Before women were all hunched over screens, applying filters and tapping out hashtags to food photos, we were hunched over sinks, sudsing dishes and keeping an eye on the stove. Today’s kitchens may have more machines, but they remain abuzz with structured and artificial femininity, from aprons to pink KitchenAids. Everything matches, even the woman, whose body the kitchen has been designed to fit—albeit inaccurately—since almost a century ago, when engineers measured thousands of women to try to make housework more comfortable.
Over the last 100 years, kitchens have grown, walls have fallen, and appliances have multiplied, but the kitchen protagonist—a woman, standardized—has stayed the same. So has the height of the countertops, sink, and oven.
Until the 1930s, kitchen-surface heights, like clothing, varied as people did, with kitchens and clothes matching the women in them, rather than the other way around. Engineers even sought to bring precision to the task. Kitchen work would be less back-breaking, they said, if the counters and sinks were the right height for the women using them.
One of those engineers, Christine Frederick, studied women at work to create a chart pairing work-surface height with woman height; a 5-foot-6-inch (1.68 meter) woman, for instance, would be most comfortable with her countertops and the bottom of her sink 31 inches from the floor. Correct heights, combined with efficient kitchen layouts, could make cooking slightly less of a burden, she wrote.
But then American industry, for the sake of more efficient production, needed (and still needs) standards. Two decades after Frederick created her chart, standardization took over, and not just in the US, but in other parts of the world too. The tailor-made kitchen was gone. While it’s easy enough to make adjustable chairs and bikes, it’s much harder to build customization into an entire room filled with chunks of wood and granite wedged between heavy, expensive, factory-made appliances.
Standards crept in to guide not just activities, as Frederick had in mind, but physical objects too. And modernist aesthetics—simple forms with little ornamentation, clean 90-degree angles—became the norm.
That didn’t bode well for the woman for whom this new, uniformly-sized kitchen was being designed and made. The sink was the first kitchen object to be standardized. It became part of the continuous countertop—a single height dipping or lifting for no appliance, a look that fell in line perfectly with modernism’s minimalist lines. Everything else rose to meet the sink—the counters, the stove, the cabinets all converged at 36 inches above the floor, writes Leslie Land in her study of modernism and kitchens. That was much too high for the 5-foot-3 average-height woman of the time (and too high even for today’s average 5-foot-4 American woman).
Maybe that height was because that 31-inch sink base—which was actually close to a suitable height for a 5-foot-3 woman—made the lip of the sink an ad-friendly yardstick high. Maybe it was because, as Land writes, another engineer, Lillian Gilbreth, had a 5-foot-7 woman in mind when she designed demonstration kitchens, with their layouts based on motion studies of women at work. Maybe it was arbitrary. No matter—it was set, giving society a yardstick by which to measure the woman and her space alike. In ads, you can see her standing next to her sink, appliance-installation man on bent knee holding a ruler and looking up longingly.
These new kitchens may have looked different, but they posed the same dilemma: They were either a way to make unavoidable work less onerous, furnished with objects that supposedly fit women specifically, or a way to make sure the kitchen was fit for only women, specifically. Was the new kitchen a realistic response to the existing societal structures that held women in kitchens? Or did it end up reinforcing sexism by pronouncing the kitchen a space made specifically to fit women’s bodies?
Today, our kitchens still have 36-inch everything, and they still have women in them, mostly; in heterosexual couples in the US, women cook 78% of dinners and buy 93% of the food. And though we eat fewer home-cooked meals and more commercially prepared foods, the ads for these foods still feature, for the most part, stereotypically nurturing women, smiling mothers whose primary concern is caring for their families and who, in their caricatures, stand for a commercialized version of the modern woman: someone who is productive but still feminine.
By standardizing the kitchen, designers also standardized women’s bodies, creating a space in which only a person with a specific body shape could be comfortable. Around then, clothing sizes were being standardized for the first time too. Before the Mail-Order Association of America requested a study of women’s bodies to create standards, clothing sizes for women were based on bust alone, as men’s clothes had been since soldiers’ uniforms became uniform in the 1800s. The Association wanted simple yet accurate sizes because it wanted fewer returns; sizes, then, were a way to make selling things more efficient.
One of those things was the idea of the perfect body. After all the measuring was done, sizes were still based on the bust, with an extrapolated hourglass figure filling out the rest of the garment.
There have always been beauty standards, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that those standards, like the kitchen, became integrated with uniform measurements. The problem is the standardizers got it wrong; with designs based on simplified ideals, not reality, women became misfits in their own kitchens and clothes alike.
The solution, then, must be the opposite of uniformity: customization. The best way to fit everyone, like the best way to make kitchens more comfortable, is to make objects tailored to individual bodies, rather than tailored to the idea of an individual body. Perhaps we should follow the DIY craze, with its jam-making and pickling, its hand-knitted sweaters and backyard-raised chickens; perhaps we should travel back in time 100 years, moving perversely against the expansion of women’s rights (but keeping those rights all the same), to a time when each kitchen was made for the person within it and each shirt for the person inside.
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