Unbalanced: The cold wars

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Carol Schaal

The men are rolling up their shirt sleeves; the women are putting on sweaters. It’s another winter’s day, another day when our generally agreeable male co-workers can’t agree to the fact that our cube farm is so freaking cold we would be better off working in Siberia.

(9 a.m. – 9 degrees outside; 63.7 inside)

Sound familiar? The ongoing battle between men and women over the perfect temperature plays out at thermostats across the world (just ask my husband). In the midst of freezing, I decided it was time to find out exactly why that is, to find out why I need to triple layer before I walk out the door in winter and why I am seriously considering lugging an electric blanket to work so I can stop feeling so blasted cold.

(11 a.m. — 13 degrees outside; 65.1 inside)

“They” say women carry more fat. Sure enough, “they” are right. As one esteemed professor said on the Body & Soul website, “An average woman will have a more even distribution of fat just below the skin surface, where this is thinner for guys. . . . an average woman might have 20 to 25 percent body fat, whereas an average guy might have about 15 percent.” So with all this extra fat, why do women generally feel cold when men are toasty? And what warm-blooded jerk is running the heating system here anyway?

(1 p.m. — 19 degrees outside; 65.1 inside)

Here’s the ironic surprise: Women’s more evenly distributed layer of fat is what’s making us colder. Apparently human bodies are designed to keep our internal organs at a tropical 98.6 degrees. When it’s as cold as it is here, because winter in northern Indiana is like being sentenced to life in a meat locker and because the heating system in Grace Hall apparently is stuck on let’s-be-energy-efficient-and-to-hell-with-comfort, our bodies, says the professor, “conserve heat by reducing the blood flow to the skin.” In women, that means the blood flow is directed to interior organs and away from hands and feet. Men, with their tendency for beer guts counterbalanced by a higher muscle mass, which generates heat, don’t experience such a drastic loss of blood flow to the skin.

(3 p.m. — 20 degrees outside; 65.2 inside)

Bottom line: When the skin temperature of women’s hands and feet lowers, “we’re going to get more messages from the cold sensors in the skin that we are chilly.” Apparently there is scientific proof that when it is cold outside, the temperature of women’s hands is lower than men’s, often by as much as 3 degrees.

(5 p.m. — 20 degrees outside; 65.6 inside)

So yes, the average woman generally does feel colder more than the average man. And if, like me, you are anemic, you feel even colder. Now that I know the facts, I am feeling a bit smarter. But I’m still freezing my well-endowed derriere off.

Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email her at schaal.2@nd.edu.