Thursday, 9 May 2013

What the Fashion Industry Could Learn from the US Military

A petition on, requesting the restriction of ‘thinspiration’ language on twitter, has just reached 1,781 signatures. Thinspiration is a portmanteau meaning ‘inspiration to be thin’, which has become associated with pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia communities on several popular social media sites. The petition argues that permitting thinspiration language and imagery to proliferate on social media sites results in the promotion of unhealthy body types and encourages young women to develop eating disorders. Pinterest and Tumblr have already taken steps to remove thinspiration content; now twitter is being pressured to do the same.

Reading about this petition has brought me back to thinking about the ongoing discussion of the size zero phenomenon. The debate on size zero reached frenzied heights in 2006 when models Luisel Ramos and Ana Carolina Reston died from anorexia, resulting in Madrid Fashion Show banning size zero models. Milan Fashion Week followed suit shortly after, prohibiting models with a Body Mass Index lower than 18. The frenzy seems to have abated somewhat in recent years but the gaunt models, and the followings they have online, remain. 

Those opposed to size zero have long bandied around names of who is to blame. It’s the model agencies’ fault for hiring only unhealthily skinny girls. It’s the fashion magazine industry’s fault for publishing photos of visibly bony models. Now it’s social media’s fault for not banning the language used to promote unhealthy body ideals.

But for me this debate ultimately comes down to design because, at essence, that is surely what fashion is all about. Strip away the magazines, the photographers, the stylists and the model agencies, and what you’re left with is the designers… designing. If we want to ensure that women in the fashion industry are a healthy size, we need to start designing clothes for healthy-sized women. It’s here that the fashion industry could learn a lot from the US military.

Pentagon officials and engineers have historically built a bias against women’s bodies into military technologies through the use of restrictive design guidelines. Military Standard 1472 suggests the use of 95th and 5th percentile male dimensions when designing military systems. By using this standard, only 10% of the male population cannot be accommodated by a given design feature. Unfortunately, the gap between a 5th percentile woman and a 95th percentile man is vast. A significant number of women are thus deemed ineligible to use a variety of military systems.

The most well-known case of bias against women’s bodies in military design is the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS). Originally, the JPATS specifications included a 34-inch minimum sitting height in order to operate cockpit controls effectively and eject from the aircraft safely. However, at 34 inches, around 50-65% of the American female population was excluded. As a result, a significant number of women were prevented from pursuing aviation careers by prohibiting them from JPATS training.

Change was eventually achieved through government interference. Former Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, publicly recognised that women should play a greater role in the military through a directive issued in April 1993. Then, in 1994, the Defense Authorisation Bill was passed, including a provision which prevented the Air Force from spending $40 million of its $41.6 million trainer budget unless the Pentagon altered the cockpit design for the JPATS (Weber, 1997; 245). The Clinton Administration, reeling from the embarrassment of its poor handling of gays in the military and trying to make a stand against an increasingly confrontational Pentagon, was the driving force behind innovation in cockpit design.

Excluding women from air combat because they couldn’t fit into cockpits was deemed unacceptable. Excluding healthy women from the fashion industry because they can’t fit into the clothes should be deemed similarly intolerable. 

Of course the pressures applied to the military cannot be applied to commercial companies. With military procurement, the state is the consumer and thus the issue of design is political, making it open to discussion from interest groups and control from legislation (Weber, 1997; 236). With commercial production, design remains an economic issue, viewed in terms of managerial preference and profit calculus. Thus, commercial cockpit design lags significantly behind the military in addressing problems in accommodating women’s bodies.

But it shouldn’t be assumed that fashion houses are immune to pressure. Prada, Versace and Armani all agreed to stop using stick-thin models when faced with criticism from the Italian Government and general public following the two models’ deaths in 2006. And design innovation can be financially rewarding as well. Todashi Shoji has built his career on designing for all ages, ethnicities and figures. His numerous dresses designed for voluptuous actress Octavia Spencer’s red carpet appearances, including the stunning sparkling number she wore to receive her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2012, are always at the top of best dressed lists.

If we want to combat the idolisation of unhealthy body types, limiting what can be said on social media is only going to achieve so much. Instead, as with combating bias against female bodies in military technology, we need to go to the heart of the problem, and that means compelling innovation in design. 


Weber, R N (1997) 'Manufacturing Gender in Commercial and Military Cockpit Design' in Science, Technology & Human Values, Vol 22/2

If you want to read more about gender and military technology...

Golstein, J F (2001) War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vice Versa

Richman-Loo, N and Weber, R (1996) 'Gender and Weapons Design' in It's Our Military Too! WOmen and the US Military, ed. Judith Hicks Stein

Smart, T L (1998) 'Fast Women: Or why women who fly high performance aircraft are fast but not loose', in Australian Military Medicine, Vol 7

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