The bathroom icon has no clothes

Unlike some species, humans have pretty mild sexual dimorphism: men and women are only a little different, beyond the obvious (but hidden) bits. Not like the sage grouse, for example.

But we do what we can. For example, I always thought the bathroom icons were the same except for the dress they put on the woman.

But on closer inspection, their bodies are a little different, too.

She has skinnier legs, and his shoulders and torso are broader. Plus, her arms are angled out, as if she has wider hips under that dress.

Are the different bodies necessary? I think if they just put the dress on the man’s body, and angled his arms out, he could pass as a woman.

Or, if you prefer, take the dress off her, and let her arms hang freely:

In other words, I think it’s all in the dress and the posture. The different body types are gratuitous. They do contribute to the total effect — but only if the figures are shown side by side and with different clothes. In isolation either body would do as long as the clothes were different. That means the clothes and posture are teaching us about the body types, not vice versa.

The man is the generic “person,” and the woman is a variation. That view of sex differences goes back to (the story of) Adam and Eve, and was also the dominant Western medical model till the 18th Century or so. If fact, everyone starts out as a female fetus, before some people are made male.*

(Of course, this kind of subtlety is only necessary since we’re not willing to use exaggerated body-type differences as symbols — that’s a different website.)

If just putting the man in the dress doesn’t do it for you, how’s this?

Or, for those who prefer to exaggerate clothing differences instead of body differences, there are these (h/t Scott):

* In recent days we were reminded that there are “suicide bombers” and then there are “female suicide bombers.”

17 thoughts on “The bathroom icon has no clothes

  1. I like your last picture. That’s brilliant. And it works up side down too, right?

    Great article, great thought. The body is nature, the dress is nurture. Really love it!


  2. The hard (i.e. real) scientist who reads this is concerned about the patriarchy but more about accuracy than patriarchy would determine the size ratios between the two icons and then determine (a) in what country or continent those icons were standardized and (b) what the male-female shoulder and leg ratios are and how the icon ratios compare to reality.

    Then he’d wonder why the female icon isn’t 5% (1.68m vs. 1.78m) shorter and 20% (54.4 kg vs 68 kg) slimmer than the male icon.

    The he’d realize that the only people who obsess about this kind of stuff have too much time on their hands.


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