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From the time we’re young, women are taught to believe that our bodies should serve our clothes — and that if we can’t find anything that fits, it’s our fault for having bodies that are, in the words of designer and member of the Rational Dress Society Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, “noncompliant.” But, she notes, “it doesn’t have anything to do with body compliance. It’s really just a totally arbitrary sizing.”
Women’s sizing feels particularly arbitrary in comparison to menswear, which is built on the assumption that clothes are there to serve your body, whatever shape it may be. “The standard is more variation in menswear,” Glaum-Lathbury tells me. It’s a difference that goes deeper than who has an easier time finding XXXL clothes. Men’s pants, for instance, tend to recognize that waist size and leg length don’t go hand in hand. These Eddie Bauer slacks offer men with 34-inch waists four different length options in order to optimize fit; women’s pants rarely provide such a courtesy.
The contrast between mens- and womenswear gets even more apparent at the larger end of the spectrum, where gender can determine whether you’re viewed as a niche — but still desirable — market or a body type that brands avoid at all costs (quite literally, when you consider how much of the market they’re ignoring).
My college boyfriend was a big guy: tall, broad-shouldered, and stocky, with massive feet. He was thrilled when we discovered a branch of Casual Male Big and Tall, finally able to acquire some essential clothing items (like socks!) that were actually his size.
In some ways, the joy my ex felt upon discovering that store was comparable to the reactions I’ve heard from friends who’ve found Plus BKLYN, a Brooklyn-based boutique specializing in clothes from 1X to 6X (or, if you prefer, sizes 14 through 32). There’s a universal joy in getting access to clothes that are truly made to accommodate your body, particularly when those clothes are incredibly hard to find.
But in other ways, the two couldn’t be more different. Plus BKLYN is more than just a specialty store, it’s a part of an activist movement, one that encourages women to embrace and even love their bodies, no matter their size. The ethos of Plus BKLYN, owner Alexis Krase tells me, is that “all bodies are good bodies, there is no wrong way to have a body, we all have different bodies.” Various aspects of the store — including what Krase refers to as a “body-positive wall,” covered with inspirational messages about loving your body — are set up to reinforce that message.
In contrast, outlets that serve men at the larger end of the market don’t seem to be quite as concerned about boosting their customers’ self-esteem. Men’s stores don’t have to remind their larger customers that a hard-to-find size is nothing to feel ashamed of, because men don’t constantly get the message that their worth is directly connected to the size and shape of their bodies. And that difference points to one of the most frustrating aspects of femme fashion and the way women are taught to think of our bodies.
One source of this anxiety? The “standard” clothing sizes that populate stores across the country; a standard that fails to accommodate the needs of most women’s bodies. But where does that sizing come from? Strange as it may sound, our modern conception of what women’s bodies are “supposed” to be shaped like comes from the work of the United States Department of Agriculture.
In 1939, the USDA, in partnership with the Works Progress Administration and Bureau of Home Economics, embarked on the first scientific study of women’s body measurements, with an eye toward providing garment manufacturers with a universal set of sizing guidelines to which to adhere. Commenting on the state of women’s clothing at the time, the report notes that “the measurements used [to construct garments] have grown up in the industry, apparently chiefly by trial and error, based on a few women by various inaccurate procedures. As a result, there are no standards for garment sizes, and retailers and consumers are subjected to unnecessary expense and harassed by the difficulties in obtaining properly fitting clothes.”
Yet though the USDA promised to remedy this untenable situation with science, their methods for collecting data were somewhat suspect — specifically when it came to whom the USDA deemed worthy of measuring. The report notes that the 14,698 women included in the study were “white residents and visitors in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.”
The fact that the thousands of women included in this study were white wasn’t an accident: Later in the study, it’s specifically noted that, the rare times that nonwhite women were included in the study (apparently so they wouldn’t feel left out when their white friends were getting measured), their measurements were promptly deemed unusable and discarded. If you’ve ever felt that jeans that refused to accommodate your ample ass might be a little racist, well, yeah, it turns out you’re right.
The original sizes created by the USDA have been updated over the years, but the general principles they put forth persist in modern clothing. Yet understanding that retail sizes don’t reflect the range of bodies in the real world offers limited comfort — even without knowing the specifics of the USDA study, most of us are already aware that something’s not quite right with off-the-rack clothing sizes. It’s not particularly shocking to know that clothes aren’t made to fit actual bodies: The average American woman is solidly plus-size, yet few stores stock above a size 14. And even as we know that the clothes that are available don’t reflect the range of bodies that exist, we still hold ourselves to that limited, unrealistic standard.
The fantasy body sold to us by retail impacts our views both of what our bodies are and what they should — or one day might! — be. Many of us still dream that we’ll one day be able to squeeze into a pair of size zero jeans, even as we know, in our heart of hearts, that our skeletons alone are more like a size six. And that conditioning can impact our clothing purchases: Glaum-Lathbury points to a particularly dispiriting example in the retail world. “Levi's did a little experiment with the curvy fit,” she says, noting that a recent line offered women a variety of options for fit and style. “They were definitely attempting to actually fit bodies,” Glaum-Lathbury tells me; regrettably, the line has since been discontinued (Levi’s did not respond when reached for comment).
“I don’t know what that means, but that hurts my feelings,” Glaum-Lathbury says. “If we as consumers choose to not have that,” it suggests our problems run deeper than mere availability of options: “Was it that there were too many sizes, and that it was sort of overwhelming? Or was it that we were not wanting to be confronted with our actual bodies instead of our ideal bodies?”
We may soon find out. While Levi’s may have abandoned variable sizing, other brands are still deeply invested in the model. Hosiery line Hipstik invites women to select their hosiery based on body type rather than a combination of weight and height — which founder and CEO Laura McGuire notes doesn’t account for where a woman carries her weight. In the UK, online boutique Saint Bustier offers a selection of clothing that caters to women with larger breasts. “Most women are, one way or the other, unique,” Saint Bustier founder Ana Lesiak tells me. “We have different body types… A lot of people feel walking into a shop that, you know, ‘Fashion doesn’t cater to me’” — and brands like Hipstik, Saint Bustier, and Plus BKLYN hope to make a few more of those consumers feel catered to.
But increasing options in retail is only half the battle. To Glaum-Lathbury, the issue of clothing size is ultimately a “society problem as well as retail problem.” Krase agrees with the sentiment. While the fashion industry is certainly at fault — “All of these designers keep perpetuating the same thing, where we build clothing for this unattainable girl,” she says — it is merely reinforcing a message that’s already promoted by TV, fashion magazines, and movies. The USDA standard sizing guidelines certainly reinforced the racist idea that white women’s bodies are the standard to which we should all aspire, but the guidelines were racist because we, as a society, already believed that about white women. Expanding the range of clothes available, making it possible for all of us to love our look no matter what size we are, is a huge step forward, but so long as we’re still being told to aspire to a limited range of body types, we’ll only get so far.
“Women are just put under a tremendous amount of scrutiny that differs from men,” Krase says. The difference between Casual Male Big and Tall and Plus BKLYN is fundamentally rooted in how we, as a society, view men’s bodies versus women’s bodies. And until we truly give women the same freedom that we give men — to be large, small, fat, thin; to be able to exist in a body without that body determining our fundamental worth — our clothing options will continue to reflect our cultural values.