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I Feel Safe in My Lab Coat, Even Though I Shouldn’t

Lab coats aren’t designed with women’s bodies in mind, but I still love mine.

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I’m a scientist, and when I work with dangerous chemicals in the lab, I wear something called a bunny suit. It’s not nearly as sexy as it sounds. For starters, there’s no formal bow tie or fluffy cottontail; instead, imagine an adult onesie that’s made of plastic. (Actually, the fabric is similar to weather-resistant house wrap, as seen on HGTV.) It’s soft and velvety and creates a sweaty little greenhouse that traps heat and somehow wicks moisture toward my body. The cut is extremely unisex. The wrists and ankles are elastic but the sleeves are baggy — think Seinfeld’s Puffy Shirt, except a one-piece — and the crotch hits me about mid-thigh.

I love it.

This lab coat is my thinking cap. When I zip up the unbreathing shell of spunbonded high-density polyethylene — whatever that is — I’m completely present and completely centered. I don’t think about my tedious morning commute. I don’t think about the fresh hell of news notifications blinking innocently on the lock screen of my iPhone. I don’t think about anything except my lab work. I feel laser-focused, just because I’m wearing my bunny suit armor.

I’m not the only one who thinks my clothes give me special powers. It’s a thing, apparently, called “enclothed cognition.” Psychologists Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky coined the term to describe the effects of wearing certain clothing on psychology and behavior. You know how certain pieces in your wardrobe make you feel powerful or pretty? Maybe you feel like a gym goddess in your skintight (if sheer and overpriced) yoga pants. That’s because they symbolize fitness; when you step into them, you feel fit.

Adam and Galinsky actually showed that wearing lab coats make people more attentive. They conducted a study where they asked participants to wear either a “doctor’s coat” or an identical “painter’s coat” and then find the differences between two images (like the “Double Check” feature from Highlights magazine). Turns out the people who wore “doctor’s coats” got significantly higher scores. The physical experience of wearing a scientific lab coat increased scientific focus.

So it makes sense that my lab coat makes me feel all science-y: calm and focused and unbreakable. Unless I spill something on myself, in which case I’m screwed. Since my lab coat is not made for a woman’s body, it’s actually not all that safe.

In fact, most lab coats aren’t made with women in mind. Some designs (like my gigantic bunny suit) don’t even come in women’s sizes. Even though I wear the correct size for my height, it’s too baggy because it’s not constructed for my body type. According to a spokesperson from DuPont — a leading manufacturer of bunny suits — its suits are unisex. “Tyvek® garments are designed with both sexes in mind and the sizes are geared to meet the needs of both women and men,” the spokesperson told Racked. Although DuPont provides “a wide range of sizing options (from small to 4X) so that users can select the proper size,” in my opinion, the sizing is best suited for a man.

Some lab coats do come in women’s sizes but don’t account for women’s typical clothing choices. Picture a standard lab coat — like the kind your doctor or a 1950s ice cream salesman would wear. If you wear a low-cut T-shirt underneath it, you would expose some serious décolletage. That’s really dangerous if you’re working with hazardous chemicals.

Scientist Gwenn Hennon, who got her Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of Washington, found a workaround. Hennon and all her female colleagues wore their lab coats backwards when they worked with dangerous chemicals to cover the exposed skin on their chests. Backwards, like with the buttons in the back. “You get higher coverage and you can whip it off faster.” But she thinks the lab life would be easier if lab coats were actually made for women. “I think it would be nice to make a lab coat that was both accommodating for bustier women and safer considering our clothing options that we typically wear.”

Here’s why it matters: Lab coats are the last line of defense against catastrophic lab accidents, but they need to fit properly to really protect against hazardous spills. Eric Welsh, the environmental health and safety specialist at Villanova University, knows first-hand about the importance of wearing lab coats. He thinks lab coats are “like seatbelts. Everybody can come up with a scenario where they would have been better off not wearing a seatbelt in a car. But overall, I think you’re better off wearing your seatbelt.” Anyone who’s suffered “cab face” — the injuries you get in the backseat of a cab when you fly face-first into the glass partition — knows what he’s talking about. However, he also recognizes that ill-fitting lab gear can compromise laboratory safety. According to Welsh, “a restriction of mobility can be considered a safety issue.” A lab coat that doesn’t fit your proportions can be less effective and less safe.

For the record, I’m not saying women scientists need curve-hugging spandex body suits with shelf bras and statement-making slogans printed on the back (so hot right now). That’s just impractical. Nor am I suggesting that we should stop wearing lab coats. (Good grief, wear your lab coat! Even if you mostly wear it to hide your repeat outfit or stay warm in the freezing cold lab.) I’m just saying that lab coats need to fit women better to provide adequate protection from serious hazards.

In an ideal world, we lady scientists could get some true bespoke lab suit tailoring. Someone could come in and measure arm circumference and whatever else a fictional lab tailor would measure and make something custom. But Hennon makes a solid point: “Unfortunately, labs are always underfunded. So of all the things you’re going to spend money on, a lab tailor is low on the list.” I guess I’d settle for lab coats that just fit women better.

So maybe my lab coat isn’t all that safe. But hey, at least it saves me from my own thoughts.

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