One of my most liberating moments of epiphany (so far) in development as a feminist was realizing how meaningless clothing sizes are.
They seriously are some of the most meaningless numbers in human history. For the most part once you move past XS, M/L, and XL, all those numbers 00, 2, 4, 8, 10, 28, 14 etc. can almost mean anything. Numeric clothing sizes fluctuate hugely, like roller coasters, by store, designer, country, clothing range, prince range, and age (of target customer). To see if something truly fits, flatters, and/or is comfortable you need to do a cursory and educated guess (do you normally wear M’s or L’s, then you probably know not to try the 00), and then either get out the old tape measure or you need to try it on.
To brag a little, I think I always knew that clothing sizes were a meaningless measurement. As a teenager I remember fitting into and wearing a lot of different sizes, but being confused and anxious about why I couldn’t find the One True Number that I was supposed to fit into. Little did I know that there is no such One True Number.
Also, growing up with two sisters and a large extended family, I was used to wearing ‘hand-me-downs’ so perhaps on some level I understood that bodies naturally change and fit into different sizes; and also being one for caring about aesthetics more than status symbols, Child Me usually cared more about whether the clothing item was fun, flashy, colorful etc. than the number stamped on a tag on the inside that no one ever saw. But again, as I got older, I noticed a lot more of my friends and peers worrying over their ‘dress size’ and worried that someone would ask me about mine and I wouldn’t be able to provide an accurate or definitive answer.
However, in college, I was reading the AMAZING book, The Body Project, (which all American women should read and) which chronicles the evolution of American girls through diaries and in conjunction with the history of American consumerism and body-related technologies. (Want to know the history of feminine hygiene products? I did. And this book covers it. It’s a pretty great book.)
It is amazing to see how our attitudes towards our bodies and ourselves changes in response to market changes. But in particular my mind was blown by the almost off-hand observation made in the book: In the past, clothes were made (by hand) for your body, rather than your body having to fit into the clothes. If you didn’t fit into a dress or shirt, it was probably just because it wasn’t made for your body.
I found this a surprisingly liberating idea, in a large part, because it was a simple case of facts and logic. There is no moral judgement on either side: your body or the unfitting clothes. Neither is at fault for not fitting together; they just were not meant to. Just like a baby trying to wear it’s parents shoes. They don’t fit because they were not made to fit baby feet. It is like that moment in the movie Labyrinth when Sarah realizes that the goblin king has no power over her, and therefore he has no power over her. It is is so obvious and true and powerful, but somehow so difficult to realize.
Only as mechanization and consumerism grew did our clothing industry evolve into something that demands the creation of bodies that fill in the spaces it leaves in its garments rather than accepting the bodies that we do have. But if we don’t fit, we need to realize this is not because we have failed to ‘measure up’ to some sort of important or actually meaningful standard. It is because the clothes were not made for us and us wonderful bodies.
[Unfortunately much of the garment and fashion industry has all sorts of issues and hatred for many body types and therefore a lot of clothes don’t fit a lot of bodies. But that is not the fault of the bodies for existing. If there is any fault, I think it is more than fair to place it at the on the clothes and the makers of those clothes. It sucks when you can’t find a design you like in a design for your body, but that’s not on you. That’s on the store/designer for having unimaginative and narrow parameters.]
As someone who is interested in thrift shopping and second-hand fashion and shopping in online boutiques, my experience continues to back up this idea that a numeric ‘dress size’ can mean almost anything/nothing. In a thrift store, clothes come from all sorts of time periods, designers, and countries, and may have been altered or lost their tags completely. The only way to know if you like something on yourself is to try it on, alter it, or be ok with it fitting differently than you are used to. Online you can’t try things on, so you want to know the measurements of an item and how that compares to the measurements of you body regardless of whether it’s listed as a size 0 or size 40 . . . otherwise you run a high chance of paying for something you don’t want or can’t wear.
As such, I am someone who naturally has things ranging from XS to XL in her closet and which she wears all the time. If I’m thrift shopping, I’m going to be browsing all the size sections and I’m probably going to find something that fits me in all those sections.
I really hope other women come to understand this fact of life and embrace it as I have. It makes fashion, dressing, shopping, and just generally dealing with your body easier . . . if only because it removes that layer of shame, guilt, and self-hatred that comes from not fitting into the random categories a store, designer etc. has created.
I know I have shocked a couple women in my life by giving them clothing gifts in label sizes outside of their ‘goal’ or ‘acceptable/polite’ sizes. To be honest, as someone living for years freed from the tyranny of clothing sizes, it usually doesn’t even cross my mind to worry too much about the label. I just think about whether it will fit and fit comfortably and be enjoyed. When I think about my body or others’ bodies, I’m not thinking about their size in terms of all the social judgements that come with being an XL or XS; but it is hard to get out of that mindset or to assume that others’ are.
But those experiences (of insulting/shocking other women) for me were like looking a prisoner through bars she she holds up herself between us. The power is completely in her hands to stay in the prison or get out. I hope more women get out; it’s a lot more fun and a lot more comfortable.