Designers Are Hacking Women’s Health With Wearable Tech

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. TheNew 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.”

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 U.S. 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.


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