Yesterday, I was fighting my way through the rain to attend a seminar about a new device called Elvie. Elvie is a brand new wearable technology that helps women identify their pelvic floor muscles and practice strengthening them. On the way there, I began thinking about the word “vagina,” and all the ways our culture shies away from it. I couldn’t stop thinking about a moment from the TV show, King Of The Hill, that has stuck with me throughout my adult life.
Through a series of interconnected events, Peggy, the mother on the show, is the substitute teacher saddled with teaching sex ed to her son’s class at school. The family lives in a fictional small town in Texas, and conservative Peggy can barely get herself to say the names for male and female anatomy out loud. In a last-ditch effort to get comfortable with naming genitalia, she eases herself into saying penis by shortening it from “happiness.” Then, emboldened, she screams “VAGINA!” out right after. Her husband, standing outside with his friends, hears this and spits out his beer. Sure, it’s a funny moment, but it also struck me as a sad one. Because it hit home so hard — the word “vagina” is still so taboo, even in 2015.
If we can barely say the word, how can we maintain the health of these important, intimate muscles? How can we conceive of our sexual reproductive system as a valuable part of us, for reasons that have nothing at all to do with sex? These are questions that Tania Boler, the creator of Elvie, was confronted with when she began researching how her body changed after giving birth. Boler already worked in reproductive health — with degrees from Oxford and Stanford universities and PhD in Sexual and Reproductive Health — but began researching this set of muscles and how to rehabilitate them after having her first child four years ago.
“Most women learn about the pelvic floor after pregnancy,” Boler said. “My husband is French, and, over there, all my French girlfriends know that they have to look after their bodies as well, not just the baby. The government actually pays for 10 sessions of rehabilitative therapy. You need to heal from the inside out, not just get your abs back. The focus should be on your abdominal muscles coming back together and re-lifting the pelvic floor, which becomes quite damaged in pregnancy.”
The primary way women have been taught to strengthen their pelvic floor — particularly post-partum — is through an exercise called the Kegel. Introduced in 1948 by American gynecologist Dr. Arnold Kegel, the exercise presented a non-surgical method for strengthening the pelvic floor, or pubococcygeus muscles, by contracting and holding them. As Boler soon learned, many women are doing the exercises wrong. Or are unclear on how to measure their progress. Or are shilling for technology that doesn’t really do anything for them.
“The only thing that seemed to work was what they used in the hospitals in France — biofeedback,” Boler explained. “That’s where they hook you up with all these wires and sensors, and as you exercise you can see that it’s working. It’s that mind-body connection that you build, like in yoga, becoming self-aware and being able to see yourself and prove you’re doing it.”
This biofeedback technology is embedded in the Elvie. It’s the first device released by Chiaro, a company that Boler founded along with Alexander Asseily (previously of Jawbone) that focuses on designing technology for women. The sleek, teal-colored device is equipped with more complicated technology than a Fitbit, but is small and discreet enough to fit in the palm of your hand. It charges via induction through a simple USB cord and comes with an iPhone app that offers detailed instructions and tracking to help you gauge whether or not you’re performing the exercises correctly. Through bluetooth, you can use the device — which is waterproof and made of smooth-silicone — to engage in brief, five-minute core-strengthening workouts, and track your progress.
Boler thinks the exercises are particularly important for new mothers who may feel their sexuality is diminished or less important than their new role as a caretaker. “Motherhood and your sexuality are two sides of the same coin,” she said. “Your vagina is both where you reproduce and where you’re sexually active. The two go together.”
Still, the scope of Elvie extends far beyond motherhood. Boler is concerned not just with changing the way women view their vaginas, but with strengthening the muscle itself. Pelvic floor strength is important for new mothers, but it is also important for older, post-menopausal women who are dealing with incontinence, or younger woman who interested in greater control and strength during sex, or simply want to preventatively strengthen.
“People think of these muscles as part of sex, or part of health,” Boler said. “But really it goes even deeper than that. It’s part of the core of what makes us women. It needs to be looked after. It doesn’t need to be sexual, but it also can be. Part of it is about feeling sexy. Sexy is a feeling it’s just as much a mental and emotional state. If you’re peeing yourself, you’re not going to feel very sexy either. And it’s about control: If you’ve got better pelvic floor strength, you can do more. You can choose what you want to do when.”
Buy an Elvie here for a cool $199. Don’t have the cash on hand? You can also practice calmly, confidently saying “vagina” out loud — that’s free.