Saturday, April 2, 2016

Can a Dress Shirt Be Racist?

In 2008, an entrepreneur named Seph Skerritt was frustrated with the way he shopped for clothes. Then a student at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, he chafed at the time wasted while trying on garments in stores. Often, he thought, you settled on an ill-fitting item just to get the drudgery over with.

While on an internship in Asia, Skerritt had encountered the effortless magic of having a tailor custom-fit your shirt. Why not improve on that concept, he wondered, with an online service that fitted your shirts by asking you questions, and then mailed you the garments?

He christened his company Proper Cloth. Naysayers told him that when customers input their measurements, they often made mistakes — the idea wouldn’t scale. But Skerritt thought that guessing, even if one’s guesses were occasionally off, was still preferable to the chaos and disappointment experienced in a physical store.

So he set about developing an algorithm that could customize your shirt without needing a tape measure. As a check against errors in customers’ reported measurements, he thought up a list of basic questions — height, weight, and so on — that could serve as indicators of shirt size. Then, using these questions, he made shirts for 30 guys who worked at the New York City tech incubator hosting his startup, called Dogpatch Labs.

When the volunteers tried on their shirts, Skerritt quickly saw what worked and what didn’t. Asking about waist size was insufficient, for example, because it gave no indication of the size of one’s midsection. So Skerritt added a question about how far one’s belly protruded. Other questions were too confusing, like one about how T-shirts fit around your chest and shoulders. Those queries were omitted.

He noticed an odd pattern. In that first batch of 30, the shirts fit best on testers who were Caucasians. They seemed to fit worse, in a predictable way, on people who weren’t Caucasian. All subjects of one ancestry — Asian, say — seemed to require the same general alterations. Skerritt noted the anomaly and added a question on what he called “ethnicity”: Asian, Black, Caucasian, Hispanic, or “I’m not sure.” The question, Skerritt says, has proven invaluable to sizing his customers’ shirts.

There’s no denying the satisfaction of a smartly tailored shirt. But with this one question, the once mundane world of dress shirts is now dabbling in a kind of racial profiling. Are we ready to dredge up centuries of racial strife, simply for a perfect fit?

I bet you have two warring opinions of this web site’s “ethnicity” question. One is that we humans have a long history of buying clothes without explicitly considering our ancestry, so this innovation sounds, if not racist, at least racially inappropriate. The other is that, well, maybe our body types do differ by race — and just accepting this reality frees us from having to wrestle with the Caucasian body proportions that dominate most clothing design.

So here’s my question: With the “ethnicity” question, is this entrepreneur courageously addressing the proposition that we’re different according to our ancestry, and propelling us toward a post-racial future? Or is he pretending to be scientific as a marketing gimmick, while actually enforcing false, outdated and possibly dangerous ideas about race?

Past attempts to target clothing to an ethnicity have sparked some controversy. In 2007, for example, Nike launched a line of sneakers decorated with colorful geometric patterns and arrowhead designs for Native Americans, called Air Native N7. Native Americans had wider fore-feet, Nike claimed, and thus needed wider shoes.

But from the moment he heard about the shoes, Alan Goodman, a biological anthropologist at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., suspected that Nike’s science was weak.

Nike says it measured 224 Native Americans’ feet around the country before concluding that Native feet were wider in the front. Who was measured, Goodman wonders, how old were they, and what was their condition? Native Americans have double the risk of diabetes compared to the national average. Was Nike really selling colorful, “native” sneakers for swollen diabetic feet? Or as one online commentator put it, “If this isn’t an example of corporate manipulation of race, I don’t know what is.” (I reached out to Nike for a response, but never heard back.)

When I asked about Proper Cloth’s “ethnicity” question, Goodman had this to say: “Calling groups white or black is a pre-Darwinian view of biology that does not fit the facts of human variation.” Other anthropologists I spoke to also roundly denounced the question. Race, they say, is a social construct. (...)

For over a century, the U.S. military has measured incoming recruits’ bodies. In the Civil War, height, weight and BMI were used to determine physical fitness, and to exclude men with diseases, such as tuberculosis. In World War I, these measurements helped determine how much recruits could carry, and how far they could march.

After World War II, the importance of knowing recruits’ body shapes and sizes became apparent for other reasons: to properly fit soldiers into the machines that were now central to warfare. In what’s still cited as a notorious example of unfortunate design, some gun turrets for the B-17 bombers were so cramped that only the smallest crew members could sandwich their bodies into them, and in a semi-fetal position at that.

This series of measurements, comprising thousands of recruits, is known as ANSUR — the Army Anthropometry Survey. And it includes race. When I asked, anthropologists tended to pooh-pooh the dataset. Among other objections, they noted that military recruits were not a random sample of Americans. But I encountered a different opinion among industrial designers.

Matthew Reed, a researcher in anthropometry at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, flat out called ANSUR the “best-gathered anthro data in the world.” Not only was the dataset accurate and reliable, in his view, it could save lives.

Imagine body armor that doesn’t completely cover your vital organs, or is too long or too short, making it horribly uncomfortable to wear, so you take it off. Imagine if you found yourself in a nerve gas attack and your mask doesn’t fit properly because it was designed for a different kind of face. (One study found that American-made gas masks fit poorly on “Chinese” faces.)

The differences in body type according to race could be striking. Reed sent me a graphic, based on data from the 1988 iteration of ANSUR, illustrating seated height versus standing height for Caucasian and African American men. Most African Americans had a shorter seated height compared to Caucasians of the same overall stature, meaning longer leg bones and shorter torsos. Asians, meanwhile, skewed slightly in the other direction, with taller sitting heights and longer torsos than both Caucasians and African-Americans.

The army doesn’t use this information to individually fit uniforms and gear, Reed explained, but to plan and manage costs. If the army knows that 15 percent of recruits are African American, when it orders, say, 20,000 bullet-proof vests, it will ensure that 15 percent conform to what it believes is their relatively shorter proportions. “That’s really important for the army,” Reed told me. “If you do that wrong, you end up with stuff that you need to store. And you don’t have enough of what you do need.”

Reed points out that race is also important in civilian contexts. Think about your car. Reed designs crash test dummies. If a car is tested only with “Caucasian” dummies, it may not be as safe for Asians or African Americans. Why? Leg length determines how far back you sit from the steering wheel — a major impact point — and your proximity to the airbag. Seated height also affects what you can see. “We don’t want to build a dummy that’s based only on white guys,” Reed said.

The point is not to design “black” or “Asian” dummies. Rather, it’s to ensure that the dummies you use are as diverse, in their body proportions, as you know the American population to be. In short, while some anthropologists argue that we should ditch the old race labels, Reed considers taking race into consideration good design practice.

by Moises Velasquez-Manoff, Backchannel | Read more:
Image: Proper Cloth