Posted on July 22, 2019 at 4:57 PM
by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.
In May a twitter user posted a picture depicting the muscular system of a female that included milk ducts. It quickly went viral as people realized that in their various health science and anatomy and physiology courses they had never seen a picture of a female muscular system, only a picture of a male muscular system. After thinking back to my own health and anatomy and physiology courses I took during high school and college, I myself was taken aback by the realization that I had never seen a picture like this before. Like many other twitter users I initially found the picture difficult to view. After coming to terms with my uneasiness I realized that my discomfort with the photo was likely due to my own inexperience with female bodies in education and research. The photo’s original post on twitter drew a lot of comments from people who had similar responses. Their responses ranged from disgust to their trypophobia (fear of circles) being trigged to finding the flower-like milk ducts beautiful. It is clear, however, that a lot of people learned the muscular system using a photo of a male and found this photo to be surprising. People were also curious as to why they hadn’t seen this picture before in their own various health courses. It is this response that sparked my interests to explore other areas of education and research where representation of the female body is lacking and its consequences to women’s health.
A 2017 study found that when women experience cardiac arrest outside the home they are less likely than men to receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) from bystanders whereas in-home CPR had no significant gender differences. After researching data from 19,331 cardiac events the Resuscitation Outcomes Consortium found that 45% of men received CPR from bystanders versus only 39% of women. Men also had a 23% higher chance of surviving a cardiac event (this is at least somewhat due to bystander intervention). This gender disparity is important because researchers in this 2017 study believe that bystander CPR can be critical in public cardiac events.
Various reasons for gender disparities in bystander CPR include that suggestion that bystanders may feel uncomfortable touching a woman’s chest during CPR. To increase comfort with the shape of women’s bodies, companies are creating attachments that can turn a flat-chested CPR doll into a CPR doll that has a chest similar to many women’s chest, i.e. a chest with breasts.
Like twitter users’ reactions to seeing the muscular system of a women’s chest, gender disparities in bystander CPR could be due to unfamiliarity with performing CPR on the body types of many women. Again, thinking about my own CPR education in high school and college, I learned CPR using a flat chested doll whose chest resembled a man’s chest. Even when I began babysitting in graduate school and I took a class on child CPR the child sized dolls were male dolls (not that the male and female bodies of children differ as much as adult women and men). A quick google search of CPR dolls also shows mostly photos of flat chested dolls. Even the well-known “Annie” dolls are flat-chested despite being called a common woman’s name. In stressful, fast-paced situations where women’s lives are at risk but could be helped with CPR, being familiar performing CPR on a woman’s body can help women survive cardiac events. But when we only use CPR dolls that resemble a man’s body we are cheating future women who may need CPR out of a chance of survival simply because our education tools lack gender inclusivity.
Crash Test Dummies
In 2011 the New York Times reported research conducted at the University of Virginia, which concluded that women drivers were 47% more likely to be injured in an automobile collision than male drivers, despite the use of seatbelts. Women are more likely to suffer severe injuries from an automobile collision than men because the safety devices in vehicles are not made for women. The devices don’t take into account how their height, weight distribution, neck strength and musculature, and seating position differs from men.
Recently, another study out of University of Virginia has confirmed that women’s risk of great injury in a collision remains the same because of little changes to safety devices in cars. After analyzing data from 1998 to 2015, researchers concluded that women have a 73% higher chance of serious injury or death after a collision than men. Despite advances in car technology, particularly safety advances and increased knowledge in the ways that female bodies are different than male bodies (i.e. shape of pelvis, location of excess tissue, etc.) little has been done to close the gender gap in car safety.
Crash test dummies, life-size dolls used to test safety features in vehicles and how the body will be impacted by various types of automobile collisions are a part of the problem. Dummies that are meant to mimic how a woman’s body will fare in a car crash do not represent the average women’s body. Crash test dummies are typically 5 feet tall when the average height for women is 5.37 inches and the dummies usually weigh 110 pounds while the average weight for women is 170 pounds according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A lack of adequate female representation in car crash dummies is another example of how a lack of women’s bodies in research can be detrimental to our health. If crash test dummies don’t represent most of women bodies then most women are not protected when they are drivers or passengers in vehicles. But we don’t know how to adequately protect women if our bodies are not a part of vehicle safety research.
CPR dolls and crash test dummies have a gender disparity problem that can have deadly results for women. Leaving the female form out of research and education makes us unfamiliar with how women’s bodies look and function in the world. So when we are tasked with protecting, safeguarding, and treating women’s bodies we may approach them with caution and hesitation simply because we haven’t been taught how to interact with women’s bodies. Simple measures like using CPR dolls with breasts to mimic many women’s bodies is a small step to support the idea that women’s health and safety is equally important to that of men’s health and safety.