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.

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Closing the Representation Gap for Plus-Size Women

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Today, I was interviewed by John Hockenberry for the radio show, The Takeaway, to discuss the plus-size industry, the new Refinery29 initiative, and Donald Trump:

Some 67 percent of women in the U.S. are above a size 14 in clothes. This is considered “plus-size” by fashion industry standards. If that’s surprising, it might make sense to hear this: Just 2 percent of women shown in media images are plus-size.

In response to this imbalance, lifestyle and fashion blog Refinery 29, along with Getty Images, is launching “Project 67 Percent” in a bid to get a greater variety of body types into the media. This week, Refinery 29 has committed to featuring plus-sized women in 67 percent of their images across their website and social media. The media brand will also make their collection of photos available to other news and entertainment outlets with the hopes of closing what they call the “representation gap” in fashion.

Dr. Amanda Czerniawski, author of “Fashioning Fat: Inside Plus-Size Modeling,” worked for two and a half years as a plus-size model. She’s currently an associate professor of sociology at Temple University, and joins The Takeaway to discuss the representation gap in America.

The one thing I would like to add (since they cut it from my response on Trump’s harsh words) is that models are not only hired for their ideal bodies but their consistent bodies. Weight gain or loss can lead to job loss in fashion. Models are not seen as women but voiceless bodies that are easily replaceable.

You can listen to the interview here.

Thank You, Tim Gunn!

Tim Gunn, of Project Runway fame, wrote an article for The Washington Post yesterday that is pure genius and sticks it to designers who refuse to make clothes to fit American women.

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The plus-size clothing market is ripe for BIG business. As Gunn writes:

The average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18, according to new research from Washington State University. There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.

As I have said before, the reason many designers do not design for plus-size bodies is fear. Now, there are two dimensions of this fear: a fear of fat itself and a fear of failure to create flattering designs for plus bodies. Gunn also finds there is an undercurrent of contempt towards fat in fashion:

e29d730b5a0efe495d4f103b13ca5169I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, “I’m not interested in her.” Why? “I don’t want her wearing my clothes.” Why? “She won’t look the way that I want her to look.” They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt.

Ultimately, the burden falls on designers to reevaluate their bias and fix the problem:

This a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women. The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape.

Fortunately, there are signs of change in the design industry. A couple of years ago, plus-size legend Emme started the Fashion Without Limits program at Syracuse University. The goal is to train students to design fashion for full-figured women.

So, in the words of Tim Gunn, “designers, make it work.”

The Decade Long Weight Debate in Fashion

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Image by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Ten years ago today, fashion model Luisel Ramos dropped dead from heart failure brought on by anorexia just minutes after stepping off the catwalk during Fashion Week in Montevideo, Uruguay. She was 22 years old. A few months later, another model Ana Carolina Reston died from starvation-related complications at the age of 21.

These two deaths spurred the thin model controversy of 2006 that has continued to rage through today.

Several of the major fashion capitals considered instituting preventative measures after these sudden deaths. For example, Spain took action by first banning ultra-thin models from fashion week and then banning skinny sizes on mannequins. Britain tried to ban size zero models from London Fashion Week, but that was quickly abandoned after other fashion capitals failed to follow suit. In 2012, the Council of Fashion Designers of America urged designers to ensure that their runway models were not younger than age 16. Most recently, France adopted a bill aimed at banning the use of fashion models deemed to be “excessively thin.”

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Image by AP Photo/Jacques Brinon

Around the same time of these prominent fashion deaths, Velvet D’Amour made a splash in Paris with her appearances on the runway for both Jean Paul Gaultier and John Galliano. At 39 years of age and nearly 300 pounds, Velvet was beyond what is technically considered plus size, let alone high fashion, but she sauntered down those catwalks with confidence and poise. She was a standout with her fierce presence but the critics were shocked and appalled. This juxtaposition of fat and thin was too much.

A media storm ignited. Velvet received hundreds of emails from women inspired by her work, as well as from those who demonstrated a strong aversion to her fat:

I’ve had people ask me “Do you think you are promoting obesity by you being on the runway?” I think it’s laughable. If what’s on the runway had anything to do with obesity then we would all be emaciated.

Either way, she experienced difficulty in further advancing her modeling career because of her size:

You know, I have gone down the runway twice for two great people, but the reality is there is not a massive amount of work for three hundred pound women. . . I try to create opportunity for other people because I know that that opportunity is very limited, not only for bigger women but older women . . . I think that the reason people admire me is because I give them that sense of possibility. I was able to do it. I was able to break through that barrier.

Given Velvet’s iconic runway walk and mixed media reception, “larger” plus-size models faced hurdles in establishing themselves as legitimate models.

Velvet’s presence in the fashion industry was a statement and not the norm. It was not until recently with Tess Holliday that we have seen another “beyond a size 16” plus-size model make a splash in fashion.

In the past decade, has much really changed in the fashion industry?

#BodyShaming

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Image by JESHOOTS (CCo Public Domain via Pixabay)

This past week, there was another example of body shaming in the news:

Last week, Playboy model Dani Mathers got herself into trouble after posting a photo of a naked woman in an L.A. Fitness locker room to her Snapchat account. Besides violating the privacy of this unknown woman, Mathers added insult to injury when she captioned the image, “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.” This kind of body shaming is, unfortunately, not uncommon and quickly provoked reaction throughout social media…

Fore more on the connection between body shaming and social media, check out my blog post on From the Square.

It is time for all of us to stop the shame and celebrate body diversity. I dare you to #‎UnSeeTHIS because #‎AllBodiesAreBeautiful!

Beauty Beyond a Size 16

“The difficult work of expanding beauty ideals”

The spring issue of Contexts is out and features my article on the changes in the plus-size industry this past year! In it, I discuss the phenom Tess Holliday and the practice of padding in the industry. Interestingly, each of plus-size fashion’s milestones has seen mixed reception because there is a persistent cultural sigma around fat. Size bias is hanging on in the very sector of fashion believed to be immune to size discrimination. It reveals just how deeply our culture’s narrowly constructed ideas about bodies and beauty go.

The whole issue (and my article!) is available for free online until July 23, 2016 at ctx.sagepub.com. Check it out!

Contexts is a quarterly magazine that makes cutting-edge social research super accessible to general readers. I highly recommend it. For more information on the magazine, check out its website here.

The Beauty Myth

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In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf argues that “beauty” does not objectively or universally exist. Rather, it is a political tool used to repress women and, thus, maintain masculine domination, as evidenced by the strict bodily standards imposed by cultural institutions such as fashion and the greater magnitude of body projects aimed at women. Western consumer culture directs more attention to the looks of women’s bodies than men’s. In the pursuit of beauty, women engage in body regimes to cultivate their physiques at the disproportionate expense of their time, money, and other interests.

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Wolf speaks of this cycle of cosmetics, beauty aids, diets, and exercise fanaticism that serves to (1) imprison women in their bodies, bodies that continually require new products and procedures to repair any possible “imperfections,” and (2) perpetuate a normalized discontentment toward women’s bodies by constructing an ideal that is far from the normal, natural body. In this system, women become objects in their own projects of becoming.

Where do you see this myth in action?