Sisterhood of the travelling pant sizes


It was while browsing the ring selection at Pandora last week that I first found myself feeling segregated from the average sizes of society.

Sure, there’s the awkward stage when a woman may no longer be able to shop at Garage, but who would ever think about being too big for a ring size?

I for one did not prepare myself for the disappointment and embarrassment when the sales associate said, “Our largest ring is a size nine.” Instantly my fingers had just become a new body part to judge as unattractive and bigger than average.

Curious about how other women have felt in a similar situation, I sent out a Facebook post offering a discussion on clothing sizes. No surprise – my inbox blew up. Stories piled in over the next day and a half, explaining the frustration and negative feelings many women experience when shopping for clothing.

Concerns ranged from sizes differing depending on the clothing label, ‘plus size’ sections segregated in stores, mirrors placed on the outside of fitting rooms, and “one size fits all” items.

In retrospect, when you’re a woman shopping for a pair of pants, that little number on the label stitched to the back of your jeans matters.

Sizes aren’t the same as they used to be. They are continuously evolving over time, categorized by smaller numbers that are inconsistent from store to store.

“Unfortunately we live in a world where our fashion industry and media orchestrate what is or is not viewed as sexy,” said Sara Cumming, sociology professor at Sheridan College.

“One size fits all are not designed to fit all—they are designed to fit the people these companies want shopping at their stores.”

Retailers like American Apparel and Brandy Melville sell one size fits all items, that in reality fit between a size 24 and 26, properly.

Fitting in, pardon the pun, to every store is highly unlikely. Some retailers cater specifically to plus size women and others to petite women.

But knowing where to shop has become more difficult than ever and this fear of the unknown size becomes a new factor.

“I have to go shopping for a pantsuit for interviews and I have no idea where to even start. I’m nervous about the size I’m going to have to buy,” said Elise Carter, a student from the American University of Integrative Sciences.

The problem is women don’t know their actual size and that’s because no size is measured the same.

When individual tailoring shifted into mass merchandising around the 1940s, sizing standards had to be developed.

The O’Brien Shelton data was created in 1939 after U.S. manufacturers started losing an estimate $10 million a year on clothing due to returns and unsold merchandise. To reduce the losses, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a chart to standardize women’s sizes.

Data was taken from 15,000 American women who were returning from the US Air Force – a sample with particularly fit bodies.

The measurements were taken from 59 different places of the body, providing overall data for Ruth O’Brien and William Shelton to create a standardized size chart.

The chart was later reanalyzed, as manufacturers realized the average American body type did not match up with the measurements of the air force women.

The new clothing chart stayed in place for manufacturers and designers as a rough framework for clothing sizes.

With guidelines in place, shopping was meant to be easier for women and fewer alterations would have to be made. Overall, women would know their sizes, no matter where they shopped.

But it didn’t take long before “standardized” sizes began to change.

In the 50s and 60s, Marilyn Monroe’s body became iconic. Using the standardized size chart she measured in at a size 12, which was then idolized as the ideal body type.

Monroe’s size 12 figure is no longer idolized, and is actually considered plus sized by clothing manufacturers like Forever 21.

Collectively women question why this shift in sizes has occurred.

According to Slate, in 1958, the smallest size was a size 8, by 1995 it had shifted to a size 2 and in 2011, size 00.

The true reason is simple: Retail competition.

“The era of disposable clothing started happening in the 90s and clothing became super affordable. With that came more competition for retailers. In order to beat competition they created their own size charts so people would feel smaller by wearing smaller sizes in certain stores,” said Josette Cacnio, a Hamilton fashion designer.

Most recently we have been introduced to this new trend – vanity sizing – a concept that emerged when manufacturers relabeled larger sizes as smaller ones.

“It speaks volumes to the fact that women are viewed as less than nothing. Size 0 or 00 is nowhere close to ideal,” said Cumming.

The 2011 size 2 equals that of a 1995 size 4-6. This ‘down-sizing’ has created a denial of our true size. The standardized chart created in the 30s has gone out the window.

“In the fashion industry we still have standard sizing, but the retail companies change them to suit their own size charts,” said Cacnio.

It’s difficult to establish a waist size when they differ from store to store, which in turn allows companies to bring in more “dedicated shoppers.”

For example, H&M classifies a size 10-12 pant to be somewhere between a 29, 30 and 31-inch waist, where as at Forever 21, size 12 is measured as a 35-inch waist.

The difference in inches alone makes it incredibly frustrating for a woman who tries to squeeze into a size 12 in one store, while she drowns in a size 12 from another store.

If you aren’t annoyed already by the fact that no manufacturer can label the same measurements, step into women’s clothing store Chico’s and experience a whole new world of sizing.

The thought that women are so stuck on the number stitched on the inside of their jeans is reinforced at Chico’s.

Online, their sizing chart shows “Chico’s sizes” 000-4.5 listed beside the “conventional sizes” XXS-XL.

“It actually made me feel worse than when I try on my actual size,” said Nina Elliot, when she shopped at Chico’s for the first time.

Chico’s reinvented its own chart, to make a woman feel better about herself when a size 8 pant is labeled as a size 0.

“Women believe their self worth is attached to a number—whether it’s on a scale or inside the waist of a pair of jeans. The clothing industry plays a tremendous role in this,” said Cumming.

A size 8 label may one day be printed as a size 6, and although it will make online shopping more of a hassle, it doesn’t change a woman’s physical figure.

The next time you’re in a fitting room, don’t feel ashamed if the sales associate has to grab you a bigger size, at the end of the day, its just a number – and an incorrect one at that.