Are breasts really a drag?

July 15, 2008

It never ceases to amaze me how many different messages we get from society and various cultures about what it means to be a strong woman. For some it’s being a CEO or a successful entrepreneur. For others it’s strutting down a runway in Milan or being an Olympic athlete. Still others find strength in following their passion as a musician, an artist, a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.

Regardless of the image we form in our mind of what it means to be strong and at the top of our game, it’s very near impossible to ignore the messages embedded in pop culture about how we ought to get there. These subliminal messages come from hundreds of companies trying to profit from our insecurities. What they’re suggesting is that our gender – for better or for worse – can determine the extent of our success. And it’s the products that these companies market that will help us overcome our inadequacies.

For instance, women must never age – so we buy hundreds of bottles, jars and tubes of lotions. Men need to be more muscular, so they invest in protein shakes and weight-lifting. You’re only cool if you have the latest gadget. Regardless of the message, companies are forever coming up with new ways to make us stronger, better, taller, thinner, richer, smarter and generally more successful. But unfortunately, even innovation can come to the detriment of equality.

With the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Fast Company recently published an article about how several sports companies are designing high tech gear to help Olympic Athletes win gold medals. A fascinating article, to be sure, but one excerpt in particular stood out. Speedo has recently created a top-of-the-line swimsuit called the LZR, pronounced “laser”, that is causing quite the stir: the company found a loophole in swimsuit regulation that states no swimsuit should create buoyancy. In the ‘Universal Law of Sports Technology’ something can be infinitely light or infinitely strong but not both. Yet, Speedo has capitalized on the fact that if a swimmer is lighter, he or she will move through water faster.

Speedo's LZR for women

Speedo's LZR for women

Paul Hochman, author of the article writes: “Speedo decided to make its swimmers “lighter” by making its suit stronger, using a NASA-tested black sheathing that compresses the body with 70 times more force — 7 kilograms per meter — than the nylon-elastane standard. And the suit doesn’t just make swimmers smaller, it makes them sleeker, too: Speedo used the powerful material to remold athletes into a more ideal hydrodynamic shape. …using computational fluid dynamics software invented by Ansys, the company determined where a swimmer’s “form drag” (turbulence caused by a body’s shape) is most acute. It then inserted slippery, polyurethane panels to compress and reshape those body parts — buttocks, breasts, upper thighs — most responsible for the drag.

You can see where the concern arises. Women are therefore enticed to re-shape their bodies in order to have a competitive advantage in the water. According to Hochman, “the Italian coach Alberto Castagnetti claimed use of the suit was the equivalent of “technological doping.” … As of late May, 41 world records had been set since the LZR Racer was introduced: 37 of those swimmers were wearing it.”

Aside from the obvious issue this raises with body image and how this can affect female athletes (leading them to believe that in order to achieve ultimate success they must be re-shaped to look like men), the second question it raises is the following: can too much innovation be a bad thing?

If these companies are designing new technologies to shatter world records and achieve optimal performance, can this kind of un-surmountable pressure on our athletes really be sustainable? We are, after all, only human. One only has to flip through a few pages of the paper to realize that innovation should be focused on where it’s really needed: global warming is creating environmental disasters, the price of oil is threatening to create a major economic recession, disease and plague are ravaging entire continents, there are rice shortages in Asia and there is threat of violence, unrest, and famine even in our own backyards.

If it seems like we’re being dramatic and singling Speedo out – don’t be mistaken. There are hundreds of companies – just like Nike and Adidas who are innovating products that will make them millions of dollars. Clearly, if we consider the billions of dollars there is to be made innovating for the Olympics, our point is moot: why would companies innovate in areas where there is so little short-term gain?

While they may be racing to the finish line, let’s hope the leaders of these companies have the vision and the courage to use some of the proceeds to give back to those causes that are in desperate need of the same kind of breakthrough research and technology.

Who knows, maybe Speedo will create a campaign that celebrates a woman’s body shape and helps address eating disorders. Or better yet, maybe they’ll finally come up with an appropriate look for all those overweight men who try to stuff themselves into extra-small beachwear.

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