Have you ever wondered where our clothing sizes come from? I’m not talking about sizes that are clearly measurements, such as waist size, but the more relative sizes: small, medium, large, extra (excuse me, “xtra”) large, and so on. What about women’s sizes, which aren’t even consistent from store to store? A number of articles this week have made me think about this subject, as well as the connection to a recent podcast on a similar subject.
Let’s talk about the podcast first. On a recent 99% Invisible (which looks at hidden aspects of design), an exploration was made of the history of the notion of the average, and especially the average in terms of sizing. It is well worth a listen (it is one of my favorite short podcasts). It points out how the first notion of average size was from a survey done of Scottish soldiers, which showed that the average chest size of these soldiers was 39 and three-quarters inches. This was deemed as the ideal size, and shortly thereafter, the notion of being the average became the ideal. Here’s an interesting quote from the transcript that explains where our notions of Small, Medium, and Large came from (Quetelet was the fellow that did the Scottish study):
Lincoln, after a series of losses to the Confederacy, realized he needed more information about the Union army. He ordered a massive study to assess the soldiers physically and mentally, and, in strict adherence to Quetelet’s science, calculated averages of just about everything. These averages began to inform the distribution of food rations, the design of weapons, even the fit of military uniforms.
Before the Civil War, uniforms were custom-sewn. In this war, however, such a massive number of people had to be outfitted that uniforms needed to be mass produced. But they couldn’t all be one floppy size. Soldiers were put into subtypes: large, medium, and small—classifications that eventually found their way to civilian clothing.
This study found its way to the Army, where in 1926, when the Army designed its first airplane cockpit, they measured the physical dimensions of male pilots and calculated the average measurement of their height, weight, arm-length and other dimensions. The results determined the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and the stick, and even the shape of the flight helmets. This mean that, in part, pilots were selected based on their ability to fit into the cockpit designed for the average 1920s man. This fell apart in WWII, when suddenly pilots were dying, and the cause eventually turned out to be: the average size aircraft. This led to the ability to adjust seats and wheels (which made its way to cars), into the study of ergometrics, and so forth.
So we now see that S M L XL came from Civil War measurements (to this very day), but what about women’s clothing. This brings us to the articles I saw this week:
- The Average Sized American Woman. You would think, with the notion of S, M, L, and so forth, the average woman would be in the “regular” size clothes, probably on the order of and 8-10 (given the bottom of the range is 0-2, and by 14 you are into the euphemistic “plus size”). Think again: The average American woman is not a size 14 anymore. Size 14, which would likely be a L, being the average came from an outdated study. A new study published in August in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education decided to create a more current report.What the study found was that size 14 is no longer accurate; the average American woman today is actually between a size 16 to 18.The authors of the study looked at recent data from the Center for Disease Control and compared it to the ASTM International body measurements for “misses” and “women’s plus-size” clothing for a sample of more than 5,500 women in the US who are at least 20 years old.The authors found that the average American woman’s waist circumference has increased 2.6″ (from 34.9″ to 37.5″) over the last 21 years, which accounts for the increase in clothing size. While 16-18 was the average size for all women, the study found that Black women in particular currently wear a size 18-20 on average.All this to say that the size-14 average is no longer accurate. The average size is a plus size.
- Plus Size Shopping Ain’t Easy. An interesting Vox opinion piece discusses the difficulty of plus size shopping. Its hypothesis is that the whole idea of “plus-size” clothes is outdated and degrading. It notes this weeks Washington Post op-ed by design guru Tim Gunn, where he blasted the fashion industry’s unwillingness to “make clothes to fit American women” — specifically plus-size women. This is because, despite the increase in size of the average American woman, many clothing designers and merchandisers still refuse to produce anything larger than a 12. Larger sizes are shuffled off into separate stores, separate departments (often physically separated from the rest of woman’s clothes). As the opinion author writes: “This is demoralizing for plus-size women — but it’s also one reason why clothes shopping can be so demoralizing for all women. We need women’s clothing sizes that make sense, and they shouldn’t be segregated into normal or plus or petite. Sizes should just be sizes.” I’m familiar with this first hand: for much of my married life, my wife has been plus sized, and I’ve seen this first hand (she’s gotten down to just below my weight, so she’s in the lower end of the range now). I’ve seen the segregation and the dearth of good looking clothes as she hunts to find something. There’s also some segregation for larger men, but it is no where near the shaming that goes on for women.
- And Speaking of Fat Shaming… The last interesting article asks the question: Is it only acceptable to call out instances of “fat-shaming” when you’re not fat yourself? In other words, if an actress who is not visibly obese is called out for being “fat”, and she rails about the fat shaming nature of fans or the business, she goes viral. But if the same shaming occurs to a visibly obese woman, and she calls out the shaming, how is the obese woman regarded? Is she a hero? The opinion author writes: «So while stopping body-shaming is an admirable goal, we need to think beyond the individual level if we want to actually dismantle fatphobia and stop fat-shaming. And that includes supporting women of every size with the same enthusiasm we use to cheer when a size-6 celebrity charmingly dismisses a hater who calls her fat on Instagram. It means changing our responses from “But she’s not even fat!” to “It’s OK to be fat.”» Related to this, I’ll call your attention to a very interesting episode of the podcast This American Life from back in June, which explored the question of fat. In Act One of the podcast, Lindsey West talks about finding pride in her fat, and dealing with her boss and friend who decided to fat-shame women on his podcast. It is well worth a listen to see the impact of fat shaming and pride.
So how do we perceive the average? Do we assume — despite all the diversity in society in size, weight, shape, color, and everything else — that there is some sort special beauty in being “average”? Some benefit? You might say that there isn’t — after all, this isn’t like racism — but you would be wrong. Listen to Act Two of the This American Life previously mentioned. It demonstrates how people — especially women — are perceived differently when they lose weight. With recent dialogue, we’re well aware of the meaning of “white privilege”, and aware of the hidden discrimination that comes with being a person of color. But privilege and hidden discrimination isn’t just a skin color issue. It can go with nationality, it can go with religion, and yes, it can some with size. The links and stories above (as well as the remaining acts in the This American Life) are clear demonstrations of “average privilege” and size discrimination occurs in our society.
P.S.: After I posted this, a friend happened to post a link that is also relevant about the measurement known as BMI and why it is bullshit. I seem to recall one of the podcasts touching upon a similar notion — in particular, that BMI is as much a fallacy as the notion of an “average” size.
P.P.S.: Here’s another related link posted in the day-after window: 11 Reasons Your ‘Concern’ for Fat People’s Health Isn’t Helping Anyone. The article is about concern trolling – which is the act of a person participating “in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause”. Interesting read in relation to the above and the fat shaming already going on in society.