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  • Writer's pictureSharon To

Size Matters (Not?)

Thanks to quarantine, I’ve been spending a lot more time online than usual. (For a person who spends most of her days in front of a computer for living, this is saying something). One of the things I’ve been doing a lot more of lately is online shopping, or online window shopping more like, and something caught my eye that never really struck me before: the way in which women’s sizing charts (and probably all gendered sizing charts) are organized. Specifically, I’m looking at and talking about women’s sizing charts, because I identify as a woman and those are the ones I’m more experienced with and used to seeing.

The inherent flaws in today's sizing chart

Since most of us grew up with the standard sizing chart that we understand today, unless your body exists outside of what’s considered the “norm”, it may not really be something you actively think about. But as with all aspects of the societal standards of beauty, clothing sizing charts are inherently antagonistic towards larger bodies. And the reason why I use the term large or larger is because society penalizes women who have bodies that are “larger than average” in terms of both width and height. We have our “standard” sizes of Small, Medium, and Large. And then we have further sizings that are more extreme on both sides of the spectrum, XXS, XS, XL, XXL, etc. For one, this “extra” nonsense that’s being tacked on to the two ends of the very limited sizing spectrum, already holds negative connotations. To be “extra” is to be unnecessary or to be outside of the norm. Unless your body fits into one of the three sizing buckets society has allowed you to choose from, you are “extra.” It’s language and expectations like these that cause body dysmorphia on both sides. If you’re on the larger side, you already have to carry this “extra” label around with you literally wherever you go in addition to suffering from the haranguing and ridicule of society for being “larger” (larger compared to what, I ask you) But even if you’re on the more extreme side of small, you also have a sense of not-belonging tied to your label as well. Those who are larger may see being smaller as a better thing, but from knowing people who do exist on that side of the spectrum, they wish they were just a bit larger. They wish they were normal. And how sad is that? If you’re bigger, society tells you you’re too big, if you’re smaller, society tells you you’re too small. And if you’re right in the middle, society tells you you could be smaller... I mean, I know that beauty standards are ridiculous and hostile, but seriously.

"Plus" sizes

And this isn’t even the worst part about clothing sizes. Let’s not forget that we have a whole other set of sizes, known as “plus.” As if women didn’t already have enough to deal with, what with all the “extra” nonsense going on.

I’m guessing that “plus” was society’s Mean Girls-esque way of being nice about addressing larger sizes. It’s kind of the same way we’ve been taught growing up how to use so many euphemisms to imply that someone is fat rather than say the word fat itself. Society itself is what tied so much negativity to the totally neutral adjective word “fat.” I believe that if we had just called it what it was from the beginning, instead of treating this word like a curse, we also would have grown up to be a lot more tolerant about different body sizes as well. But I digress.

To understand how we got to “plus” sizes we also have to understand the source against which they’re measured. So I took a look into how we got our standard sizing chart for women’s sizes that we use today (if you're interested in reading it yourself, you can check it out here). The idea of a standard set of sizes that could fit a range of people actually started off in the military and was used for men’s uniforms. Then the clothing industry tried to apply this to women’s clothing so they could capitalize on more women having access to clothes that didn’t need to be custom measured. As would be expected, this was initially a disaster. There are just so many ways that the female body varies from person to person from the size of our busts to the size of our hips. So they did what any group of people would do when they were completely off the mark about what “standard” sizes should look like; they gathered measurements from women across the country. However, they only sampled white women (of course). So given that the samples they had to go off of were not at all representative of society, we now have the extremely flawed sizing chart that many women base their clothing choices (and inherent value) on.

So in terms of clothing sizes, everything pretty much centers around size 0 (or in some cases 00). That’s our starting point: the smallest size. This is problematic in many ways. 0 usually implies balance, equilibrium. When you look at a number line, 0 is typically right in the center, dividing the positive and the negative. So if 0 is supposed to be the center, the normal, why are so few women actually a size 0? In fact, according to Vox, the average American woman is between size 16-18. Yet “plus” sizes start at size 14. So is “plus” really extra anymore? Or are the smaller sizes more out of the norm now?

What now?

Suffice it to say, I don’t think that it’s fair that women who exist in larger bodies (and already face explicit ridicule from people for their sizes) have to be made to feel ashamed of themselves further because all of their shopping has to happen in specially sectioned off areas, typically in the back of the store. And because their sizes are “special” compared to all the other “normal” women. Women exist in all shapes and sizes and they should all be recognized and celebrated. Period.

I recognize that the “average” woman’s size changes from year to year, and our standard body sizes in general have changed since women’s bodies were first measured to create these sizing charts. But that doesn’t mean we can’t update them to be more inclusive, more accurate, and more objective about body sizes, rather than using harmful language that can have such negative implications for the people who are indeed these sizes. I also recognize that patterns used to create clothing garments will vary depending on the size that it needs to fit, so I don't oppose clothing lines from supporting certain sizes given their own business strategies. But I do oppose the implicit insult that is tied to wearing “plus” sizes or anything with a prefixed “extra-”.

Maybe it’s time to overhaul the existing sizing nomenclature. Maybe, instead of assigning these arbitrary names and labels, we can go the way of European shoe sizes and just label sizes by their literal measurements. Numbers don’t imply one thing or another. If your waist is 36 inches or 50 inches, it doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person. As opposed to being labeled as a medium versus a large while living in a society that focuses so much on the space we take up. But who’s to say that taking up space is such a bad thing?


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