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women’s clothing sizes: why are they designed to make us hate ourselves?


For the sake of this article, I’m just going to assume that you’re a feminist. You may not be, and I guess that’s your call, but just put yourself in my shoes for a moment anyway.

The other day, I ordered a new pair of jeans from an online store. I was pretty excited, as my other jeans no longer fit and I was keen to get back into pants for winter. For once, this was the kind of clothing purchase that I was meant to applaud, not feel bad about – my jeans no longer fit because they were too big for me, as opposed to too small. I went down a size, so surely I should be celebrating with my girlfriends over something low-carb and sugar free, right?

Well, no. Because as a feminist, I don’t think that women should have to celebrate weight loss as if it’s an achievement worthy of public note. I think that weight and worth are mutually exclusive, and although health is a goal worth aiming for, it’s still fairly personal and not something I want to have commented on.

Well, at least, as a feminist that’s what I want to think.

In reality, I’m still a young woman who exists within the paradigm of our society, where ‘beauty’ and ‘weight’ are conflated, and ‘body image’ has become a buzz word that feels far removed from the original notion of embracing individual body types and rejecting the constructed hierarchy of skinny vs fat. Sometimes, I too wish I looked like the women who seem to represent ‘beauty’ in popular culture. Sometimes, I wish I was taller, and skinnier, and that my hair was thicker and more glossy. These wistful yearnings I can learn to control. I understand rationally that these desires are based less in my actual views on my body, and more in what I’ve been indoctrinated to believe constitutes ‘attractive’. But what I can’t quite ever get past is my desire to fit into, and ‘look good’ in contemporary clothes.

I’m not the most fashionable person in the world. I don’t keep up with trends, and although I enjoy the act of dressing in things I like, and I enjoy some styles over others, I’m not engaged enough with fashion to consider myself ‘fashionable’ in the real sense. But I do love the aesthetic appeal of certain styles of clothing – skinny leg jeans, drapey cardigans, midi skirts, cropped jackets – mostly things that don’t suit my short, wide-hipped body.

The jeans that I ordered online were the same as several other pairs I have, and usually they fit brilliantly. But this time, I had finally reached a size that defies women’s clothing sizes. My hips are too wide for the leaner shape of my legs now, and these skinny jeans (while fitting perfectly around my legs) just Would. Not. Button. Up. The button and hole were less than an inch apart, but that inch wouldn’t budge, and believe me I tried everything. After ten minutes of jumping up and down, trying to squeeze my hips in (that’s impossible, by the way – it’s bone there, not flesh), and lying on my bed writhing while trying to drag the button and hole together, I finally admitted defeat.

I walked into the kitchen, where my boyfriend was making tea and asked him to use his superior strength to force the button to close. It worked, but I had a weird feeling in my stomach after, and it’s that weird feeling that I think needs to be addressed now.

The thing is – I felt kind of embarrassed having to ask my boyfriend to button up my jeans because they were too tight. And not just because I felt awkward that my jeans don’t just slide onto my lithe body with no resistance, but because it made me feel uncomfortable that I felt awkward about that. I wanted to be nonchalant, and ultra cool about my jeans not fitting; I wanted to use my feminist mind powers to not care that a standard size of jeans just won’t fit my body.

I did not, under any circumstances, want to admit that in fact it kind of depressed me that these new jeans  didn’t really fit, and that my body had not magically shrunk to accommodate women’s clothing sizes. Or that secretly, despite my most outspoken feminist tendencies, I still get insecure and sad and worried about my body, regardless of any rationally held beliefs about socially constructed norms of beauty.

But for me, it isn’t just that I see images of women in the media and am forced to reflect that, if I don’t look like that, I can’t be beautiful. It’s that every time I feel good about myself, and enjoy what I see in the mirror, or feel confident in my shape and size, I try on a dress I really want or buy a pair of jeans that don’t fit, and I feel awful again.

Women’s clothing sizes are steeped in a value system. Sizes carry a weight (pardon the pun) beyond the number or the actual measurements they represent. Even though going up a size may not reflect a huge change in your health, I can bet that a large proportion of women feel anxious when their normal size 12 starts inching towards a 14. The problem with this is that clothing sizes, much like a lot of clothing styles, are based on an idea of women’s body shapes that does not reflect the range or diversity in women at all. I’m sorry that my hips-to-legs ratio isn’t the same as whatever generic code is used to devise a size 10 pair of jeans, but my body wasn’t made according to sterile calculations.

I don’t know what solution is possible here – should stores carry a wider range of size options? Should some websites offer a made-to-measure option? Should I go back to making my own clothes like I did as a teenager?

Ultimately, the change may have to happen from within – I will have to work to stop negative thoughts overtaking my positive body image when I can’t do a zip up, or a skirt won’t stretch over my hips. There is a certain power to be had in just not giving a shit about norms, and carving your own path, but I have to say it’s not easy when you still need to wear clothes on a day-to-day basis.

For the record, those jeans do fit now – not because I lost more weight, though. I just stretched out the waistband until they stopped resisting my hips.

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5 thoughts on “women’s clothing sizes: why are they designed to make us hate ourselves?

  1. every piece of clothing you buy is going to be different… your old jeans may have stretched! i am anywhere from a size 6 to a 12 in skirts/pants. if you feel good in your clothes you don’t even think about the ‘number’. oh, I am also a LARGE in supre tshirts. and i don’t really care. yay boobies.

  2. “”Ultimately, the change may have to happen from within – I will have to work to stop negative thoughts overtaking my positive body image when I can’t do a zip up, “”

    I think this is an interseting observation, because I’m not sure it’s been proven that it’s the advertising that *makes* people feel inadequate, rather than the other way round – that it’s people tendency towards insecurity and competitiveness with peers that advertisers are responding to and monetising.

    If, for social constructivists, the problem is always construed as ‘bad’ culture from the outside world (advertising etc) affecting self esteem, then it ‘outsources’ the problem and gives one a reason not to reflect on whether one can change one’s own view.

    My belief, however, is that the total self esteem levels of women would be greater if this sort of advertising didn’t exist. I think if we were successful in changing advertising standards then the insecurity and competitiveness with peers would simply be projected into other aras of the cultural zeitgeist.

    • @Chris I had never really thought about that before! It’s pretty interesting to consider it from that point of view.

      However, as a woman growing up on a diet of Girlfriends/Dollys/Cosmos etc etc and finding myself left with, no matter how much feminist literature I read, this simmering, underlying resentment towards my body which rears it head at the most inopportune times, I would like to think that if I didn’t have those things in my life, I could have formed more positive images of myself from an earlier age. Knowing what I know now, it will influence what my future kids are exposed to

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who is frustrated by the lack of regulated sizing here. Since I left school I’ve always been at size 12, top and bottom, however some size 12s are pushing it in some stores…I don’t know where they got their measurements from but it’s not right. I find the best places for jeans etc are actually Australian surf shops as they use Australian sizing scales. And their clothes ACTUALLY are the size they say they are. However, doesn’t stop me trying to find things other places. I do find it depressing though, even though logically I know I haven’t put on weight, it makes you feel crap. Online shopping keeps me from suffering too much as I don’t have a day of trying on my size clothes that don’t fit because it’s a TINY size 12.

  4. I enjoyed reading this piece but there were a few things that bothered me. I think you need to make a clearer distinction between feminism and self-esteem. The two are not mutually exclusive. Also i feel denim is probably the worst example you could have used to make your point. I learnt a very valuable lesson in a Levi store once. “Size does NOT matter.” There are so many different types, weight, washes and colours of denim and each one reacts to your body differently. For example a dark denim does not have as much stretch as a lighter one. You could try on 3 pairs of jeans all the same style but in different denims and each one will fit different. Don’t concern yourself with the number inside the clothing but how the item of clothing makes you feel. If you are comfortable, then that is all that matters.

    Also the number isn’t directed at consumers. It is an indication to the pattern makers and cutters. There is no standard size. It does not exist because every manufacturer has different requirements and different techniques. If you are happy and comfortable, then what does it matter what number is inside your clothes?

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