Why should women’s clothing be uncomfortable?

James Demers / Pixabay

Source: James DeMers / Pixabay

It’s a saying that many girls and young women grow to hear: 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’s a more everyday kind of beauty-related pain and discomfort that many women endure — the kind that comes from just wearing women’s fashion. In new research from my lab (The Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University), we conducted what we believe to be the first scientific research study on how often women (versus men) wear painful, distracting, or restrictive clothing. We also examined some of the psychological effects of wearing these types of clothing. The results were clear: Women are more likely than men to wear clothing that hurts, interrupts their concentration, or makes it difficult for them to move freely.

A quick look at the fashion scene definitely indicates that women’s clothing is less comfortable than men’s. But even questions whose answers seem obvious deserve empirical scrutiny. After all, often the first step in changing a style is to document it carefully.

We ran two large surveys (both prior to the COVID-19 pandemic) asking nearly 800 men and women how often they wear different types of clothing and why. The first survey targeted American college students and the second a broader sample of adults in the United States. Each survey respondent was presented with a list of different types of distressing, distracting, or restrictive clothing, and asked if they wore this type of clothing, and if so, how often. For painful clothes, we asked about things like shoes that cause pain or blisters, and clothes that leave bruises on the body. As for distracting clothes, we asked about the types of clothes that can interrupt the wearer (for example, clothes that you have to adjust regularly to stay in the right place). Finally, for restrictive clothing, we asked about clothing that limits movement, such as shoes that make standing difficult or clothing that makes it difficult to move your arms or legs. Pointed-toed shoes are a good example of distressed clothing; Lingerie and tight skirts are good examples of restrictive clothing; Shirts with low cuts that you have to adjust frequently or short skirts that require monitoring how you sit are good examples of distracting clothing.

Women were more likely than men to wear all manner of clothing that was distressing, distracting, or restrictive. Some of the biggest gender differences are found for questions specifically addressing shoes. Women were three to ten times more likely than men to wear shoes that cause pain, and between four and 12 times more likely to wear shoes that make them unable to stand comfortably. This gender gap is likely driven by the continued popularity of high-heeled shoes for women.

Stock Pickup / Pixabay

Source: Stock Snap / Pixabay

Shoes have a significant impact on the wearer’s ability to stand, walk or run comfortably and confidently. While some men’s shoes are likely to be less comfortable than others, in general, men’s shoes are designed to facilitate movement while many women’s shoes clearly emphasize form more than function. As my co-authors in this paper note, since the main purpose of shoes is to make it easier to stand and walk, a lot of women’s shoes do a terrible job of being shoes.

The results of this research also showed that 32% to 55% of women reported wearing clothes that were too tight to leave marks on their body after taking them off, while only 12% to 15% of men reported wearing such clothes. A third of the women said they were wearing clothing that required constant monitoring and adjustment throughout the day — more than twice the rate for men. Even more alarming was the number of times women reported wearing clothing that made breathing difficult. Women were three to six times more likely than men to report wearing clothes that were so tight that they couldn’t breathe deeply.

Interestingly, when we asked men and women why they wore painful, distracting, or restrictive clothing, they gave us entirely different reasons. Men were more likely to say they wore this type of clothing when they had no choice. For example, they may wear a tie to a funeral or have to wear a suit as part of workplace requirements. On the other hand, women were more likely to say they dressed as painful, distracting, or restrictive because they felt the sacrifice was worth it in order to look good.

Wearing clothes that are uncomfortable, distracting, or restrictive is less than ideal for many practical reasons. These types of clothing can interrupt your concentration, make it difficult to do the things you need to do, and create a back level of pain that is unpleasant at best, and debilitating at worst. But these types of clothing also have psychological consequences. With two surveys, regardless of gender, subjects who wore painful, distracting, or restrictive clothing reported spending more time participating in ‘body monitoring’. Body observation is a research term that refers to observing how your body appears to others. In general, body monitoring is bad news. It’s linked to body image struggles, eating disorder symptoms, and depression. Observing the body also disrupts the flow of thoughts, making it more difficult to focus.

Although we often think of fashion as trivial, it is clear that the differences between men’s and women’s fashion have implications for physical and mental well-being. Fashion designers can certainly produce women’s clothing that is comfortable and functional while still being attractive. Choosing clothes that allow you to move and breathe comfortably is kind work towards your body. Avoiding distracting clothes may also be a gift to your brain.

Izana Danova/Pixels

Source: Aizhana Aldanova / Pexels

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