Why does women’s clothing have to be so uncomfortable?
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It’s a saying that too many girls and young women grow up hearing: Beauty is pain. From hair removal to facial injections to plastic surgery, for many women, the pursuit of physical attractiveness comes with pain and discomfort.
But there is a more everyday type of beauty-related pain and discomfort that many women endure – the kind that comes from just wearing women’s clothing. In new research from my lab (The Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University), we conducted what we believe to be the first scientific study on how often women (compared to men) wear painful clothes, bothersome or restrictive. We also looked at some of the psychological consequences of wearing this type of clothing. The results were clear: Women are significantly more likely than men to wear clothes that hurt them, interrupt their concentration, or make it difficult to move freely.
A quick glance at the fashion landscape certainly suggests that women’s clothing is less comfortable than men’s clothing. But even questions for which the answer seems obvious deserve empirical examination. After all, the first step in changing a model is often to document it carefully.
We conducted two large surveys (both before the COVID-19 pandemic) that asked nearly 800 men and women how often they wore different types of clothing and why. The first survey targeted American students and the second a larger sample of American adults. Each survey respondent was presented with a list of different types of painful, embarrassing or constraining clothing, and was asked if they wore this type of clothing and, if so, how often. For sore clothes, we asked about things like shoes that cause pain or blisters, and clothes that leave marks on the body. For distracting clothes, we asked about the types of clothes that can interrupt the wearer’s concentration (for example, clothes that you need to regularly adjust to keep them in the right place). Finally, to restrict clothing, we asked about clothing that restricts movement, such as shoes that prevent standing or clothing that makes it difficult to move the arms or legs. Pointed-toe shoes are a good example of sore clothing; Formal clothing and tight skirts are good examples of restrictive clothing; Low-cut shirts that you have to constantly adjust or short skirts that require you to watch your sitting position carefully are good examples of distracting clothing.
Women were more likely than men to wear almost all types of painful, embarrassing or constraining clothing. Some of the biggest gender differences were found for questions relating specifically to shoes. Women were between three and 10 times more likely than men to wear shoes that cause pain, and between four and 12 times more likely to wear shoes that prevent them from standing comfortably. Much of this gender gap is likely due to the continued popularity of high heels for women.
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Shoes have a major impact on the wearer’s ability to stand, walk or run comfortably and confidently. While some men’s shoes are probably less comfortable than others, overall men’s shoes are designed for ease of movement, while many women’s shoes have a clear emphasis on form rather than fit. function. As my co-author of this research noted, since the main purpose of shoes is to make it easier to stand and walk, too many women’s shoes do a terrible job as footwear.
The results of this research also showed that between 32% and 55% of women reported wearing clothes so tight that they left marks on their body after taking them off, while only 12 to 15% of men said. wear such clothes. One-third of women said they wore clothes that require continuous monitoring and adjustment throughout the day, more than twice the rate of men. Most alarming was how often women reported wearing clothes that made it difficult to breathe. Women were three to six times more likely than men to report wearing clothes so tight they could not breathe deeply.
Interestingly, when we asked men and women why they were wearing painful, embarrassing, or restrictive clothing, they gave us very different reasons. Men were more likely to say they wore this type of clothing when they had no choice. For example, they might wear a tie to attend a funeral or be required to wear a suit as part of a workplace requirement. On the other hand, women were more likely to say they wore painful, embarrassing, or restrictive clothing because they felt the sacrifice was worth it to look good.
Wearing painful, inconvenient, or restrictive clothing is less than ideal for many practical reasons. These types of clothes can interrupt your concentration, prevent you from doing the things you need to do, and create a background level of pain that is uncomfortable at best, debilitating at worst. But these types of clothes also have psychological consequences. In two surveys, regardless of gender, people who wore painful, embarrassing or restrictive clothing reported spending more time engaging in âbody surveillanceâ. Body monitoring is a search term that refers to monitoring how your body looks to others. In general, body surveillance is bad news. It’s linked to body image issues, symptoms of eating disorders, and depression. Monitoring the body also disrupts your thought flow, making it harder to concentrate.
Although we often think of fashion as trivial, it is clear that the differences between male and female fashions have implications for physical and mental well-being. Fashion designers can certainly produce women’s clothing that is comfortable and functional as well as being attractive. Choosing clothes that allow you to move and breathe comfortably is an act of kindness to your body. Avoiding clothes that distract you could also be a gift for your brain.
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