By Maureen Brewster
I was pulling on my eighth pair of potential work pants in the dressing room when I heard the attendant approach. There was a brief pause, and then a soft knock on the door: “How’s it going? Can I get you anything?” She had already gotten me at least three sizes each of three different styles, all discarded for being too short, too small, or too big (and somehow, in the case of one pair, all of those things at once?). As a tall, not quite plus-size, not quite “straight”-size woman, I’m used to moments like these, but they still hurt. Despite being literally surrounded by pants, I was no closer to finding a pair that fit.
Don’t cry over this, I told myself. It’s not your fault.
I should know: I’m a professor of fashion history and theory. My work, which focuses on feminism, fashion, and the body, has made me a fierce advocate for body positivity. It’s become a trendy, branded buzzword, but real body positivity is quite radical: it advocates self-love and accepting your body as it is, no matter the size, shape, or disability. It’s hard to teach, and it’s definitely hard to practice.
Exhibit A: holding back tears in a dressing room, mere hours after discussing these issues in one of my classes. As I walked out of the store — a major fast fashion retailer, by the way — empty-handed and frustrated, I wondered: if the fashion industry is supposedly more inclusive than ever, why is it still so hard for me to find clothes that fit?
Any of my old fashion history textbooks can tell you that the fashion industry has always struggled with how to fit clothing to women’s bodies. In the early 20th century, manufacturers used bust measurements to size our clothes. When they realized that didn’t work (shocking), the US government stepped in and conducted a survey of 15,000 women that gave us a standard set of sizes from 8 to 38. But the data researchers gathered had pretty glaring faults, including but not limited to the fact that they only used measurements from white women (who, last I checked, are not the only women who buy or wear clothing). This narrow range of data perpetuated the hourglass “ideal” that continues to determine the sizing of most women’s clothing.
It’s a complete mess, and one that has only gotten worse. Instead of solving the fundamental issue with women’s clothing sizes — that they don’t accurately represent the full spectrum of women’s bodies — brands have instead responded with vanity sizing, which has made an arbitrary system even more arbitrary (but still, somehow, meaningful enough to make women cry in dressing rooms across the country). As American women became larger, companies attempted to flatter them by changing sizes to make them feel smaller. For example, I’m a size 12-14 in today’s system; if I looked for pants in that size from the 1950s, I probably couldn’t get them past my calves, because they now correspond to a size 6.
Of course, I’m not trying to find pants from the 1950s— I’m shopping for pants made in 2018. But when my size is different at every store, and many still don’t even carry it, that’s easier said than done. If the average American woman is a size 16-18, why am I, a size 12-14, still struggling to find clothes that fit my body? It’s not just a fashion industry problem: decades of media and cultural pressure have made women feel like the struggle to find clothing that fits is our own fault— that our unique shapes, sizes, or disabilities are the problem, when the real issue is clearly the clothes themselves.
I know all of this, on an intellectual level, and I still almost cried in that dressing room. That’s why it’s so important to represent a more diverse range of bodies and identities, not only in magazines, but on the rack: to enable us to love our bodies as they are, rather than shame us into hiding or changing them, or pretending they’re something else with vanity sizing. Everyone deserves to experience the freedom of expression that fashion offers, but clothing can’t speak for us if it doesn’t fit.
I’m trying to be more flexible about how (and where) I shop: sometimes in the men’s section, sometimes the plus section; occasionally I just size up my clothing and get it tailored. I’m also seeking out media and brands that practice real body positivity. I follow plus-size influencers and models on social media, which has helped me find great brands that offer an extended range of sizes, and make a conscious effort to love and accept diverse bodies. It sounds really cheesy, but this community has reminded me that sizing may be arbitrary and messy, but your body is still worthy of great style. With their help, 2019 might *finally* be the year that I find a great fitting pair of pants.
Maureen Brewster holds an MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design. She teaches fashion history and theory at both Parsons and Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Her research and writing focus on fashion, celebrity culture, and social media; her latest project dissects Beyoncé’s pregnancy photography. She lives in Brooklyn with Snidget, her cat/love of her life.