Women, We Have A Problem by L. Steele
Sports Gear Designed for Women’s Bodies—Not Stereotypes
From sneakers to space suits, most gear is still designed for men’s bodies – and women are irked. How to avoid brands that just ‘shrink it and pink it’ and find bikes, kicks and backpacks that fit you right
When it comes to sports gear and apparel, women don’t always get what they want – and they rarely get what they need, which in the worst cases can lead to life-affecting injuries.
In an essay published by the Guardian in March, cyclist Hannah Dines detailed her experience having to undergo surgery after years riding bike saddles that didn’t properly pressure-map her groin led to chronic inflammation and long-term trauma.
She had just trained through the pain. While men can comfortably straddle most bike seats, she wrote, “female cyclists sit right on the money.”
It’s an issue many women face, said pro cyclist Alison Tetrick, but it’s often “swept under the rug.” Result: Few cycling brands create saddles with cutouts and materials designed to protect women’s sensitive areas.
After suffering silently through too many races, Ms. Tetrick reached out in 2016 to Stephanie Kaplan, the road-bike product manager at the cycling brand Specialized.
Ms. Kaplan’s first move was to take an X-ACTO knife to one of Specialized’s existing seats, carving out the contact points in hopes of relieving saddle pressure.
But that rough prototype merely migrated the friction and discomfort, so Ms. Kaplan and a team, led by Dr. Andy Pruitt, spent nearly three years collecting data from an all-women test group and experimenting with nearly 20 more developed prototypes.
This led to the Specialized Women’s Power Expert seat ($175, specialized.com) which Ms. Tetrick said lets her ride comfortably for longer periods and even allowed injuries to heal without slowing her training.
Unfortunately, these sorts of exacting development processes of women’s products are rare.
Instead, women athletes, astronauts, drivers, pianists, et al., are forced to use products spec’d by men for their own geometry – or, possibly worse, ones for men that have been patronizingly hued rose and scaled down, a strategy known as “shrink it and pink it.” This leaves the needs of women – a majority of the global population – largely ignored.
“We’re still so limited,” said Caroline Criado Perez, author of the book “Invisible Women,” which examines gender bias in product design.
When it comes to sports equipment, “Women usually have the option of shopping one or two brands with only one or two models,” she said.
“It’s great that some brands acknowledge that women exist, but everything is still designed and created in the image of a default male.”
That “default male” has a name: Reference Man. He’s a hypothetical 5’9″, 154 pound white dude, aged 25 to 30 years, a definition published in 1975 by the International Commission on Radiological Protection.
The group was merely seeking to measure how much radiation might be absorbed into the tissue of a standard human and help develop ways to shield it.
But thanks to Reference Man’s dominance, even simple calorie counters on treadmills and fitness trackers can be wildly inaccurate if you’re female, since men burn 8% more calories than women of similar height due to difference in muscle and fat distribution.
The reliance on the Reference Man dictates the size and shape of everything from smartphones (often too big for women’s hands) to crash test dummies (women are 47% more likely to suffer severe injuries in car accidents, according to the American Public Health Association).
Noted Dr. Simeon Gill, author of “Advances in Design for Inclusion,” designers rarely gather new anthropometric data – the systematic measurements of the human body used to design buildings, cars, chairs or shoes.
This status quo is self-perpetuating: Research is largely funded by men, who make up 93% of venture capitalists, who in turn hire male designers and execs to focus on products that suit male needs.
Those products are then sold to both men and women with advertising language to make all customers believe they’re being catered to, even if the gear was made for only half of us.
… If designers can reject the reflex to dye gear pink, and instead understand how different body types and shapes have different pressure points, tissue distribution and natural functions, then athletes, women on the trail and shoppers in the ladies section won’t be force to make do with whatever’s available. But for that, more brands need to fund research and apply the resulting data to design for both men and women.
…[Product suggestions for women from the article]
Specialized Women’s Power Expert (Bike Seat for Women)
This bike saddle is the first to candidly address women’s pain and numbness when they ride. Specialize’s “Mimic” system of three foams provide anatomical support, while reducing pressure. $175; specialized.com
Ospery Mira 22
This day pack is designed with a “reference woman” in mind, featuring a narrower harness, tapered chest strap that falls below the collarbone and a hip belt that slants slightly upward to accomodate hips. $160, osprey.com
New Balance 1500v5 (running shoes for women)
The design of these supportive and responsive runners starts with a women’s foot mold to ensure that the heel width, instep height and forefoot width are a perfect fit. $110, newbalance.com
Backcountry HeavyWeight Snow Bib
Beyond being equipped with zippers that allow women to go to the bathroom without getting undressed, these new snowboarding bibs feature inner-thigh vents and waterproof pockets galore. $460, backcountry.com