Thursday, July 19, 2007

Science Fashion - Why is always about the boobs?

Anyone who has worn a lab coat knows that they aren't particularly fashionable. That isn't really so important since they are meant to protect your clothing and your body from chemical spills and biological fluids. That's not to say they couldn't be designed better. Most of the lab coats I've worn have floopy sleeves at the wrists that are liable to get caught on something if you don't tape them up. Labs rarely carry many (if any) lab coats designed for shorter scientists, meaning that some (usually women) have to wear lab coats that are several sizes too big.

Despite their design deficiencies, I've never known anyone who complained that lab coats didn't show of their figure well enough. That's why I think it's a bit of a shame that Lab Lit (together with SciCult) chose to illustrate their potentially fun lab coat design competition "Stripping off the White Coat" with a drawing of two large- and pointy-breasted women. As one of the editors points out:

"The current design, which has been with us for nearly a century, is highly unflattering to both men and women," Rohn added. "And white is a disastrous colour for lab work, as every last little spill shows. Surely we can do better."
So why not include an illustration of a good-looking broad shouldered man, particularly since the majority of scientists are men?

(And of course one of the obvious reasons why lab coats are pretty shapeless is that they are designed to fit over your clothing, which may or may not be form fitting.)

It's not just lab coats that get the "better fitting means showing off the female body" treatment. On Monday MIT aero-astro professor Dava Newman reported that her group had developed a form-fitting space suit, dubbed the BioSuit. This is a significant improvement over bulky traditional spacesuits.

Newman's prototype suit is a revolutionary departure from the traditional model. Instead of using gas pressurization, which exerts a force on the astronaut's body to protect it from the vacuum of space, the suit relies on mechanical counter-pressure, which involves wrapping tight layers of material around the body. The trick is to make a suit that is skintight but stretches with the body, allowing freedom of movement.

Not only does the flexible design allow easier movement, but the suit can also be used for resistance to retain muscle mass in low gravity, and small punctures can be easily fixed without immediately returning to the space station or home base.

It's frustrating to me that once again some are choosing to focus on the female form, rather than the technical achievement. I was a bit dismayed that the technology email list chose to use the subject line "spacesuits for supermodels" for their article about the BioSuit (fortunately the actual article doesn't carry that whiff of sexism). A quick look at the blog posts on the news turns up references to "space bunnies," comparison photos of Seven-of-Nine and Barbarella, not to mention the juvenile boob comments at Gizmodo.

Is it any wonder that there are female scientists who don't feel like they are taken seriously?

The image is Newman modeling the BioSuit (click the image for slide show).
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Anonymous said...

This is a very nice post, and I want to see how others react to this.

Anonymous said...

I should point out that the suit was designed by a woman, and she's the one modeling it. (Dava Newman is a woman's name.)

So the fact that they got a busty photo for marketing is a happy coincidence. If they'd shown a man wearing it, would they have been criticized for not showcasing its creator--a woman? Or for prudishly hiding the fact that some astronauts come equipped with breasts?

Perhaps we should thank MIT for showing a woman in a spacesuit, and breaking down a gender stereotype about technical, dangerous, high-visibility professions.

Peggy K said...

Just to be clear, I think it's perfectly appropriate that Newman is modeling her design. What bothers me is the way it's been reported - not as an innovative new space suit design, but as a a better way of showing off the female figure.

Anonymous said...

What have you got against the female form? Why shouldn't we show it off?

- A female scientist