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Defined by Design: The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and Places

Defined by Design: The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and Places


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This wide-ranging overview of design in everyday life demonstrates how design shapes our lives in ways most of us would never imagine. The author, a leading expert in social and psychological issues in design, uncovers the gender, age, and body biases inherent in the designs of common products and living spaces that we all routinely use. From the schools our children attend and the buildings we work in to ill-fitting clothes and one-size-fits-all seating in public transportation, restaurants, and movie theaters, we are surrounded by an artificial environment that can affect our comfort, our self-image, and even our health. Anthony points out the flaws and disadvantages of certain fashions, children's toys, high-tech gadgets, packaging, public transportation, public restrooms, neighborhood layouts, classrooms, workplaces, hospitals, and more. In an increasingly diverse populace where many body types, age groups, and cultures interact, she argues that it's time our environments caught up. This fascinating book—full of aha moments—will teach readers to recognize the hidden biases in certain products and places and to work for more intelligent and healthy design in all areas of life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781633882836
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 03/14/2017
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Kathryn H. Anthony, Ph.D., has been teaching in architecture and design and serving on design juries for over thirty years. She is professor and past chair of the Design Program Faculty at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she also serves on the faculty of the Department of Gender and Women's Studies and the Department of Landscape Architecture. She is the author of over 100 publications including the award-winning book, Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession. She holds the lifetime title of Distinguished Professor of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). Her research and publications have received awards from the ACSA, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA). Dr. Anthony has been a spokesperson about design issues on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, National Public Radio (NPR),, the Chicago Tribune, the Economist, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times,, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. She has testified before the US Congress about gender issues in design.

Read an Excerpt

Defined by Design

The Surprising Power of Hidden Gender, Age, and Body Bias in Everyday Products and Places

By Kathryn H. Anthony

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2017 Kathryn H. Anthony
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63388-284-3



"I have problems looking for clothes because I'm short. Finding a blouse is hard. It may fit, but it's way too long. I'm hoping that they have a petite size in the blouse that I want. I have to find a specialty store that may have my size." (Female, white, age 61, 4' 11", 200 lb.)

"A few things about fashion and my personal frustrations with most retail stores: First, retail stores (especially boutiques or niche fashion) generally have very limited clothing options for men, as well as for larger men and women — rather surprising considering the fact that such a large portion of the US is overweight. Second, most of the clothing options for larger men and women seem rather conservative and usually not very 'sexy.' Third, rarely do I see dignifying or alluring in-store advertisements or representations of larger men or women. Finally, men's clothing is overwhelmingly advertised/promoted to appeal to affluent heterosexuals (the football- or polo-playing, yacht-sailing Hemingway-esque man's man), raising questions about advertising and social normalization. These are some of the reasons that I tend to shop at thrift stores or order clothes via the Internet." (Male, white, age 39, 5'11", 230 lb.)

It's commencement day. Hundreds of family members and friends are in the audience. All eyes are on the graduates as they walk across the stage in their caps and gowns, one by one. As each student's name is called, tension mounts. As one of them climbs the stairs, she trips and falls. All eyes land on her shoes: four-inch pumps.

The decisions we make every day about which clothes and shoes to wear affect us in ways that most of us don't think about — until disaster strikes. The consequences of clothes and shoes whose designs are mismatched with our bodies may not be readily apparent, but they can have long-lasting effects on our health and well-being. The most obvious cases of disadvantaging by design may occur at the smallest scale of all: clothing. The fashion industry dictates our appearance, which clothes we wear regularly, and which clothes hang listlessly in our closets. Both women and men are subject to the whims of the fashion industry, yet because of the importance of clothing and body image from girlhood and beyond, women are often more adversely affected.


Some clothing designs can prove disadvantageous to men's health. While men's pants pockets, in front and in back, are deep enough to hold a wallet — offering men flexibility and security that women do not have — routinely carrying wallets in back pockets can lead to serious back pain. The problem is not from carrying wallets but rather sitting on them for eight to ten hours a day.

Just as a crooked building foundation can cause structural failure, years of sitting on wallets can cause an imbalance in the pelvis, the lowermost part of the spine. Improper alignment of the pelvis can damage a man's hips, his lower back, and even his neck. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine first referred to this problem as "credit-carditis." It's also known as wallet sciatica. When the position of the pelvic bones is shifted, tissues on one side of the body are stretched while those on the other side are contracted. The rest of the body compensates for this change in balance. Continuous pressure on the piriformis muscle in the buttocks, connected to the sciatic nerve, results in pain radiating throughout the back and hip. It may also affect one's gait and standing posture. Men are better off carrying money in a money clip in a front pocket, or in a thin wallet in an inner front jacket pocket. Emptying out-of-date cards and clutter and carrying a lighter load can also help.

Many men who don't fit the average mold struggle to find clothing that fits them. The search can be both demeaning and demoralizing. Short men, many of whom are Asian or Latino, find fewer options in clothing designs. The same is true for tall men, who may find clothes that are long enough but too wide. Men whose feet are smaller or larger than the norm can also find shoe shopping to be a frustrating experience. Despite today's limitless opportunities to order shoes over the Internet, many men (and women) refuse to buy a pair of shoes without trying them on.

Men's ties come in only one size. But men come in many different sizes: tall, short, fat, thin — all of which affects where the tie ends up resting on their bodies. Short, thin men are at a special disadvantage. As one friend put it, "Neckties are too long for short men. You can't position them right. So instead of going to your belly, they end up way below the belt." As his wife said, "Neckties are the stupidest things ever invented! Men's belts come in different sizes, but why not ties?"


"In the United States, professional football is the most popular sport by a landslide. People love the history, competitiveness, and mostly the hard hitting of the sport. It is so popular because you can see the world's greatest athletes compete with one another on such a physical level. But such an extreme physical level also shortens the careers of the best athletes of the game. It is hard for me to understand why there is not more money and time spent on the design of the helmets. This year, a team spent $1.2 billion on a stadium while one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Ben Roethlisberger, got his fourth concussion by taking a knee to the top of the helmet. This does not seem right. As a spectator, I want to see the best possible athletes on the field. I do not want inadequate equipment design to hinder the game." (Male, white, age 23, 6', 180 lb.)

Sports-related concussions affect 1.6-3.8 million people each year in the United States, and nearly 30 percent of these concussions happen to children between five and nineteen years of age. Male and female athletes in a variety of sports — football, hockey, baseball, softball, cycling, speed skating, horseback riding, and skiing, to name a few — wear helmets for protection. Yet the design of football helmets, an item worn nearly exclusively by male athletes, makes the players of this high-contact, dangerous sport especially vulnerable to injury.

Each year in the United States, roughly 1.1 million high school students play football, 3 million play youth football, and 100,000 combined play in the National Football League (NFL), college, junior college, Arena, and semipro. According to Sports Illustrated, eleven high school football players died before the end of 2015 during in-season and preseason incidents, and more than half the deaths were caused by head injuries. The Sports Illustrated article features heartbreaking profiles of each of the players struck down on the field. In 2014, eleven people died from high school football injuries; eighteen died in 2013. Data from the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research revealed that more than one hundred children died from high school football-related injuries in the last decade. The dangers of suffering concussions while under the football helmet have prompted extensive national media coverage.

According to Dr. Douglas Casa, chief executive officer of the University of Connecticut's Korey Stringer Institute (KSI), named after the NFL player who died from heat stroke in 2001, states and schools aren't putting the right policies in place to protect their athletes. "The best practices are not being followed. ... I'm kind of mystified, but people are just not implementing evidence-based medicine and policies at the high school level. I'm not saying they're not interested in it, but they're just not doing it." KSI tracks states that meet basic standards for safety in sports. According to an October 2015 Huffington Post article, no state had met KSI's minimum best practices when it came to concussion management, emergency action plans, and defibrillators.

According to an analysis of peer-reviewed studies on head trauma in high school sports, high school football players are nearly twice as likely as college players to sustain a concussion; they suffered 11.2 concussions for every ten thousand games and practices, while the rate for college players was 6.3. The authors of the analysis urged caution in interpreting the results, because many concussions go unreported and data is limited.

Researchers at Purdue University discovered brain damage in high school football players who had suffered concussions — as well as those who had not — and that repetitive hits to the head can cause as much damage as concussion-causing hits. The average high school football lineman receives one thousand to fifteen hundred shots to the head during a single football season.

Another study, from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, was the first national football concussion research to evaluate how helmets performed when worn by young athletes actually playing the game, rather than how helmets performed in impact testing in a laboratory. It revealed that all approved helmets evaluated in the study performed similarly, regardless of cost, and that older, reconditioned helmets performed similarly to new helmets as long as the reconditioning had been done recently (within twelve months prior to use). Yet players wearing old helmets that had not been recently reconditioned suffered longer concussion symptoms than those who wore new helmets.

Many of these concussions result in traumatic brain injury, the effects of which can last a lifetime. A significant impact to the head causes the brain to move about inside the skull and bump against bone. This can cause the brain to stretch and twist, breaking nerve fibers and blood vessels. Research suggests that even though professional football players — being bigger and stronger — collide with greater impact than younger players, children and teenagers may be even more likely to suffer from prolonged brain swelling after a concussion. High school athletes may take longer to recover than college or older athletes and may be more susceptible to complications. A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, whose results were published in Surgical Neurology International, examined recovery from sports-related concussions among high school and collegiate athletics and found that athletes age thirteen to sixteen took longer to return to their neurocognitive and symptom baselines than athletes eighteen to twenty-two years of age. They discovered statistically significant differences between the two age groups on verbal memory, visual memory, reaction time, and postconcussion symptom scale.

Concussions vary in severity, and symptoms can include headache, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, confusion, blurred vision, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), double vision, and loss of consciousness. Athletes who suffer repeated and severe concussions may experience long-term effects such as depression, memory loss, dementia, and other serious neurological problems.

Some NFL players suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head, have ended up homicidal or suicidal. In 2011, former Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, in order to leave his brain to science. In 2012, Ray Easterling, former defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons, killed himself with a gun. In an interview with Fox Sports, his widow, Mary Ann Easterling, said: "He felt like his brain was falling off. ... He was losing control. He couldn't remember things from five minutes ago." Just a few weeks later, former San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau put a shotgun to his sternum and pulled the trigger. Easterling was the lead plaintiff in one of the player lawsuits against the NFL and had been well aware of the perils of concussions.

Roughly one hundred former NFL players filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that Riddell, NFL's official helmet maker from 1989 to 2014, made false claims about its helmet's ability to protect against concussions and brain injuries. In 2013, more than twenty thousand former NFL players sued the league, arguing that not enough was done to inform players about dangers of concussions in the past and still not enough is being done to care for injured players today.

In 2016, an appellate court affirmed the settlement in the $1 billion lawsuit, providing up to $5 million to individual players with severe neurological diseases. In the deal, the NFL admitted no fault and, according to a New York Times article, insisted that all retired players be included in the settlement, not only those who originally sued the league. Under the terms of the settlement, players will be paid up to $5 million if they develop Alzheimer's, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's, or severe dementia or if they had developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) before the settlement was approved. The payment amount to each player is based on his age and number of years in the league. As the New York Times reported: "The emphatic decision by the appeals court on Monday moved the N.F.L. a step closer to ending one of its most contentious, embarrassing and expensive legal challenges. The spectacle of thousands of former players suing the league for lying to them, and the prospect that some players might have testified in court about the harm they suffered, led the league to promise to pay potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to former players in dire straits."

The concussion crisis was the centerpiece of the 2015 film Concussion, which tells the story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith), who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy while autopsying the brain of former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro Mike Webster. A PBS Frontline documentary, League of Denial, reported on football, the brain, and the NFL's unethical behavior.

Yet as Ken Reed has argued in the Huffington Post. "As a society, we need to take the attention this film will generate and move it off the NFL and refocus it on youth and high school football. There are less than 2,000 players in the NFL. The number of youth and high school players in this country is greater than three million." Many high school athletes just use whatever equipment is available and suffer the consequences.

Parents of football players should ask their coach or athletic director about the type of helmet that their team currently uses and its safety record. They must learn to recognize the symptoms of short-term and long-term brain injuries that can often go unnoticed as a result of concussions. Two excellent resources for parents and players are the Brain Injury Association and the American Academy of Neurology. In addition, as professor Dawn Comstock, senior author of the study at the University of Colorado, urged: "Many parents don't think to ask if the helmet issued to their child is new or previously used or, if not new, when it was last reconditioned. Parents should be asking questions and not assuming that the helmet assigned to their child is safe."

In 2015, three members of the US Congress introduced the High School Football Safety Study Act, which would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to examine the causes of football-related deaths and make recommendations about how to prevent them. As Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) stated: "It is our responsibility to ensure that we leave no stone unturned to make the game as safe as possible for young people and prevent these tragedies from happening in the future. Moving forward, I hope this legislation will start that process and begin a national conversation about how to better protect youth in football."


"I don't understand why women have to wear heels. I feel that it's targeted for the opposite gender. Otherwise why wouldn't men wear high heels? It gives stature, but after three hours on my feet, I am ready to die." (Female, Pacific Islander, age 32, 5'5", 135 lb.)

"I usually wear heels when I go out at night or on the weekends. Drainage grates, snow grates, or really any and all grates on sidewalks are especially annoying when wearing heels. Stilettos get caught in the openings, making it very difficult to walk and sometimes even cause women to fall. When walking over a large grate, women usually have to walk on the balls of their feet. In the event that the design calls for a grate, designers should make sure there is adequate space for one to maneuver around it." (Female, white, age 25, 5'4", 120 lb.)

Women's fashions have long called for high heels, especially since the 1950s, when stiletto heels were first introduced. Named after the stiletto dagger, stilettos range in length from about one inch to eight inches or more if atop a platform sole. The most slender Italian-style stilettos are less than a quarter of an inch in diameter. They have been associated with images of femme fatale and seduction.


Excerpted from Defined by Design by Kathryn H. Anthony. Copyright © 2017 Kathryn H. Anthony. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 7

Foreword Eric Schmidt, PhD, Executive Chairman and Former Chief Executive Officer, Google 13

Introduction 17

Part 1 Fashion Design

1 Skin Tight: Clothing and Fashion Design 25

Part 2 Product Design

2 Play at Your Own Risk: Designing Products for Children 49

3 Big Toys for Big Boys and Girls: High Tech and High Touch 63

4 Wrap Rage: Product, Furniture, and Industrial Design 77

5 Too Close for Comfort: The Design of Public Transportation 103

Part 3 Building Design

6 A Taboo Topic: Restroom Revolution 121

7 Helpful or Harmful to Your Health? The Design of Your Home or Neighborhood 159

8 Hidden Power: Classroom, Workplace, Courtroom, and Corporate Design 175

9 Shopping, Spending, and Reaching for the Stars: Retail and Commercial Design 201

10 An Apple a Day: The Design of Healthcare Settings 223

11 A Call to Action 243

Notes 255

Index 297

Customer Reviews