Content Warning: This article includes discussion of mental health, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders that could be distressing to some readers.
Over the past couple of years, I have been shopping mostly with two women. One is young, the other is middle aged. One thinks she is a size medium, the other one is (in most brands). One has always been slender, while the other has worked hard to lose weight. One of their common things, besides me, is that when searching for clothes, they both have a hard time believing that their size will fit.
The fashion industry does not do much to help them with that. Some brands alter their sizes to their brand positioning rather than the true size, thus, discriminating without making it obvious that they are doing so. Even worse, they hurt the self-esteem of people around the world that fit one size in most brands but have to go two or more sizes up to fit the sizes of those brands.
How erratic sizing can influence mental health
Many people suffer from the erratic sizes between and sometimes even within brands. In a North American study, 70% of 18,000 respondents answered that they found it very difficult to find clothes that fit. This can lead to suffering with self-esteem and in worst cases it can lead to people suffering from body dysmorphia or even eating disorders.
Drawing from my own experiences, I can understand why. The other week, the younger woman borrowed a size XXL jacket which was only slightly too big for her even though her average size is small.
The middle-aged one who had lost some weight tried out a pair of trousers in the average size she would wear and it temporarily shattered her confidence as she would have had to go up at least two or more sizes to fit into them. That experience led to her suffering from some of the signs of Body Dysmorphia such as trying to camouflage parts of her body and trying to avoid social situations for the rest of that day.
A study from 2018 critiques clothing size standards:
"We conceptualise clothing size standards as "floating signifiers", given their lack in consistency within and across brands and the extent to which women engage in identity and body work in relation to them. ... this pattern (of stigmatised size categories) renders women's body acceptance tenuous while simultaneously reinforcing hierarchies among women based on body size and shape."
"The institutional organisation of retail space filters women into differential statuses associated with varying body types. The retailers ... reinforce narrow cultural body ideals by segregating larger clothing and clothing for purportedly uncommon proportions in designated sections ... or across stores. The inaccessibility of extended size ranges beyond these spaces stigmatise particular body types..."
In other words, the stigmatisation of different body types is reinforced the moment you step into the segregation of clothing that does not fit the purported cultural body ideal. The study also observed how women refused to try on stigmatised sizes and rather than manipulating size categories, they manipulated their own bodies through diet, exercise, or even surgery to fit into certain desirable sizes.
Where do we go from here?
Complaints about the erratic sizing in the fashion industry have been raised for more than a century now. Even though standard systems have been tried and failed, there must be something that can be done to increase the predictability, right?
Well, so far the bet is on technology. The diversity of body shapes makes it complicated for a standard size model to be conducted. For instance, an early 2000s study called SizeUSA found the hip circumference of women with a 28-inch waist ranged from 32 inches to 45 inches, making it impossible to fit them all under one size category.
Instead, some predict that sizing will cease to exist over this decade. One of them is Levi Strauss CEO, Chip Bergh. Levi Strauss is working on a laser finishing technique allowing for custom sizing and orders, thus eliminating the need for sizing as we know it. Instead, Bergh predicts that within 10 years people will do their own body scan on a camera.
Other technological efforts to limit the size confusion include algorithms trying to find the optimal fit, questionnaires comparing preferences and body measures to product specifications, and of course traditional collaboration between brands and tailors. However, several companies are looking into the body scanning via smartphones.
One problem they all currently face though is the stigma around sizes and the discomfort of needing a bigger size than you think. One solution to that issue could be to replace sizes with colours instead, however, eventually that may also run into the stigma of current sizes. Another solution that an athletic wear brand has used is naming its sizes after athletes instead, reducing the stigma around different body shapes.
At the moment, size consistency may be too much too ask, however, efforts are being made and hopefully the 2020s will be the decade where the century old problem will be put to bed. However, it can only happen if we stop stigmatising our bodies. And then, maybe the two women in my life will believe that their actual size fits.