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Photo: NBC/Brittany Holloway-Brown
Photo: NBC/Brittany Holloway-Brown

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Body Scanning Needs to Be a Human Experience

Three-dimensional body data should make it easier, not harder, to be kind to ourselves

Not counting airport security, I’ve been body-scanned three times over the past five years. Each time, I take off my clothes, change into a sports bra and tights, and step into a scanning booth.


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I hold my breath for a few seconds as a group of sensors captures the coordinates for the space my body occupies and turns those points into a three-dimensional body model. As futuristic as it sounds, the technology has actually been around for awhile, and it's a pretty simple process with a lot of retail potential: A graphical representation of your body takes less than a minute to generate, and among other things, can be used to assess the fit of a garment or the way fabric will drape on your body.

I remember how vulnerable I felt the first time I saw my body from an entirely new angle.

Every time I've done it, the experience gets a little faster and easier, and the model I get back is more sophisticated. What hasn't changed is my reaction to seeing my body.

Seeing all of yourself is weird. For one, there's no use in holding your breath or flexing your muscles, because the scan will capture all of your curves and rolls, regardless of how you might try to redistribute your body mass. There are also parts of ourselves that we never see in 3D. The closest I get to seeing my back, for instance, is by looking in a mirror or at a photograph, which are both flat representations. Seeing the back of my body —€” the way my shoulders sloped, the curve of my back, my butt — the way it would look if it belonged to someone standing in front of you in the grocery store checkout line, has been an alarming, fascinating experience. I'm not alone in this sentiment. One of my most beautiful, svelte friends told me that she curled up in the fetal position after seeing a recent scan of her body. We feel vulnerable when we realize the bodies we show the world are droopier, rounder, or paunchier than we assume they are.

But the pain, in this case, is also part of the process. Three-dimensional body models are being used to personalize the shopping experience and improve the way clothes fit on individual consumers. And why would you want to walk around constantly holding your breath in order to make that dress drape perfectly?

The idea that our bodies aren't actually that unique may feel odd.

Experts I talked to at Body Labs, a software company in New York City that references scans to create accurate digital avatars of a person's body shape, have noticed how differently people react to seeing their digital bodies. Women are more likely than men to talk about needing to work out. Europeans tend to be more interested in the technology, while Americans are more interested in viewing the results. But in other ways, there are similarities. Flo McDavid, the director of business development at Body Labs, has been scanned multiple times and told me that at first she was very critical of her body. But after seeing body scan data for several years, she began recognizing her body shape in lots of other bodies.

The idea that our bodies aren't actually that unique may feel odd; even in body-positive terms, we're used to thinking about our bodies as sui generis —€” different from everyone else's. But it's also empowering to know that there are other people out there with large bra-cup sizes, small backs, or longer torsos. It just depends on how we use that information. Body Labs technology, for instance, can compare body sizes and contours over a population of people; it's working with the Army to design Kevlar vests that fit women better, and with sports apparel companies to improve protective gear for athletes.

Retailers are experimenting with body scanning in their stores, too, hoping to provide shoppers with a more efficient way to find clothes that fit. Bloomingdale's does it, as do Alton Lane, Selfridges, Levi's, and Brooks Brothers. At Selfridges and Bloomingdale's, a company called Bodymetrics does the body mapping in-store and delivers a body map that is accessible later to the consumer online.

It's empowering to know that there are other people out there with large bra-cup sizes, small backs, or longer torsos.

Suran Goonatilake, the co-founder of Bodymetrics, predicts that we'll see many new applications for body mapping in the coming year. "Your body is the last piece of information to go digital," he said. "We predict there will be 3D selfies, a greater number of realistic video game avatars, and other social applications." Those apps could enable shoppers to interact with one another. Rather like asking someone who has a similar complexion what blush they use, I might be able to see what people with bodies like mine — a mid-thirties, sometimes-yoga-toned body with long legs and an "I work at a computer all day" posture — say about the fit of a particular pair of jeans, or their favorite bra brand.

The challenge for retailers will be to use that data in a compassionate, respectful way. How they structure this techified experience will tell us a lot about what they think of shoppers. As with dressing rooms, which can vary greatly —€” is the mirror connected to an e-commerce platform? in the case of lingerie and swimwear, is the try-on hygienic? can customers get new sizes quickly and with discretion? —€” retailers will have to work scanning and customization into their brand identity. They might focus simply on providing a more effective retail experience, or build in an empowering, self-esteem angle. They'll also have to determine how they will protect customers' privacy.

As consumers, we'll also have to decipher our relationship to body data and decide how much of it we want to develop. Most of the technology needed to enable this new level of body vigilance already exists —€” and not unlike a searchable PDF that reveals word patterns in a block of text, 3D scanning can expose interesting insights about our bodies. But I also remember how vulnerable I felt the first time I got scanned, when I saw my body from an entirely new angle. So, even as we have access to ever more information about our bodies, I hope the growing points of reference make it easier, not harder, to be kind to ourselves.


Sarah Krasley is a creative technologist and the founder of Unreasonable Women.

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