Fabulously Sized? Her Size? Plus Size?

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Source: Kmart – “I Can”

Kmart recently announced that it changed the name of its plus-size clothing to “fabulously sized.” This is the latest retailer to “drop the plus.” (Remember Lane Bryant’s “her size”?) So, let’s put this in sociological perspective:

The expression “plus size” is often misunderstood or unknown (and usually equated with fatness). As many could surmise from a single glance at magazine photos of plus-size models, the basic definition of “plus size” in modeling does not match the cultural image of a fat woman. Most casual observers of plus-size models would probably not even perceive them as “plus size,” let alone fat. Indeed, many of these models are of “average” size and weight, typically wearing women’s sizes ten to eighteen; retail industry experts estimate that the average American woman wears a size fourteen sixteen. Typically, the industry considers anything over a woman’s size eight as “plus size.”

The term “plus size” is highly problematic because it is not measured in absolute terms and, quite simply, means different things to different people. Without standardized sizing practices and the added complication of vanity sizing (i.e., size inflation), a static dimensional form of plus size does not exist. On top of that, there is the inconsistency in the categorization of plus size between the modeling and retail clothing industries. In clothing retail, plus-size retailers generally start their merchandise at a size fourteen (sometimes twelve) and run through size twenty-four. (Super-size apparel begins at size twenty-six or 4X to 6X.) On the other hand, the fashion modeling industry considers anything over a woman’s size eight as “plus size.” This presents an interesting scenario where it is not uncommon for models to be hired to advertise for plus-size clothing lines while they, themselves, normally do not fit into plus-size sizes. Consequently, many of these “smaller” plus-size models use body padding to effectively size up because clients want a plus-size body but thin face.

b4ae2db7dc9e2eb73ad7895b158b4149Ultimately, the term “plus size” becomes increasingly meaningless when used to categorize clothing sizes that the average woman wears. It does not accurately reflect the nature of the bodies it supposedly describes. The term “plus size,” however, is still loaded with huge cultural significance and plagued by the stigma of fat. The “plus” in plus size is not really a positive but a negative, which explains the increasing movement by fashion retailers like Kmart to distance themselves from the term.

Do you think this move away from the term “plus size” is a positive move for the fashion industry? Should we drop the plus? Add your thoughts in the comments.

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Summer Dating 101

“Summer lovin’, had me a blast
Summer lovin’, happened so fast
Met a girl crazy for me
Met a boy cute as can be
Summer days drifting away
To, uh oh, those summer nights”

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PhillyVoice wants to hear all about your tales of summer loving–the good, bad, and the ugly.

As a sociologist who teaches courses on gender, sexuality, and the body, I was asked for my professional view on modern dating. To read more about the influence of dating apps (i.e., new technology but same old problems) and how they normalized and institutionalized the hookup culture, please check out the article here.

While you are there, go ahead, tell PhillyVoice more!

The Growing Brazilian Plus-Size Fashion Market

According to a recent article by Marina Filippe for EXAME, Brazil’s premier business magazine, the plus-size sector, albeit small, is growing:

capa1n_exameData from the Ministry of Health of 2013 revealed that 57% of Brazilians are overweight. In 2006, the percentage of this part of the population was 43%. And if there was already a latent desire to embrace the cause and profit from it, another factor helped. “The economic crisis pushed those who were still refusing to look at this market,” says Edmundo Lima, executive director of the Brazilian Textile Retail Association. In the last three years, traditional clothing production in the country has shrunk by 7.3%. On the other hand, parts plus size, although much smaller, grew 14.3%. [translated from original in Portuguese courtesy of Google]

Read the entire interview here.

Interview with Cosmo

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If you want to know what it’s “really” like to be a plus-size model, check out my interview with Stephanie Shi for Cosmopolitan Philippines! Here’s a peek:

What do plus-size models have to do in order to maintain their size and shape? What do they have to do to be bigger? In your case, when you were asked to move up to a size 14 from a size 10, what would you have had to do to get there?

There is an assumption that these women have undisciplined bodies or don’t diet and exercise. The reality is that these women work hard for their bodies. At times, they engage in severe bodily management practices, such as strict calorie restriction to drop a size and even binge eating to gain a size. Models have to adapt to changing ideals. If your size isn’t in demand, do you radically transform your body, or do you wait for the trends to shift?

The act of losing weight for plus-size models is interesting, because by losing weight these women are conforming to a general cultural expectation for women; yet, within the modeling world, they are told that they did a bad thing. One model I interviewed really struggled with her unplanned weight loss that altered her dimensions dramatically and she lost clients because she was not hired for her perfect body but, rather, for her consistent body.

At the moment when I started hearing, “You have to be a size 14,” I did feel pressure to change. But that was also what prompted me to step back and say, “Okay, I’m done.” I didn’t want to have to change my body at someone’s beck and call. I couldn’t maintain my body and size and dimensions at that strict level—it was too much pressure.

Read the entire interview here.

Gender, Sexuality, and Intimacy: A Contexts Reader

I just found out that my article, “Beauty Beyond a Size 16,” is included in a new anthology by SAGE Publishing. Here is the description from the publisher:

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SAGE Publishing

This new anthology from SAGE brings together over 90 recent readings on gender, sexuality, and intimate relationships from Contexts, the award-winning magazine published by the American Sociological Association. Each contributor is a contemporary sociologist writing in the clear, concise, and jargon-free style that has made Contexts the “public face” of sociology. Jodi O’Brien and Arlene Stein, former Contexts Editors, have chosen pieces that are timely, thought-provoking, and especially suitable for classroom use; written introductions that frame each of the books three main sections; and provided questions for discussion.

I am honored to be part of this phenomenal collection of works. Thank you SAGE for continuing to shine a light on the plus-size industry.

Podcast Available on iTunes

A couple of months ago, I recorded a podcast interview about my book, Fashioning Fat, with SAGE Publications.

It is now available for free download on iTunes! Have yourself a listen here.

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Why clothes don’t fit

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Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Clothing sizes make no sense. PERIOD. Guess what? They never have!

I recently discussed the history of sizing with Mitchell Hartman for NPR’s Marketplace. You may listen to the segment that aired earlier this month here.

While the radio segment provides a brief overview of the development of women’s clothing sizes, I want to provide you with more details on the government’s first attempt to construct a standardized system of sizing.

Prior to the 1940s, standard clothing sizes did not exist. Lavish ladies from high society had clothing made to measure, while everybody else made do with a system based on approximation. Clothing sizes for children were based on age; those for women were based on the bust measurement. The assumption behind this sizing practice was that any woman at home had the requisite skills to alter garments to fit the intended body. In contrast, a ready-to-wear sizing system existed for men since the Revolutionary War. Men’s uniforms were sized according to chest measurements.

2e7ac650719eec91cad30fb43b3556e2The quest for size standardization did not begin until the 1940s. As the catalogue industry began to grow, they estimated a lack of set sizes was costing manufacturers $10 million a year. The U.S. government was also interested in standardizing sizes as a means to conserve fabric during the war. This motivated the Works Progress Administration and Department of Agriculture to ask statisticians Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton to measure 15,000 women in 59(!) different places and analyze the data to come up with a sizing system.

The data the duo collected, however, was problematic for a number of reasons. The sample of measured women was not a true cross-section of the population. Since the study was done on a volunteer basis and paid participants, it attracted women of a lower socioeconomic background who, due to malnutrition, tended to be on the small side. These women were also predominantly white, as the measurements from women of color were often discarded. Additionally, the statisticians assumed women had an hourglass figure (in reality, only 8 percent do) and based their measurements on bust size (again!). So, no, Meghan Trainor, it’s all ‘bout that bust.

From the collected measurements, O’Brien and Shelton devised a system based on height and weight but, in their wisdom, realized that women would not be too happy to disclose their weights to sales clerks. Instead, they formulated an alternative system based on an upper body measurement, height index, and lower body girth index. This resulted in a system comprised of 27 different sizes, and, no, size 0 was not one of them.

To their merit, while sizing, itself, has dramatically changed since their study, O’Brien and Shelton used numbers to indicate women’s sizes that were not, themselves, direct measurements of women’s bodies (as we commonly see in men’s clothing). This may be their one lasting legacy to modern sizing.

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Illustration by Jenna Josepher for Racked

Since O’Brien and Shelton’s landmark study, sizing standards have been reanalyzed, tweaked, infected by vanity sizing, and abandoned. Ultimately, that number on the tag that seems to matter to many American women does not mean much at all. It is, after all, just a number that does not reflect the reality of women’s bodies. For example, when Textile Clothing Technology conducted their SizeUSA study in the early 2000s, utilizing body scanners to collect measurements from almost 11,000 women, they found up to 7 distinct body shapes and a huge disparity within these shapes, e.g., there is a 12-inch spread for hip girth associated with a 28-inch waist.

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Image source via Getty Images

So, please, stop worrying about your size, and, if you are really concerned by the fit of a garment, learn how to sew or hire a tailor. Don’t change your body to fit the clothes. Change the clothes to fit your body.