by Andie Vasquez
In days past, each person was fitted into their clothes individually. There weren’t “sizes” like we know them today. If you were poor that meant you, your mother, family member, whomever in your house would be doing all the sewing. Perhaps you’d get old clothes from someone else and that person would alter them to fit you. Maybe you were able to get fabric and the seamstress of the home would be able to make your clothes. If you were more wealthy, you would go to a tailor, who would then measure and make your clothes individually, to fit only you. Clothing was a very personal item. Perfectly tailored clothing was a sign of wealth and prestige.
A couple things started to happen that triggered a move away from personally tailored clothing and into more mass produced clothing. One was that catalogues and ordering became more prominent and reached its way into rural America. Catalogues wanted to offer all of the necessities they could to these communities and began to see a need for some kind of sizing chart. The second was the World Wars. Suddenly hundreds of garments needed to be made at one time, steadily. Military uniforms were some of the first mass produced clothes.
Before the 1940s a kind of sizing chart did exist. For children, all sizes were like baby sizes in that your size was your age. An 8 year old would wear a size 8 for example. Men’s sizing charts began to emerge after the Crimean War, and by WW1 a universal system had been accepted. This is the same general way men’s clothes are sized today. Women’s clothing at the time was sized based on bust measurement.
In 1939, the Department of Agriculture decided they needed one standard chart for Women’s clothing sizes. This led them to advertise for volunteers to be measured for this chart. A couple things to take note of is they did not include women of color in this measurement, and the women who did show were paid, so the women most desperate for money are who showed. So the majority of women measured for this chart were malnourished white women. In addition the measurements focused mostly on the bust size, as they assumed all women had an hourglass figure. Other measurements, like height and hips, were looked over. This volunteer data collection formed the first universal sizing charts, and is what our sizing charts are based on now.
In 1958 the National Bureau of Standards updated the charts by expanding the measurement pool, choosing to measure many more women who served in the Air Force. While including more women sounds like a good idea, they only measured women in one walk of life. They were all currently serving in the AF, meaning they were all very fit and very small. However, this addition did give us height indications the first left out. This is where we get Tall, Regular, and Short.
In the 1980s companies discovered that women care about how large they are, and the number in their clothes was how they gauged that. They found out, if they put a smaller number in their clothing, more women would buy it. And thus, Vanity Sizing was born. More and more manufacturers ignored the government sizing charts, and by 1983, the Department of Commerce formally withdrew their clothing size standard. Companies could now put whatever aribtrary size they wanted in their clothes to flatter their customers and make more money. This caused new sizes to be created because they kept making the numbers smaller and smaller and ran out of numbers. So size 0, and then 00 were created.
By 1995, some thought a standard was needed, so ASTM (American Society of Testing & Materials) began publishing it’s own sizing charts. This still exists, but is widely ignored. The ASTM charges for access to their sizing tables, and manufacturers don’t want to hassle with it. Why would they? They adhere to their own standards now, why would they pay to adhere to someone else’s?
Stores now size based on their own preferences, meaning literally everywhere has a different size that fits you. Companies will hone in on their demographic and cater to them, so even if two stores are owned by the same parent company, they will probably still have different sizing.
Countries around the world have also developed their own sizing charts for women. So if you buy something from a store whose manufacturer is in Europe, you’ll get even different sizing options! For example, these are all about the same size around the world.
US – 14 Germany – 42
UK – 16 Italy – 48
France – 44
As you can imagine, women’s clothing sizes are all over the place! A NY Times article from 2011 showed several size 8 waist clothing items together and found that they varied as much as 5 inches depending on designer. Now, 5 inches may seem like a small difference, but when it comes to how comfortably your pants fit, it is a huge variance. And it changes very rapidly. For instance, the measurements for a size 8 in 2008, not 1958, 2008, is now around size 14. And whats more, 14 is considered big, but as the sizes keep getting smaller, these “big” sizes now fit smaller women. Can you see how this perception can cause a women to see herself poorly? A woman who is a healthy size thinks she is fat because she fits into a plus size outfit for instance.
As an example the original measurements for a size 8 were:
Bust – 31
Waist – 23.5
Weight – 98 lbs
The official size measurements for a size 8 today are:
Bust – 36
Waist – 28
Hips – 38
Even now, if you picture that in your head is a small waist compared to large hips, or, as some would put it, an hourglass figure. Studies have shown that only about 8% of American women have the “hourglass ideal” shape. This has zero to do with how much a woman weighs, and everything to do with there are so many different figures and body types. Yet, even the loose standard of sizing we have today does not include those varying figures and types.
Another thing worth noting is our bodies as a whole have changed over the years. We are not the same size as women in the past. Much of this is due to our change in society and activity. We no longer wear corsets to make our waists as tiny as possible. Our waistlines are going au natural these days. Most women aren’t doing hard labour. Even women working farms and ranches have tools that didn’t exist 100 years ago to help ease the workload. We are not living through a famine or drought where our bodies would be worn and malnourished. So, understandably, on average, women are larger than their ancestors. Some might complain that Americans have gotten so fat! And point to the size of the average woman as proof. But I hardly find that as solid evidence.
Understanding all of that, how faulty the charts are and always have been, will help a lot with this next part.
I have had two children. Before I got pregnant, I had always been very small. I’m not very tall, and always been thin. I fit into size small everything, my pants were usually size 8 (I did get blessed in the hips). I look at old pictures and I’m shocked by how small I really was. I never bothered with my weight as it never was an issue.
But then I had a baby. My body grew and nourished a life. As a result, it changed and never went back to the way it was before. In some menial ways, like I can’t fit into my old high heels anymore, they are too tight and hurt to wear. But my body also collected weight in ways it hadn’t before. I didn’t look in the mirror and think I looked fat. I thought I looked like I always had. But then one day I stepped on a scale and almost fell over when I saw the number. HOW?! I thought. I hadn’t changed anything about my diet or activity. So I determined to get it under control. And then I got pregnant again. So I threw the scale away.
After my second child was born and I was confident I’d lost my baby weight, I was ready for some fresh new clothes. I pulled out all my old pre-baby clothes and tucked the maternity clothes away. But, none of my old clothes fit me. How could they not fit? I wasn’t fat or pregnant.
My body had changed and shifted. It was literally no longer the same shape anymore. As I said, I collected weight differently than I ever had before. Not only did my weight go up more easily, but it stuck around longer too, and seemed to camp out on my already thunderous thighs.
So I went to the store to find some better fitting clothes. Maybe I’d gone up a size. But when I tried it on, those didn’t fit either. I stood in the dressing room and cried because the size 12 jeans were the ones that fit me. I only bought one pair as I had promised myself to get back into my size 8 jeans. I held onto these Smalls and 8s like they were a lifeline. I would be tiny again!
But I couldn’t do it. I’m sure if I went on one of those extreme diets I could do it, but I’m not willing to harm myself to get more thin. I was focusing on eating fresh healthy food and keeping active in ways I enjoyed (see this as I didn’t kill myself in the gym or get a personal trainer. Some people do. I believe exercise should be tailored to your life and be an activity you enjoy. If you enjoy taking a water aerobics class or running, do it! But those just aren’t my jams. So I did yoga and went hiking) but I still couldn’t get as small as I was before babies.
It was an emotional day when I loaded up my old clothes and hauled them to a donation spot. In some ways it felt like I was giving up, but at the same time, it was freeing to stop trying to squish myself into an old mold I no longer fit into. My body is brilliant and resilient, and it is not the same shape as it was 5 years ago.
I still catch myself looking at a tag and getting upset that I need such a large size, but I have to stop and remind myself how ridiculously bogus sizes are. How the charts companies use don’t account for the fact I have a long torso, or thick thighs and short legs. I use the sizes as a general guide to get somewhere in the ballpark (some stores are so out of whack with sizes this doesn’t even work, but it’s a starting point at least) and then try on every single article of clothing. Lots of time spent in the dressing room. And then when I find something that fits me properly, I don’t look at the tag at all. Some of my clothes, I’ve removed the tags. Those sizes in the tags are made up and arbitrary and mean absolutely nothing. I am still not a big woman either, but I know if I hated myself for having to wear a larger size, I’m positive other women have as well. Sizes aren’t the stick to measure yourself by.
If you’ve gleaned anything from this I hope that it’s not only is your body amazing and you should be proud of what you’ve got to rock but also that you shouldn’t judge your body by the size of clothes you are wearing. Don’t punish your body for not being a size 6, or 8, or whatever your ideal size is. Find clothes you are confident in and a pox on the sizing charts.
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