Gendered Embodiment and Enclothed Cognition


I came across this blog post today, which summarized a study on “enclothed cognition” and thought it might provide an entry point to another post on gendered embodiment, one of my favourite topics.

So, enclothed cognition, what is it?

We introduce the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. Providing a potentially unifying framework to integrate past findings and capture the diverse impact that clothes can have on the wearer, we propose that enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.

The study they’re discussing is one in which they tested the impact wearing a lab coat would have on attention-related tasks. Just wearing a lab coat increased attentiveness, but wearing a lab coat labeled a “doctor’s coat” had the most impact, significantly more than wearing the same coat labeled a “painter’s coat.”

Thus, the current research suggests a basic principle of enclothed cognition – it depends on both the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing the clothes.

This is ground I’ve covered before:

As a rule, men get sturdy, well-made clothing meant to last, with pockets and sizing charts that make sense. Whereas women get clothes that are shoddily made at the same price point, are increasingly made of sheer material that necessitates layering, lack pockets, have inane and contradictory sizing rules, and shoes that are at best uncomfortable and at worst downright dangerous.

But I want to explore, specifically, how the symbolic meaning and the physical experience of wearing gendered clothing may impact embodiment.

Often, when I’m out in the world, I’m struck by how tight women’s clothes are. How they’re built to showcase how our bodies do or don’t meet society’s tyrannical expectations.

I’m reminded of the advice I internalized at a young age: if you’re wearing something loose on top you have to wear something tight on the bottom, and vice versa.

I think of how difficult it is to find shoes that are comfortable, practical, sturdy, and feminine (whatever that means–and yet I think we all know what that means). It’s nearly impossible. “Women’s shoes” are flimsy (ballet flats), hinder proper walking mechanics (heels), and do long-term damage to feet, knees, hips, and back (heels, flip-flops, ballet flats).

I think about what I see at the gym: men in comfortable clothes they literally just threw on (shorts and a t-shirt? Sure!) and women in “technical” fabrics–which generally means tight, stretchy, and sweat-wicking. I think that last property is important–how often do you see a dude at the gym in a cotton shirt, covered in sweat with no worries? (Every time. The answer is every time.) Whereas women are wearing sweat-wicking pants, sweat-wicking tops, a headband, carrying around a towel, and hoping to god they don’t leave butt sweat on the bench (or is that just me? Oh god it’s just me isn’t it?). 

Not only are these technical garments tight (either to show off our bodies or to suck in and then show off our bodies), and not only do they wick sweat lest we shatter the illusion that women don’t sweat, but they are expensive. Everyone has a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. In fact, in the summer, that’s what I see most guys wearing. So guys are equipped to go to the gym or play frisbee or throw around a ball at a moment’s notice, while women have to go home to change out of their sundress into their spandex, to wash their make-up off, to put their hair up and back, to put on sensible shoes, etc. in order to let their bodies be bodies.

I keep seeing this advice to “sleep in your gym clothes so you’re ready to go!” and either roll my eyes or quietly seethe. Sure, sleep in shorts and a t-shirt, guys! That’s probably what you’re doing anyway.

But how many women are going to sleep in a sports bra? And spandex pants? And a tight tank-top (why are they always tight? And low cut? It is so fucking hard to find workout clothes that are comfortable and not revealing)? My sports bra is wearable for precisely the hour I need it–after that my ribs go “okay, out of the vice please!”

So men are allowed to show up at the gym having literally rolled out of bed, they get sweaty, they grunt, they go back and forth between the squat rack and the bench for an hour, hogging both (seriously, why do you do this, dudes at my gym?). Women, on the other hand, are wearing tight, cute leggings, a bright headband, and an awkwardly short, tight tank top. How does this experience of being on display impact our ability to do the work? When you’re starting from a place of needing to be cute, of having every part of your body viewable, how does this hinder your ability to get sweaty and red-faced? To have an ugly squat face and drenched hair? To have your stomach bunch up when you squat?

How many times have I caught my reflection in the mirror while doing  a farmer’s carry and thought my stomach pooch was a bit too prominent? How many times have I gone from strong and confident and arms-burning to shame and horror at the reality of my stomach? How many times have I shifted from the mental fortitude needed to walk those last 20 feet to self-consciousness? How often have outside voices colonized my mind-body connection when I needed it most?


Moving away from the gym and to clothing trends more broadly, I wonder how the symbolic meaning and physical experience of women’s clothes impacts embodiment.

Let’s look at jeans. Jeans, originally made for labour, have become a staple for many. For men, I can see why. They’re rugged, comfortable, have enough pockets for wallet, keys, bus pass.

For women, on the other hand, they’re tight. Flimsy. Constrictive. Rage-inducingly pocketless.

I think of the true-ism/joke that the first thing women do when they come home is take off their pants. And I think about how men don’t have to. How many times have I taken off my work-appropriate clothes in favour of something comfortable, while the men in my life lounge in their jeans?

How does this impact embodiment, I wonder, if the default clothing choice is comfortable and versatile for men, and constricting and tight for women? How does it impact embodiment if what is outside-appropriate for women is so vastly different (and less comfortable) than what is outside-appropriate for men? How does it impact embodiment if women have to split their lives into “appropriate but constricting” and “inappropriate but comfortable”?

Ultimately, I think it comes down to this:

At base, it comes down to the fact that men are granted full subjecthood. They are expected to be doers, and need clothes that reflect and aid that. While women are granted (or forced into) objecthood. They are expected to be seen and get clothes that reflect and aid that.

But objects, by definition, are not embodied. Indeed, much of the performativity needed for objecthood requires a disavowal of embodiment–think about how much labour, energy, and pain women are expected to do to (inevitably fail to) meet society’s beauty standards:

  • Restrict calories
  • Apply hot wax to our intimate parts and yank the hair out
  • Pluck/wax/thread eyebrows
  • Remove any other errant hairs
  • Curl eyelashes (which, let me tell you, when it goes wrong oh man is it painful)
  • Apply a full (but natural) face of make-up
  • Put on tight (but not too tight) clothes
  • Wear flimsy and/or damaging shoes

And on and on. So many of these things require a disavowal of a fundamental human instinct–to avoid pain and discomfort. Much of how we mark “woman” in this culture requires pain. And the way that we deal with ongoing pain is to numb ourselves to it. To disassociate enough from our bodies that we can withstand it.

So how do we cultivate embodiment when 80% of 10 year old girls have been on a diet? When puberty is marked by the expectation to remove body hair (hell, even pre-puberty is marked by it)? When gendered clothing permits movement, freedom, and embodiment for some, and constriction, frivolity, and ornamentation for others?


5 thoughts on “Gendered Embodiment and Enclothed Cognition

  1. I love this post. I am so relieved to see this written down, you explain this tricky topic so well, thank you! I will be sharing this with everyone I know!

  2. While I agree….I also have to say that women are guilty of this….we can’t blame anyone else for this but ourselves. I grew up in an area, and lived most of my adult life in areas where the above was NOT true of how women dressed, and thus, how things were marketed to them.

    Women can control whats get marketed to them…by what they purchase and by buying for what THEY want to be.

    It sucks that society has gone this way….but sadly…we as women have allowed it to.

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