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Jenny Cole

Mapping the body: the connection between psychology and fashion

07 November 2017 | by Jenny Cole

On the 11th of November, psychologists from Manchester Met, along with academics from the Manchester Fashion Institute (MFI), will be talking about body image, fashion and identity in an event run as part of the ESRC’s Festival of Social Science.

The purpose of this event will be to investigate the potential psychological impacts of technology use in fashion, through the use of collaborative projects on virtual try-on, 3D body scanning, and the relationship between clothing, identity, and body image.

What is 3D body scanning?

3D body scanning is used in fashion to gain accurate data about body shapes and measurements, information which can be fed back to designers to enable a better fit for clothing.

Despite these advances enabling us to use 3D body scanning to get a more accurate picture of what real women’s bodies look like, Dr Kathy Brownbridge’s research suggests that designers are still using unrealistically sized and proportioned models for clothes design.

This is likely to be an effort to encourage ‘aspirational purchasing’, but this can backfire. If fit is based on an unrealistic fit model, there can be negative effects for the consumer.

Why is clothing fit a psychological issue?

How our clothes fit can have a very real impact on how we feel about our bodies, especially for women.

As part of their research, the team at Manchester Met talked to women while they tried on clothes and then got them to view pictures of themselves in the clothes, as well as a 3D body scan (Grogan et al., 2013).

They found that how well a piece of clothing fits can be related to satisfaction with the body; women who were more satisfied with their body were more likely to be pleased with clothing fit, and those who were less satisfied were more sensitive to poorly fitting clothes.

However some women also used clothing fit as feedback about their body, expressing body dissatisfaction when clothing didn’t fit well.

There is other research which supports the conclusion from the Manchester Met team.

For example, women with higher BMI or self-classified weight are more likely to use clothes to hide parts of their body than to boost their confidence or for comfort (Tiggemann & Andrew, 2012), and women who were less satisfied with their weight were also more likely to use clothes in an effort to boost their mood (Kwon & Shim, 1999).

We also know that viewing a body scan of the body in shapewear can improve how we view our body (Ridgway, Parsons & Sohn, 2017).

What other impacts can 3D scanning have?

Even the act of viewing an ‘objective’ image of our body in a 3D body scan can affect our feelings about our body and how we intend to behave surrounding our health.

Grogan et al., (2017) talked to women while they viewed 3D scans of their body and found that the women were ‘shocked’ at seeing their body this way, which made some women feel negatively about their body.

Women who already felt they were eating healthily and exercising regularly expressed viewing the 3D scan as a ‘bit of a push’ to  improve their eating and exercise habits, but women who did not already feel they had healthy habits didn’t experience this motivation.

We need the information from 3D body scans from a wider range of women, including women classified as ‘plus size’, if we are to improve clothing fit.

However, research so far suggested that 3D body scanning is potentially a negative experience that impacts on body satisfaction and motivates already healthy women to wonder if they are ‘doing enough’ to get the body they want to see.

Where do we go from here?

The event planned for the ESRC Festival of Social Science aims to make the local community aware of the research going on at Manchester Met in this area and talk about their experiences to help move the research forward.

If viewing ‘objective’ images of our bodies like this is a cause of shock and negative feelings, then we need to move towards how we can use this technology in a positive way, to encourage people to view the images with body acceptance and appreciation rather than ‘shock and surprise’.

‘Mapping the body: Stories of clothing and body image’ will take place at Manchester Art Gallery, UK on Sat 11th November at 11 am.


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