Sizes are shrinking again; brace your self-esteem

I recently ordered some jeans, the same brand, size and cut I’d ordered a few years back. The old jeans still fit (and they’ve surely drawn up a bit from washing over the years), so I assumed I should order the same size. I was wrong – they’ve changed the cut, so now suddenly I’ve gone from a size 12 to a size GASP! 14.

Cue the scary music. Once you’re above a size 12, you are supposed to instantly lose a bunch of self-esteem, develop an eating disorder, and stay at home rather than expose the public to the eyesore that is your body.

Yeah, that didn’t work on me. I know that in economic downturns, companies get really cheap about fabric and start using less of it. I also know that at the very same measurements I’ve been for several years now, I’ve been a size 8-12, depending on the brand, the exact style of the item of clothing, etc. It’s all pretty random, buying off the rack. I learned a long time ago not to pay much attention to the size tag, but rather just how the clothes look on me.

But the people who make the clothes see it differently. The brand of jeans I like? Once you commit the grievous transgression of becoming a size 14, you get only one color to choose from. Below 14, you get 4 colors to choose from. I guess they only want  a fat pig like me to buy one pair. Happy to oblige, will start looking for another brand as soon as I have some time. Enjoy not getting my money, assholes.

The average American woman is a size 16. Anyone who caters mainly to smaller women is missing the market (thank heaven the government won’t bail them out when they go whining about how they just don’t know where the profit went). And some of you guys keep telling me big business would never leave money on the table out of prejudice. They do it all the time.

Ironically, the very same day I found all this out, a radical feminist friend of mine called to say that she’d just had a shopping experience in which she was complaining to a clerk that once you go above a size 12, you can’t get cool, funky stuff she likes – you just get really boring clothes, designed to hide you away, I guess – and the clerk said, “Well, you’re really big. Why are you so big?” And she’s not. She’s not a petite little waif, but she’s not overly large in any sense of the term. She’s just normal-looking. Problem 1: the assessment of this average-sized woman as “really big.” Problem 2, the clerk’s feeling of entitlement to say such a thing (observations about one’s body are rude, regardless of gender – “you’re really bald, why are you bald like that, mister?” is not an acceptable remark, either.

Fat hatred and shaming has been thoroughly rationalized by the weight loss industry – including doctors who are supposed to be responsible – which is happy to provide lies about fat and health to make the bigotry sound safe and scientific. But it goes beyond all this, because anyone woman who is not bony is fat. This is insane. While prejudice against men perceived as fat can be pretty virulent, too, men are not perceived as fat until they are considerably beyond “not bony.” I say this to acknowledge that it’s not just a gender issue, but there are definitely some gender politics going on here.

Dear fashion industry: if you’re waiting for an apology from women who aren’t the size you think we ought to be, please hold your breath. After a while, you will die, and a sizeable chunk of gender inequality will end immediately.


  1. Nialla says

    Even when economies are relatively stable, clothes sizing isn’t always so stable.

    I’ve never been able to figure out why, if the manufacturer’s know the average woman is 16, they don’t try to sell clothes for that size. There are some stores that carry larger sizes in addition to the rest, but most of the time I have to rely on specialty stores or mail order.

    With both of those options, there’s a tendency to focus on the young and trendy, and I don’t fit into either one of those. I generally wear slacks and a shirt with a t-shirt cut to work. I hate that every spring/summer everything switches over to capris, even the “plus” size. It’s the absolute worst cut of pants for my body type.

    I saw a news piece not long ago about Target carrying a line of stylish clothing for “larger teens” with two people being interviewed about it. Plus model Emme saw the positive in letting teen girls feel good about themselves by dressing nicely, while the health expert felt it was giving teens a pass to stay fat instead of losing weight and being healthy.

    But that’s the thing… losing weight =/= being healthy, at least not always, and how some teens go about it is the worst way to lose weight. And wouldn’t an “overweight” teen be less likely to feel stressed about her weight (and more likely to eat), if she could wear something she felt was pretty?

  2. Alice says

    One point before I get into the clothing/size issue:
    I have to strongly disagree: the point’s been made many times before, but there are a *lot* of -isms that are still widely accepted. As a fat woman, I can definitely attest that there’s a whole lotta discrimination based on weight that goes unchecked, but it’s (sadly) far from the only unchecked discrimination out there.

    As for the whole ‘we don’t want to design for those people thing – it’s just insane. I’m thankful that there are now a fair # of plus-size stores that have more than kitten-appliqué sweaters available, but now it’s the ‘in-betweenies’ who’re newly feeling the pinch, since Lane Bryant’s 14s are often sparse, and ‘regular’ stores 14s are similarly absent. Considering that people who wear a size 14 hold a big chunk of the cash that’ll be spent on clothes, one would hope that *something* will close the gap.

    Having worked in the garment industry, there’s so much bravado and image at play, it’s insane. Deigning to focus on and market to a plus-size customer is a hostile act, calling the celebration of thinness into question, and very, very few folks are willing to do it. Historically, the plus size market hasn’t had nearly as many high-end sales as the ‘straight’ market, but saying ‘larger women won’t buy expensive items’ a: ignores shoe & handbag purchasing habits, b: is confusing bias with evidence and c: does nothing to capitalize on the still-underserved market.

    High end is NOT better, but it drives many trends within clothing design. Wal-Mart and Sears have been carrying larger sizes for eons, but haven’t historically been fashion forward in any way (though Sears has made some surprising strides lately).

  3. Patrick J McGraw says

    I suspect that this is exactly why women’s clothing manufacturers use their bizarre and ever-changing “size charts” in place of simple measurements like they do with men’s clothing.

  4. says

    I normally don’t buy clothes, because it makes me so mad and ugly, but it was getting to a critical point (I was running out of clothes) and I was feeling good about myself and in a shopping mood, so off I went.
    These days I completely eschew the women’s clothing section, at least when it comes to tops. But the other day when I was in my good mood I bought 6 tops in men’s sizes. One was a medium, but most were large or extra large. And I wasn’t mistakenly shopping in the boys section.
    I know that as woman I need extra room where men don’t (mainly around my hips). But seriously?
    I bought a pair of pants in women’s size 16 because the 14 was seriously too tight and I no longer buy clothes that are too small in the ‘hope’ that one day they will fit (it’s a waste of money). As soon as I put them on at home they started falling down, I guess the material stretched or something. So size 16 pants are too big, but I’m an extra large in men’s shirts??
    The fashion industry is a big-arse loser. And there doesn’t seem to be anyone to yell at. I never talk to the shop assistance about it because seriously, what can they do?
    However if a shop assistant told me I was big, they would probably get 24 years worth of saved up fashion-industry rant at them.
    Bras are another thing. Why don’t they make cute bras in my size? as if once you are over a certain size you no longer have any right to looking sexy in your underwear. Oh, and you can’t by cheap bras. You have to pay mega-dollars for something that holds you up, majorly straps you in and looks like something your grandmother would wear.

  5. K Lee says

    This kind of crazy, arbitrary fluctuation clothing sizing also occurs in plus sizes & it always has. A size 3x in Elisabeth, is a size 0x in another line. I was shopping at Catherines, one of the few plus size clothing stores left in existence, and found a really nice dress. The cut on it was so crazy I had to buy 3 sizes larger than all of the other clothing I purchased.

    There is also a disturbing trend to use cheap materials and poor workmanship in plus size clothing, but still charging way too much money. (i’m talking about stores other than the big box stores). The exception to that price/quality gap was the store August Max Woman, a part of Casual Corner Group, which sadly closed down about 8 years ago. Their clothes were very well made, stylish and a bit more expensive but absolutely worth it. I’m still wearing some outfits I bought there 9 years ago.

    It’s inexplicable as to why the clothing industry continues to limit choice and style options in sizes over 12. As you said, it’s also bad business.

    As for the cool, funky clothes in plus sizes–that’s all Lane Bryant stores offer anymore it seems. The problem is their idea of funky is way too much whispy fabrics that don’t seem to hold up to anything, strange cuts.

  6. The OTHER Maria says

    LB has awful cuts. I really hate how they design their clothing. It’s like they’re substituting decent design/fabrics for GAUZE.

  7. amymccabe says

    32×32 That’s my pants size in men’s clothes. And that’s just what I have started buying when buying pants.

  8. amymccabe says

    I want to add, that allows me to buy pants that fit, are comfortable and don’t show off half of my butt.

  9. says

    I agree with this post 100%. Especially this part:
    And some of you guys keep telling me big business would never leave money on the table out of prejudice. They do it all the time.

    I like graphic tees, and generally have to wear “L” or whatever (I don’t even know what size I am as it fluctuates so much, and even at my skinniest I have/had burly lumberjack shoulders that require bigger tops), and it always annoys me how the stores will have one L or XL left and like ten trillion XXS. Given the locations of these stores, it’s quite obvious that the larger sizes of the nice clothes sell quickly, and then they’re just left with tons of small sized things to shift. Why not just sell more things in the bigger sizes? People obviously want to buy them.

    I don’t want to turn this into a where-to-find post, but I was recently surprised by Urban Outfitters. My extremely plus-sized friend came to visit me lately and was excited to discover an Urban Outfitters in my town, since there isn’t one in her city, and wanted to go stock up. I was skeptical since I assumed it was, well, like every other chain clothing store. She told me they “skewed big” and I was like, whaaat, but it was true! Not only could my friend find some cute clothes (and when I say extremely plus-sized, I mean it), but I bought a dress that was an “S”, which has never happened before in my life – and it isn’t like a plus-sized store. There is plenty of “normal” petite sized stuff.

    The thing is, it’s super expensive (we could only get stuff that was severely marked down), and has the same problems every other clothing store has. I mean, besides the child labour, some of the clothes are just stupid. BUT, it has some cute and stylish things in sizes that actually make sense, which was refreshing.

  10. says

    Jenn, like Alice, I’m really bothered that you’d describe this as the “last acceptable -ism”, being that I just watched a film out this week where part of the tension/humour/whatnot was classism, I write on a fairly regular basis about ablism in all levels and walks of life, people on my flist still write about race- and religious-based slurs they get at work, from co-workers, who don’t quite understand why it’s bad, and that pesky sexism thing hasn’t quite gone away. Let alone the “gay/trans panic defense” for murder.

    I completely agree that fat prejudice is a very bad thing, it’s incredibly common, and it affects people (women at a smaller size than men) in all sorts of ways, from clothing size to job opportunities to walking down the street to the way they’re treated in the media, both news and entertainment, but it’s not the last acceptable prejudice, and I’m really shocked to read that here.

  11. Scarlett says

    I’m going to wade in here and say I think what Jennifer meant about ‘fatism being the last acceptable -ism’ is that it’s the last acceptable ‘ism’ to be grossly biased against. Look at Shallow Hal, Big Momma’s House, a good portion of Eddie Murphy movies – these were all hugely popular movies where the whole ‘comedy’ was to hold fat women up to ridicule and contempt. I can’t think of a movie, at least in recent history, which holds blacks, gays etc to the same nastiness. (This is from my somewhat limited memory and is in no way an authoritative reference to the last ten years’ of movies. If anyone can think of one, please let me know.) There seems to be an understanding on some level, that people can’t help their race or sexuality, but hey(insert tongue in cheek here), fat people, particularly fat WOMEN, well, that’s entirely their fault and therefor they are fair game for contempt, ridicule and discrimination.

  12. says

    Scarlett, I respectfully disagree, but I’m not entirely certain this is the best thread to hash it all out with a list of films, movies, and t.v. shows that have focused on showing us how [X] is totally okay. I could, as I no doubt others here could, but despite my earlier comment I think what Jenn’s ultimate point of this post – how the “simple” act of buying clothes is a mine-field and how much “punishment” women and men who are fat get from people who they want to give money to – should be the focus of the comment section.

    I wanted to voice my objection, not derail the thread, you know?

  13. Trix says

    Add me to the list of people who enjoyed the article in general, but who felt that the “last acceptable -ism” remark is really not …acceptable. It’s kind of stupid, actually, and undermines the message.

    Check out Shapely Prose’s comments policy for a good rationale as to why it is so stupid (item #11).

  14. Scarlett says

    Sorry, should have been more general, but movies sprang immediately to mind.

    I think it’s still acceptable to openly hold fat people responsible for their weight, and figure they somehow don’t *deserve* the same array of choices or cheap, sexy underwear that slimmer people do, whereas we at least have to pay lip service to the fact blacks, asians, gays, lesbians etc aren’t responsible for their race/sexuality and they aren’t seen to be ‘undeserving’ in the same way.

  15. says

    Is this a discussion you really want to have? Because we can, but I thought it would be better to try and keep this on topic, Scarlett.

  16. sbg says

    All I can say is that I walked into Old Navy this weekend wearing a pair of Old Navy capris that are a bit loose on me. I picked out a similarly cut pair of capris in the same size and headed for the dressing room, where I found the new capris so tight they were difficult to zip and extremely unflattering. I put my old clothes back on and left.

    I know I haven’t changed so much and that it’s just a number on a tag in a shoddily made piece of clothing, but it still gets to me.

  17. Robin says

    This article is really interesting to me, because I’ve had the opposite happen. I’m certainly can’t be considered fat except by Hollywood standards, but over the past decade or so I’ve slowly gotten comparatively out of shape (although I have to keep in mind that I was insanely active in high school), and my clothing size has gotten smaller. I don’t know if it’s just due to the fact that I started buying more “upscale” clothing or what, but the pants that I bought in my teen years were usually size 10 or 12, and these days they’re mostly 6 or 8. (Of course, pants that actually fit are nigh on impossible to find given the fact that I have, y’know, hips and thigh muscles. I have an unnatural fondness for surplus military pants with their built-in cinchable waists.)

    I’ve always been baffled by the fashion industry in general and their sizing systems in particular. It would be so much easier to be able to find pants by actual measurements the way men do. And why exactly do we need two different gendered systems for shoes? Does it really matter if the little tag on the inside says 7.5 men’s or 9 women’s? As long as they fit on my feet comfortably I don’t care if it says 42. (Actually, that would be pretty cool.)

  18. says

    I have edited that part of the post to this:

    “Fat hatred and shaming has been thoroughly rationalized by the weight loss industry – including doctors who are supposed to be responsible – which is happy to provide lies about fat and health to make the bigotry sound safe and scientific”

    Which better reflects what I meant. I did not mean to instigate a comparison with other prejudices, but it was one of those failed editing moments where I didn’t manage to read it as if I wasn’t living in my head with access to my thoughts.

    There are definitely a lot of attempts to rationalize bigotry – racists will pump out selective stats suggesting races they dislike tend toward criminality or other undesirable behaviors, alleged science keeps trying to prove that women really are like their stereotypes, or that certain races are less intelligent than others (remembering The Bell Curve here), etc. I think the (exaggerated) association of weight with health problems makes it very comfortable for people to hate/shame people they perceive as overweight, and that’s all I meant to put across.

    Hope that helps. If you have further objections, let me know.

  19. says

    I also wanted to acknowledge that I was just plain wrong to include the original statement in the post. I do realize that many forms of bigotry are rationalized. Alleged science tells us certain races are less intelligent than others; women really are hard-wired to be [insert stereotype here]; and so on. I was aware of that at the time I wrote the statement, and so at first I thought, as I stated above, it was simply bad editing.

    But upon further reflection off and on through the day, I realized I really did have the idea fatism was more socially acceptable than other -isms. I was very embarrassed to realize this, and I hate admitting it here, but it’s a privilege issue and if I can’t admit when I have ’em I sure can’t be calling anyone else out for having them. I had all the information I needed to know better, but somehow I just hadn’t processed it as thoroughly as you guys have helped me do now. Which is the essence of privilege, really – having the option not to completely process that which doesn’t directly affect you.

    Thank you all.

  20. Trix says

    Thanks for clarifying what you were getting at, Jennifer. I think those revised statements are something we can all certainly get behind.

    And it’s great that you’ve been so graceful about checking your own privilege (I has it too).

  21. says

    It’s the doctors that get to me. My sister-in-law’s a Type 1 diabetic, and is severely underweight. She can’t keep the weight on, and she’s constantly asking her doctors for help in this matter. None of the doctors have been particularly helpful about this, because, hey, a thin diabetic’s a good diabetic, right? Bear in mind that this is Type 1 diabetes, which has nothing to do with her weight in the first place, and even the most skewed BMI charts have her tagged as underweight. These people are medical professionals. What is wrong with them?


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