experience. Both topics bring this speculative design close to the third wave in HCI calling for embodiment and consideration of relationships, affect, situational context, etc6. Rather than rendering a self on one side of two polar spectrums of good or evil, the counter-discourse that this text seeks to seed reframes humans as multi-faceted and implores practices of both queering and questioning.

The value of both speculative design and prototyping is to support thinking through the intended and unintended consequences of a design. In thinking through the consequences of this text, we might first begin with accessibility. To outline how I thought this through, we can first think with my choice of text: the zine. Zines are visual, serving to support comprehension for a wider spectrum of learning abilities than text alone. Importantly, zines are like comics in that they are capable of communicating complex ideas simply by way of distillation. In terms of financial accessibility, zines can be created, replicated, and distributed rather inexpensively compared to other forms of similarly concrete communication rendering them more accessible to individuals of lower socioeconomic status. Furthermore, the visuals in this zine are intentionally simplistic to lend themselves well to translation into tactile imagery for participants living with lower vision. In consideration of vision abilities, any online publishing of this zine would necessitate accompanying alt text.

The audience for this zine is systemically disadvantaged groups who are particularly susceptible to trauma by way of living their everyday lives7. Returning to feminization, I emphasize trans and cisgender women and non-binary people, as well as historically feminized and thus devalued identities e.g, LGBTQ+ communities, people living with disabilities, and people of color. The aim of this practice of questioning is to reframe and rethink the hard paths we must take to emancipate ourselves and decolonize our minds8 to enable us to think beyond essentialized ideas surrounding gender and other intersectional identities such as race, ability, nationality, religion, etc. The aim here is to open up the frame of womanhood and health as a matter of public health. That is, to include a wider spectrum of identities in healthcare. Importantly, this posture chooses to recognize the historical role of colonization in healthcare.

Further aims include demystifying therapy, how our communities might support each other, and trauma, as well as the myriad ways trauma manifests itself in the body either creating an opportunity for suffering or dialogue between the mind and soma. The zine features abstract imagery meant to evoke the spirit of sci-fi, as a method of supporting people in reimagining possibilities. This zine is perhaps particularly inspired by the work of Octavia Butler9, which calls for the healers in our communities to rise up into leadership.

I imagine the zine as open source, available online for printing and sharing. However, this raises questions of who has internet and printer access. And so I go on to speculate about an offline care community that might distribute texts, and enact and support such a counter-discourse. Importantly, all components of this speculated care community must be designed locally to consider differing cultural infrastructures and appropriate solutions as advocated by Prabhakar et al.’s “MatHealthXB” workshop10. For example, the first prototype of this zine assumes a reading orientation from left to right and top to bottom, which would not translate globally.

The base framing of this zine is intended to empower participants to see differing possibilities by way of offering a theory-based narrative, along with applied praxes for participants to learn to dialogue with their shadows with. In thinking through the applied praxes, such as movement journals that make space for our shadows to healthfully express or dialogue with us, I assume participants will modify any frameworks presented to their own needs. Importantly, this modification is seen as an asset, which inverts paternalistic notions of health and help.

Thus, this counter-discourse seeks to embed three elements that our data suggests is absent in modern healthcare systems for feminized identities: (1) reimagined possibilities, (2) flexible frameworks for empowerment, and (3) community support. Support may be particularly integral as trauma research and transformative learning theory together clearly outline the following pattern — trauma experienced without support yields negative outcomes11,12, sometimes as extreme as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Furthermore, PTSD feeds a positive feedback loop of trauma without treatment. That is, traumatized people traumatize people, often times without being aware of it consciously13.

When feminized populations have been traumatized enough, how might we better understand this pattern? Unfortunately, PTSD is difficult to “diagnose” using current normative methods, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. This is because the DSM’s “disorders” overlap with each other. For example, PTSD overlaps with bi-polar disorder, multiple personality disorder, and depression. This is problematic as the medication for treating any disorder can do more damage to participants if the real source of their suffering is (developmental) trauma13.

This reality creates even more urgency for feminized identities to know themselves, so that they may become advocates for their own health until their health practitioners are willing and able to serve as accomplices. This Self expertise may very well be aided through dialoguing with the unconscious, thought of here as shadows. At the very least, this dialogue will support reflection. Trauma with support then leads to transformation via learning more about who you are and why. However, support is systematically less likely for feminized communities by way of the historical entanglement of femininities with supporting or deferring to others to the detriment of the Self with institutional dependency and disempowerment.

For this support piece, I speculate on tying this zine to a community of care for and by systematically disadvantaged groups. We might speculate a pop-up “kissing (and telling)” booth. This booth intentionally plays on kissing booths and confessionals while giving a nod to Rwanda’s Gacaca courts and their healing role after the Rwandan genocide. These booths then could serve as live, in-person support for community members as they learn to dialogue with their shadows by providing held spaces. Keeping in mind the varying levels of subjugations of feminized bodies globally, a question of safety arises: how might this community communicate the location of these booths with its members, and gain new members, while maintaining protected and private spaces for the safety of its members?

For this safety concern, we might envision the lowest technology solution here for the highest accessibility, such as text message communication for pop-up appearances of held spaces. However, the question of safety looms for local, within community problem-solving. In these care spaces, we might imagine members collecting stories from community members. These members then might become something like peer mentors or citizen-researchers crowd-sourcing the “needs” of their communities and supporting each other to create strategies for meeting those needs.

Mentioned above is how this zine thinks with Carl Jung’s theories of the Self and hopes to create dialogue between the participant and their Self. Self here with a capital ‘S’ refers to the whole Self as opposed to the split self. Jung’s theory of the Self was his attempt to integrate Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions into Western psychology’s theories of the self somewhat ironically after Western psychology’s emancipation from Western religion. This emancipation was derivative of René Descartes’ insistence on the mind/body dichotomy in the 1600s14.

Interestingly, this integration was spurred after Jung worked with Freud. Jung disagreed with Freud’s assertion that psychopathology was caused by a split in the human psyche, formed by childhood sexual trauma. He also took issue with Freud’s unbalanced emphasis of the Electra/Oedipus complex. Further, Jung disagreed with Freud’s representation of the unconscious as the “animalistic” id, i.e., something to be controlled14.

Important to note is that Freud’s research was with Victorian women suffering from hysteria, which was then thought of as suffering with no known physical origin. The common denominator of these women was that they had all suffered sexual trauma from family members as children; an experience that they were not able to process as children (without support for doing so). Freud tied this commonality to his model of the psyche, which was developed as a byproduct of working with this population. Therefore, this work of Freud’s fed if not established the discourse on hysteria mentioned earlier as well as formed the basis of his Electra/Oedipus complex14.

Instead, Jung theorized that humans all carry the germ of psychopathology because socialization on its own, which he does not name but describes, is able to form a psychic split. Jung thought humans are born as their full Self and then their caregivers, peers, and experiences shape them. This shaping happens through interaction, wherein the individual is taught which characteristics of their Self are adaptive to their environment and which are not via positive or negative reinforcement. The adaptive characteristics form their “ego” or the personality the individual is consciously aware of. Their “maladaptive” characteristics are then molded into the shadow, which is submerged just below their conscious awareness. Importantly, these shadow characteristics are not bad or evil, but rather do not fit (in the Darwinian sense) their Environment15,16.

Furthermore, the shadow is believed to be the source of undeveloped talents and creativities. The warning here is that if humans do not learn to dialogue with their shadow or the unaccepted parts of their Self, their conscious personality will lose affinity with the center of their true Self more and more overtime. At the extreme, a person can become a false self by too closely identifying with their persona, which Jung thought of as the most adaptive aspects of the ego. Ironically, a false self may perform as something like bi-polar or multiple personality “disorder” in that the false self presents while the person has energy and the shadows take over unconsciously when they do not15,16.

I saw this Jungian story arc of the Self as an engaging narrative for the zine that might attract people to think with, and aid them in concretizing rethinking their own health in terms of wholeness, dialogue, and expression. A dialogue with the unconscious or the shadow is created through what Jung called shadow work, which is an individualist version of shadow play. Shadow play has long histories in forms of (often communal) storytelling, art and folk traditions across the world, e.g., Cambodia, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, Turkey, and some countries in Europe. Communally, shadow theatre was used to pass on histories about community relevant battles between light and dark or good and evil14.

Historically, the shadow framework has been used by Jungian authors to think of the archetype of women as the shadow of the ego of men; the body as the shadow of the mind; illness as the shadow of health; the disabled body as the shadow of the able body; LGBTQ+ folks as the shadow of heterosexuals, etc16. However, future iterations of this zine seek to queer Jung’s notions of the Self and shadow work. This author seeks to do this by integrating intersectional17,18 and spectrum thinking2. The call of this reframed shadow work is for participants to find their own balance within the intersection of de-essentialized identity spectrums, rather than finding imbalance within the established beliefs of society’s “center.”

According to Jung, such balance can then support health, as well as authentic, creative lives and the ability to hold pluralistic ideas compassionately. Inversely, the less balanced someone is in their Self, the less compassionate they are able to be with themselves and others. Theoretically, this is because the more disconnected one is to their shadow, the more cognitive dissonance they will experience and the more likely it is that their shadow will feel the need to express the only way it can. In such disconnect, the shadow tends to express through often disruptive and possibly explosive projection. This takes the form of highly emotional, typically unconscious behaviors16. It often looks like hypocritical, irrational behavior.

I speculate whether or not intersectional shadow spectrums might help assist participants and designers in mapping and potentially anticipating less conscious, highly emotional responses. For example, the true source of fear and rage that leads to things like trans panic and other hate crimes. Thinking with a shadow framework, we might see the root of a hate crime against a feminized person as the individual’s own self-resentment for their own feminized shadow’s repression. Through projection the individual turns a truly intrapersonal issue into an interpersonal issue that can express violently.

Why? Theoretically, acknowledging the shadow requires acknowledging the pain the split brought on in the first place in its coercive mediation of our belongingness to one’s whole Self and thus one’s true communities. This intrapersonal pain motivates individuals to deny their shadow, even in the face of the destruction of themselves or others. Because of this relationship between a lack of awareness of the shadow and potential violence, I speculate a shadow framework could serve well as a sensitizing concept19 for healthcare, perhaps particularly when it comes to de-essentializing or queering healthcare for feminized identities.

1. Turkle, S. (2007). Evocative objects: Things we think with. Cambridge, MA, US: MIT Press.
2. Serano, Julia. (2007). Whipping Girl: a Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.
3. Kimmel, M. S. (2008). Guyland : the perilous world where boys become men. New York: Harper.
4. Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987.
5. Magubane, Z. (2001). WHICH BODIES MATTER?: Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the “Hottentot Venus.” Gender and Society, 15(6): 816-834.
6. Harrison, S., Tatar, D., & Sengers, P. (2007). The three paradigms of HCI. Proc. of CHI 2007.
7. Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. London: Duke University Press.  https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822395324.
8. Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Seabury Press.
9. Butler, O. (2000). Lilith’s Brood. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
10. Prabhakar, A. S., Newhouse, N., Simpson, E. Mburu, C.W., Ahmed, N., & Chen, Y. (2019). MatHealthXB: Designing Across Borders for Global Maternal Health. 10.1145/3290607.3308454.
11. Kegan, R. (1995). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
12. Mezirow, J. (2003). Transformative Learning as Discourse. Journal of Transformative Education, 1(1): 58-63. https://doi.org/10.1177/1541344603252172.
13. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York: Viking.
14. Leeming, D. A., Madden, K., & Marlan, S. (2010). Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-71802-6, Springer Science + Business Media LLC.
15. Jung, C. G. (1990). The Undiscovered Self. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
16. Zweig, C., & Abrams, J. (1991). Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.
17. Crenshaw, K. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color”. In: Martha Albertson Fineman, Rixanne Mykitiuk, Eds. The Public Nature of Private Violence. (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 93-118.
18. Collins, P. H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press.
19. Blumer, H. (1954). What is Wrong with Social Theory? American Sociological Review: 19(1), 3-10.

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