Clothing sizes, body image, and the current state of affairs

This post is spurred in large part by the well-publicized comments by Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael S. Jeffries from 2006, which came to light after an industry analyst made a reference to them. See this article from The Globe and Mail and this article on among many others. This is my first time even trying to write about this topic, and I’ve tried my best not to offend anyone.

The exact statement:

In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.

The latter article above from also makes reference to the fact that rather than donate old clothes to those who can wear them, Abercrombie & Fitch does the unthinkable: they burn them, on the grounds that “[o]nly people of a certain stature are able to purchase and wear the company name.” Which, incidentally, flies in the face of the company’s philanthropic efforts. Having a PR campaign like “A&F Cares” at the same time the company is burning wearable clothes qualifies as an example of egregiously unethical PR.

I’d like to say with some degree of confidence that David T. Abercrombie and Ezra Fitch would roll over in their graves if they knew that clothes which could be donated were senselessly destroyed for flagrantly elitist and classist reasons. Unfortunately, Wikipedia (at least) has not a single reference to the philanthropic efforts of either man. So my assumption either man would be horrified were he still alive stems mostly from a desire not to unnecessarily blacken the memory of the dead, and to give as much benefit of the doubt as I can.

However, those that currently represent the brand, and thus the legacy of Messrs. Abercrombie and Fitch, can certainly turn things around. While I frown on making clothing “just for the cool kids” it may be unrealistic to expect that part of A&F’s strategy and brand positioning to change (figuratively) overnight. But the very least A&F can do to be a socially responsible company (which certainly matters today, even if it didn’t matter much in the 1920s) is give everyone a fair chance to be the cool kid: don’t discriminate on body size.

The refusal of Abercrombie & Fitch to make clothes larger than a certain size, is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes time for me to speak on matters of clothing size and body image. I have, for a long time, noticed what at first glance appears to be a huge female chauvanist bias in the numbering of clothing sizes in the US. Particularly, the most common sizes, men’s sizes for males, and misses sizes for females, are completely different such that most adult males wear pants sized 32 to 40 and most adult females wear pants (or skirts or other bottoms) sized from 6 to 14. Misses sizes go up to 20 or 22, and there do exist women’s sizes which more closely resemble those of men’s clothing. But every diet testimonial I’ve seen (and I’ve seen plenty) has always said “I went from a size 14 to a size 8” or similar. It just does not sound anywhere near the same for men to say “I went from a size 44 to a size 38” and this is my basis for asserting female chauvanism in clothing sizes.

The perception, chauvanism or not, that is shaped by the size numbering system we have in use today is a large part of the problems with body image, particularly for women. The Wikipedia article on clothing sizes linked previously hints at a plausible origin of the term “plus size” which has persisted even though the plus itself is a mere footnote on clothing size history:

In 1958, the National Bureau of Standards invented a new sizing system, based on the hourglass figure and using only the bust size to create an arbitrary standard of sizes ranging from 8 to 38, with an indication for height (short, regular, and tall) and lower-body girth (plus or minus). The standard was not widely popular, and was declared voluntary in 1970 and withdrawn entirely in 1983.

Let me make sure we’re clear on this: this standard, from where I would assume the term “plus size” came from, was withdrawn some three decades ago. Yet somehow, the term “plus size” itself, and its absurd negative connotations, has stuck around long after the standard itself has bit the dust, though another Wikipedia article claims the term has been “losing [favor] since the 1990s” but does not cite a source for this claim. (In fact, in the process of writing this article, I took a break to added a “citation needed” tag as a Wikipedia editor in hopes this will be addressed.)

Don’t get me wrong. I would like to see the term “plus-sized” do a disappearing act that would make Houdini proud. But I’ve seen no evidence that this has been happening, that it will happen any time soon, or that the same wave of political correctness that has made uttering terms like “disabled” shameful has let “plus-sized” pass by unchallenged. Especially when the meaning has changed over time to denote smaller and smaller clothing sizes–and arguably, never really had a cut-and-dried definitive meaning (certainly not after 1983, if then).

The lack of clothing size standardization has led to a host of problems. The first of which is “vanity sizing“, or the practice by which the same numerical size has become physically larger over the years. As noted in the linked article, this problem affects men’s clothing as well as women’s, though not to the same degree yet. (However, it’s widespread enough that this very male blogger has, at least once in the past, noticed he fit in size 38 pants just the same as a completely different pair of size 40 pants by a different manufacturer). This lack of standardization is the whole reason we even have abominations like size 0 and size 00 (at least here in the US, and in the UK). Any sane clothing sizing system should not need to have sizes at or below zero, as Ellen DeGeneres said much more eloquently and humorously on her show (1:40 to 2:15 or so). (BTW, that whole clip is worth watching, that 35-second clip is just the most relevant to my point.)

To be completely fair about it, Abercrombie & Fitch isn’t the only retailer or clothing manufacturer responsible for our current slate of young women and girls (and maybe even some young men and boys) with body image problems. But the concept that “you must fit into size 10 or smaller to be this cool” combined with the lack of standardization which allows A&F’s size 10 to be what a size 8 or 6 might be elsewhere is certainly not helping. While the backlash against A&F is justified, the madness won’t stop until at least two things happen: clothing sizes are standardized and clothing manufacturers who discriminate based on body size are held accountable by a customer base that deems this practice unacceptable as a group. There’s more to it than that, of course, but if I tried to be comprehensive in just one post I’d never finish it. So at some point I will probably revisit this topic; it is not something anyone can cover comprehensively in one blog post of reasonable length or even a week-long series of posts.