Ooh, ooh! Is that a 16 in the back? | Photo: “Dress Forms,” web4camguy, CC BY-SA 2.0
When I’m shopping for something, I have a trick. Well it’s not so much a trick, as it is a survival skill. I’ll pick up 4-6 items of slightly varying sizes (sometimes the same item in 2-3 different sizes). Sometimes this means going into two different parts of the store, for the weird overlap where “normal” sizes end and “plus” sizes begin. Sometimes there will be two garments that are labeled with the same size, but because they come from different parts of the store, they will cost different amounts. I’ll try everything on with increasing desperation. Then I’ll have to remind myself that just fitting is the first step, and it’s also supposed to actually look good. Sometimes I don’t really have the option of caring about that part—“bigger ladies” are often encouraged to simply drape ourselves in fabric like a futon in the hope of covering our “problem areas.” (We’re also encouraged to have enormous breasts to fill in these drapes of fabric—if you’re a bigger lady that lacks this particular feature, you can look forward to the neckline of your shirt ending at roughly your navel.) Then if I find something that fits and (hopefully) does not make me look like a lawn chair draped in weatherproofed material, I buy three or four of that item in various colors, because God knows this miracle might not occur again.
Welcome to the world of ladies’ fashion, where everything is made up and the sizes don’t matter. There is no regulation for what sizes mean, or how the sizes are represented. Some lines are just in size categories, like “extra small” or “quadruple extra-large.” Some garments are listed in increments of two, starting with double zero and going up. Most stores (in my experience) stop the “normal sizes” at 14 or 16, and start counting things as “plus sizes” at 16 or 18. A lot of stores don’t bother with that whole “plus size” thing and just stop at 12 or 14. Because why would you go out in public if you were bigger than that? You may have seen the Facebook post that is going around, where a rather skinny man puts on his girlfriend’s discarded “extra-large” clothing to make a point about the ridiculously small early stages where the label “extra-large” starts applying. The man, who identifies his own size as a small or medium (or occasionally, a youth large) fits perfectly into his girlfriend’s tank top. Even if you go by the same adage for clothes that you do for shoes (that a woman’s garment is a size to a size and a half bigger than the equivalent man’s garment) that means that his girlfriend should be wearing, at most, a large.
I was five feet tall by the time I was in the fourth grade, and if I’m wearing any footwear I’m now roughly six feet tall. I’ve spent a long time struggling with my weight (if by “struggle” you mean “complain and curse genetics while not always doing what I know I need to do in terms of exercise and eating right in order to lose weight.”) At my heaviest I was roughly 240 pounds. When I was living in a major city, eating cardboard from Nutrisystem and walking multiple miles a day, I got down to 190. I hit what I thought was the Holy Grail: normal people sizes. I was a 16. Or a 14. Sometimes. I started shopping in the “ladies” section instead of the “women’s world” section. (Because ladies are smaller and prettier, and women are… bigger? I don’t know. Euphemisms confuse me.) When I decided that if I ate one more super-acidic tomato paste and shoe leather pizza I would literally murder someone and also moved back to Wyoming, where walking is something one does if one is fortunate enough to live in the three places in the state where public transportation is kind of a thing, I bounced back up. All of those lovely clothes went into the closet for a (probably never going to happen) future date where I got myself together, and I had someone ask me something akin to “You were looking so good when you got back… what happened?” Now I’m sitting at 220ish pounds and a gym membership that is basically just a tax on my inability to gather enough energy to workout. Depending on the store, the item of clothing, and the alignment of the moon, I’m anywhere between a size sixteen and a size twenty, or between a large and an extra-extra-large.
I’m sharing this relatively personal information for a couple of reasons. The first is that one of the underlying reasons that clothing sizing remains so insane is that few people know what each size means. We’re conditioned from an early age that admitting to your weight or dress size when it falls outside of a certain range is equivalent to announcing that you would like to be a spinster forever, so we rely on the same euphemisms that the fashion industry uses. “Plus size” can refer to a wide variety of body shapes and sizes, as can “petite,” “ladies,” etc. Until we feel less fear about talking about our sizes, and have a better understanding of what these ridiculous sizes might refer to, we’re not actually going to make any progress on standardization.
The second reason I think sharing this information is important is to show the psychological effect that beauty ideals and restrictive/ridiculous sizing standards have on women. The fact that I had to stop and take several deep breaths before writing all of that and posting it in a public place shows that even those of us who critique our system of body image also still feel the effects of it. I feel bad sometimes when I go shopping. I prefer shopping with friends, so that even if I don’t find anything, they do. It turns into a session of dress up, rather than psychological torture. Shopping with friends can also provide a buffer against the “helpful” store clerks who would really prefer you lose thirty pounds before you attempt to wear their clothes. Amy Schumer just released a sketch about this (warning, slightly NSFW due to Lena Dunham’s breasts). In the sketch, Schumer asks for a t-shirt in a size 12, and is variously asked if she has tried checking under the table, if she can keep her voice down because she is scaring the thinner customers, or if she just wants some nice jewelry. With the exception of that middle bit (I’m usually just asked if I can keep my voice down, period. I’m very loud.) everything on this list has happened to me while I’ve been shopping. Eventually she’s led to a special section for her “situation,” and is given a tarp that can cover both wood and her “problem area.” The tarp is a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Compare the “petite” and “women’s world” sections of a store sometime, and see how…. different…. The options are. I call it “the assumption that women of a certain size have lost the will to live or look pretty.” We are left to our shame. And our caftans.
Now, I’m not going to declare that “real women have curves” or start humming Meghan Trainor. (Someday, Meghan Trainor and I are gonna have a talk about the difference between feminism and… whatever is going on in her song “Dear Future Husband.” And why lines like “Boys like a little more booty to hold at night” might not qualify as “empowering.”) I don’t think the solution to “plus-sized women are not considered beautiful or normal” is “plus-sized women are the only ones who are beautiful and normal.” But I am going to point out that the average clothing size of a woman in the US is 12-14. Now I’m not a mathematician, but since I don’t see large clone pods of size-14 women roaming the streets, I’m going to guess that we arrived at that average because there are a lot of women smaller than size 12-14, and a lot of women who are bigger than size 12-14. So why is size 14 considered to be near the upper level of the “normal” spectrum of sizes, instead of the middle of it? Why does our seemingly arbitrary sizing system say that a women’s extra-large and a male youth large are supposed to fit the same size of body? Why do we set up a sizing system, and store employee interactions, that seem set on telling a large swathe of our female population that not only are we not healthy (please God save me from health-based concern trolling) but that we shouldn’t even be allowed the “privilege” of clothing ourselves in brick-and-mortar stores?
Hopefully the pressure from online shopping and body-positive activists will someday convince the fashion industry to standardize and normalize sizes in a way that reflects what the women who are buying these products actually look like. In the meantime I’m going to try to find a really nice sweater in someone’s version of size 18 and then buy it in five colors.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain all the things wrong with firing teachers for talking about rather common body parts, she studies gender in popular culture.
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