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Clothes for Young Women with Type 1 Diabetes: Research into Action

Rachael Hughson-Gill, 25 is a PhD researcher at Coventry University whose childhood friend lives with type 1 diabetes.

Through a series of co-design workshops with young women exploring body image, mental health, and chronic conditions, Rachael and her co-design team decided to focus on how clothing could be made better to support young women with type 1 diabetes. 

Q. Can you please outline your research?

My PhD research aimed to co-design products or systems that support young women’s body image. Maintaining a positive body image is difficult for young women, with the pressure to live up to an unrealistic and unhealthy idea of what we should look like and how we should behave, but our research found that having type 1 diabetes can add more pressure.

The need to manage the condition can lead to an increased connection, relationship and awareness of one’s body and body image. Our co-design group, which included two researchers and 16 young women with type 1 diabetes, explored how wearable technology, bruising and weight fluctuations can change how their bodies look and the clothes they choose to wear when at times they want to look, feel and be treated like everyone else.

Our co-design group came up with great ideas that could support young women to maintain positive body image and empowers young women to take control of how they show or don’t show their condition. The idea is that these clothes could embrace, celebrate and show type 1 diabetes, or not show type 1 diabetes at all depending on what you want, or need that day. These clothes would also provide practical elements that make diabetes management, especially in public spaces, easier. 

Q. Why did you decide to do this project?

The project has evolved since 2021. I realised that there is also little understanding and support for some of the very unique challenges that I saw reported for women with type 1. I wanted to see how design could be used to help change this, by holding the space for young women to express what support they need and want.

Q. What is your background, what led you here?

I studied product design engineering and have worked within a medical technology company. I have been interested in how design research can be used to better understand and communicate how we live, and then how we can apply this through design and co-design to create systems, services and products that truly support people.

Q. What is your connection to diabetes?

One of my closest and oldest friends, who I often refer to as a sister, has type 1 diabetes. I grew up with her, so saw a glimpse of how difficult it can be for young women, but also how diabetes can be celebrated and loved as a part of what that makes her, her.

Q. What have your learned while doing this project?

This is difficult to answer because I have learnt so much. I have learnt more about what it can be like living with and managing this condition through young adulthood. I have discovered and illustrated new things about struggles with body image and the needs, wants and desires of how to create clothing that support this.

However, I think the main take away for me, is nothing should be developed for a group of people without their help throughout the design process. The sheer amount I have learnt, and the way this project has gone would not have been possible without the insight and creativity of the young women I have worked with. Systems, services and products need to be co-designed to create solutions that truly reflect people, and what they want and need.

Q. What do clothes for young women with type 1 diabetes look like?

They should look like clothes young women want to wear, as put by women I have worked with, they should look sexy, cute and fun! Clothing designed for the needs of young women with type 1 diabetes should empower them to feel good in themselves and their bodies. It should be beautiful, show and celebrate the bits of their personality they want to show, whether that includes type 1 diabetes that day or not.

Q. What do you want to come out of this research?

I want there to be more clothing out there that considers body image and meets the needs of young women with type 1 diabetes - helping them to feel more confident and empowered.

I have learnt so much through the research, and I am currently in the process of turning all of this into a toolkit and set of recommendations that can be used by designers. I hope it will be used both by designers creating clothing specifically for people with type 1 diabetes, and those looking to understand, dress and empower a broader range of women.

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