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Leaf Urban jewelry.
Photo: Bellabeat

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Designers Are Hacking Women’s Health With Wearable Tech

The future of the quantified-self movement is your bra.

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In the future, your panties might help you achieve stronger orgasms while your bra pinpoints the best way to sweat out a hangover. Right now, the wearable industry is undergoing a transformation, and women are at the crux of this shift.

The wearable tech industry is facing a sort of midlife crisis. Although there is a growing market for wearables, stocks for industry leaders like Fitbit have taken a sharp downturn. Studies seem to disprove the idea that fitness devices consistently help people lose weight. However, there is a sector of the industry that is still attracting new pools of customers: wearables for women’s health.

“A lot of our users never had a wearable device before,” says Urska Srsen, co-founder of the technology brand Bellabeat. “They bought it because it was beautifully designed and it spoke to them.” Bellabeat, the company behind Leaf Urban jewelry, was founded in 2013 and now has over 2.5 million users worldwide. It has sold around 700,000 pieces of jewelry.

Leaf Urban jewelry.
Photo: Bellabeat

These high-tech pendants do more than track physical activity and sleep, like regular fitness devices. They can keep tabs on users’ mental health by monitoring physical symptoms of stress, and track their menstrual cycles, too. Having a wearable that charts menstruation is a big deal for women who are trying to understand their fertility, from ovulation to pregnancy — and the inability of past devices to do so has been a notable weakness of the quantified-self movement.

For mental health concerns, the device goes the extra mile, connecting to a corresponding app with guided meditation exercises and data timelines that help users plan to proactively manage stress.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, women are twice as likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder than their male peers. Translating health data into actionable insight is a huge part of what makes Leaf Urban so popular. “It teaches users how to take control of their body and their health,” Srsen says. “We arm the users with better understanding. It’s about getting back in touch with your body. It’s not about being skinny or whatever.”

These high-tech pendants run from $119 to $189 apiece. They feature a minimalist leaf design and can be worn as part of a chic wrap bracelet, a necklace, or as a brooch. Srsen says Bellabeat was one of the first companies to focus on women and wellness in an industry dominated by athletic smart watches with a “one size fits all” mentality. She believes stylish design is crucial to making wearables effective, because frequent wear provides more comprehensive data. “You can only achieve that if the user enjoys wearing it,” Srsen points out. “I think the direction wearables are going is they are becoming more a part of our style.”

In a broader sense, the future of wearable devices for health will probably be defined by textiles — clothing, instead of just accessories. “If you integrate these devices into textiles, you suddenly have the entire surface of the body to work with,” says Amanda Parkes, chief of technology at Manufacture NY, a fashion incubator that specializes in high-tech research and development. The New York Times described Parkes and her co-founders as “the sharp point of the wearables spear... like Charlie’s Angels, if the angels had thrown off the patriarchy and gone out on their own.” Like the startup industry at large, wearables are still largely made by men, for men.

“It’s changing slowly because a lot of the industry models use outdated information when looking at market shares,” says Joanna Berzowska, head of electronic textiles at the smartwear brand Omsignal. “The other problem is inherent sexism in the venture capital world... often when there were good ideas for women’s products, it was harder for them to raise money.”

The OMbra.
Photo: Omsignal

Despite the general sausage fest, a growing number of women, like Parkes and Berzowska, are getting involved with wearable startups. They are bringing a new sense of possibility to the industry as a whole. “Yes, more women might be joining. But what you’re seeing is that wearable devices need differentiation,” Parkes says. “Tech does need fashion to make better products… they are trying to reach across the aisle more on both sides. It was kind of a wakeup when Fossil bought [fitness tracker brand] Misfit.”

Tech-savvy fitness brands like Omsignal are looking to prove their products are more than just gadgets; they can be healthy fashion innovations. Omsignal was one of the first wearable brands to prioritize women and collaborate with a major fashion label. In 2014, the same year the company launched, Omsignal teamed up with Ralph Lauren to develop athletic polo shirts with biometric sensors for the men’s US Open tennis championships. Nevertheless, the brand’s primary focus is the Ombra, which incorporates the same sensors into a sports bra. The company reportedly raised $20 million to develop this product for women.

By placing the biometric sensor directly on the breast, rather than the wrist, the Ombra can measure factors from respiratory function to heart wave variability. This allows the corresponding app to personalize workout recommendations in real-time, for example, if the user is hungover or sleep-deprived. Even so, developing a high-tech bra is more complicated than a polo shirt, because boobs bounce around when the user works out. The bra needs to hold the user's breasts in place, close to the sensor, without squishing them or restricting movement.

“There are still a lot of companies saying ‘Let’s make our product pink or add Swarovski crystals’ instead of looking at women’s needs, our bodies and the way our bodies change,” Berzowska says. “Fit is really difficult... often [other products with biometric sensors] came from a masculine mindset — ‘just make it tight.’ We spent a long time studying the way women’s bodies move.”

The Omsignal starter kit with the micro USB charger and accessories costs $169, while additional bras cost $69. Parkes and Berzowska agree that scalable manufacturing is the biggest challenge for new fashion technologies. These devices require a lot of expensive research and development before they can be cheaply produced for mass markets. For example, even though the polo shirt collaboration used Ralph Lauren’s regular factories and Omsignal’s technology, it still took a full year to perfect the design and mesh the new technology with that established infrastructure.

“Up until that point, the factories producing tech and those producing clothing existed independently of one another in every aspect of the manufacturing cycle,” explains Dave Mackey, former PR manager at Omsignal. “With the launch of the RL Polo Tech shirt, suddenly the manufacturing environment needed to incorporate in-line processes for apparel, hardware, and the joining of the two into a seamless garment.”

Almeida panties.
Photo: Ko-Le Chen

Berzowska firmly believes electronic textiles will be an integral part of mainstream fashion within the next two decades, offering deeper insight into individual health for all types of users beyond the fitness market. She’s excited about prototypes for wearables that focus on women’s fertility and devices that use vibrations, massage, and pressure to treat issues like nausea and anxiety.

“It’s very important to think of health in this much more holistic way,” she says, “and to look at populations that aren’t usually targeted by high-tech — like elder populations, babies, pregnant women, people with disabilities — and to approach them from a lifestyle and pleasure and aesthetic point of view.” It’s not only jocks and boys who like their high-tech toys.

Now wearable makers are looking beyond counting steps and measuring blood pressure, using tech for everything from breast cancer detection and treatment through bra inserts to hands-free clasps that make lingerie more accessible for people with disabilities. High-tech fashion could be a huge part of preventative treatment in the near future. “A lot of the indicators of disease are really about: When do you notice a change?” Parkes adds. “The buildup of data is what allows us to make that comparison.”

Wearables could also be a discrete resource when it comes to women’s sexual health. Researcher Teresa Almeida at Newcastle University is developing a make-your-own-panties toolkit with electronic textiles to help women practice pelvic floor exercises. “Everyone should be doing them two minutes a day,” Almeida said. “It can benefit women at all different stages in life.” Pelvic floor exercises, better known as Kegels, are best known for their association with increased sexual pleasure. But strengthening those muscles down under has plenty of other health benefits as well.

Millions of women experience pelvic floor problems every year, which can range from difficulty holding urine to pelvic organ prolapse: when internal organs like the bladder and uterus actually fall down through the vaginal cavity. Regular Kegel exercises are great preventative care. They can also help the body heal after the area experiences trauma, such as that associated with giving birth.

Even so, during her research, Almeida found that most women weren’t familiar with their anatomy below the waist. They didn’t know how to voluntarily flex those muscles, even those who had given birth.

The Ombra.
Photo: Omsignal

So she started hosting workshops where participants made screen-print panties that mapped pelvic floor muscles with conductive fabric, metallic nodes, and a tiny, soft circuit that could be attached to the underwear. The panties flashed small lights to time the exercises, using around the same amount of electricity as a battery. Although Almeida is developing her toolkit for educational purposes, not to launch a wearable product, she thinks there is a great deal of untapped potential for high-tech underwear.

“There is so much that can be done… smart materials are the future,” Almeida says. “Everybody wears underwear... we can use everyday items to help keep ourselves healthy and to reflect on our own health and well-being.”

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