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Your Vagina Is Not A Machine

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
In the late ‘80s, mathematician and science writer Rudy Rucker popularized the term “wetware” to mean “the underlying generative code for an organism" — a.k.a. things like genes, the biochemistry of cells, and the architecture of a body’s muscles and bones. But in the years since, "wetware" has come to represent everything that is soft and squishy about humans: our brains, our health, our fleshy and fallible bodies. Of late, the notion that a human’s wetware is directly analogous to a computer’s software has gained traction in Silicon Valley. The results of this belief are unending attempts to replace, track, or supplement every aspect of our messy human lives with an app or device.

And tracking yourself has never been easier. You can keep tabs on your moods, your periods, your fitness, your sodium intake, your sleep, your sex, your meditation, and, now, your vaginal wall strength. In the wake of endless fitness tracking devices like the Jawbone Up and FitBit line, several connected Kegel-exercising devices have hit the market, offering the ability to keep track of just how well your pelvic floor is doing.

“If you think that biological life is inscrutable and you think that machines are understandable and controllable — if you think of bodies like machines, there’s the promise that you can fully understand and control them,” explains Lucy Suchman, a sociologist at Lancaster University in the U.K. Suchman studies how wearables reflect the ways in which we see our own bodies.

The way to understand something inscrutable, at least in Western society right now, is to quantify it — to gather data. The bigger the data, the better. And what is more inscrutable than the inner workings of the vagina?

So here we are, witnessing the rise in connected Kegel devices.

The products are varied: Loop — which looks like a bulbous, purple thumb, but sexier — came from a partnership between two sex-toy designers and some biomedical engineers. Elvie looks like a tiny sperm with its tail curled up beneath it. The kGoal looks more like a hand grenade with a handle. Yet another product, Skea, though not yet for sale, combines Kegel exercises with an iPhone game; it surpassed its Kickstarter goal by over $10,000 in August of last year.
Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
All of these devices aim to fix a real problem: Many women struggle with pelvic floor strength. According to a study done by Minna, the manufacturers of the kGoal, 54% of women between the ages of 30 and 44 experience accidental urinary leakage — something that a strong pelvic floor helps to prevent. And while over 80% of women know what Kegels are, the majority say they don’t really know how to tell whether they’re doing them correctly. “You can see that you’re doing a bicep curl, but there’s no real way that you can connect to a pelvic-floor exercise,” says Liz Miracle, a pelvic floor specialist working with Minna on the kGoal.

There’s no question that pelvic floor exercises are good for women — they help improve bladder control, make recovery from childbirth quicker and easier, stabilize and support the pelvic organs, and, yes, according to some studies, improve your sex life. But do they need to be quantified and connected? Does the vagina need to be gamified?

Liz Miracle, one of the founders of Minna, thinks so. She had been working as a physical therapist for years in San Francisco, helping women train their pelvic floor muscles. Miracle laughs when she thinks about the various medical devices at her disposal. “The way we typically have done things is pretty archaic. [Things like] attaching wires to people that then go to dinosaur-like computer systems. It doesn’t feel very intuitive; it feels slightly invasive.”

So, in her physical therapy practice, Miracle often decided to forgo the machines and simply helped women train to do kegels correctly by using her hands, giving them feedback that way. But, she admits, not every woman is comfortable having a physical therapist put her hand in her vagina. “So for a few years now, I’ve really wanted there to be something like these [Kegel] devices — something that doesn’t need a prescription. So a woman is more in control of her own health.”

After meeting the team at Minna Life, Miracle knew she’d found a match. Together, they created the kGoal, a device that connects to the user’s phone and assists in performing kegel exercises. It’s a soft, air-filled plastic bubble that users place inside their vaginas. And its feedback is haptic; it lets users know that they’re squeezing the bubble correctly by giving a little vibration. Though the kGoal also has an app to track reps and progress, users don’t have to use the app to do the exercise (and get the feedback).

The Loop differs in form. The device is a hard object — similar to a dildo — and it includes two sensors that answer two questions: "Am I doing the Kegel exercise correctly?" and "Are my muscles getting stronger?" That data is sent to the Loop app, which tracks your progress.

Both devices connect to the user's phone via a bluetooth connection, providing workout statistics like any other fitness-tracking app. Now, along with your 10,000 steps, your calorie count, and your sleep cycles, you can see just how many squeezes you did that day.

Brian Krieger, the CEO of Minna Life, admits that he occasionally feels a bit sheepish about the kGoal. “Sometimes I feel like a caricature of a Silicon Valley person,” he says. “We’re going to gamify this experience and connect it to your phone!” he mocks. But he points to the fact that Kegel exercises are important and overlooked — arguing that the company isn't simply stringing together a series of buzzwords to try and make a buck. “Our goal is to have someone do a pelvic floor exercise and reap the benefits, so whatever incentive we can provide within the product to resonate with the maximum number of people...” If that means gamifying something, so be it.

The developers of Loop, on the other hand, bristle at the idea of gamifying and gadgets. “Our product is maybe the least gadget-y,” says co-founder Karianne Rønning Ellekrans when asked about her competitors. “We want to communicate the values of the product — not the fantastic technology in it. That shouldn’t be the selling point of the product.” When asked whether she thinks of the body like a car, she laughs. “No. I think of our product as something that the body gets to use. If you want to say car, we can say temple.”

Many of the developers of Kegel devices were surprised to find themselves suddenly a part of a trend. “I had no idea there were other people working on this,” Krieger said. The folks at Loop were also surprised to see other devices pop up, but they were ultimately heartened by it. “It must be a cultural shift, which is a great thing, and in that sense the competition is great,” Adam Scheuring, another Loop co-founder, said.

Both Miracle and Ellekrans emphasize that their whole mission is to get women to really be in tune with their bodies, to understand their pelvic floors, and to feel comfortable with doing these exercises regularly. “I don’t think we need to attach every part of our body to an iPhone,” Miracle says, “but the problem with pelvic floor exercises in particular is that women don’t know what they don’t know.” Perhaps these devices solve that.

But where Miracle and Ellekrans see a cultural shift, Suchman sees more of an extension of the ways in which quantified self is helping people outsource their own personal care. “It’s like a kind of mirror of yourself. It’s just like reading your fortune or taking one of those personality tests,” she says. “There’s something about creating an external version of yourself that you can be informed by that’s really fascinating for many people. You yourself outsource to machines the care of your body or the tracking of your life.” Which, in fact, runs in conflict with the missions that Miracle and Ellekrans just explained — to get women more in touch with their own bodies.

So what’s the upshot here? For those who want help working out their pelvic floors, Kegel-exercising devices can certainly be useful. But it’s also worth thinking about how much of this quantification is simply an attractive technological fix to something, versus how much of it is really helping you get better at a thing you care about. If adding tracking to your vaginal canal feels right to you, if it helps you do the exercises and makes you feel good about them, great. But if it just instills the competitiveness and vague dread that other kinds of tracking might, you’re not crazy. Your body isn’t a car, and your vagina isn’t a carburetor.