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I Feel Like A Number

Posted on September 28 2016

Marilyn Monroe obesity memeDo you know what size you are? I don’t, not really. I’ve been wearing a great pair of Vera Wang jeans – they’re soft like buttah – and they’re a size 8. Now, I’m a normal woman, so that fact that I’m wearing size 8 jeans gives me a little lift in my step. “I’m an 8, I’m an 8, oh boy I’m an 8”, and so on. Until last week, when I went to Old Navy to buy a pair of pants. So naturally I take a size 8 to the dressing room, along with an 'aspirational' size 6, where my self-esteem takes a nose dive. Why? Because the size 6 is laughably tight. The size 8 touches over my stomach but won’t close, and the size 10 will close but in the way that Victorian corsetry ‘closes’. If I want to walk in these pants – which I certainly do! - I need a size 12. So I ask you, how is the same body an 8 at Kohl’s, but a 12 at Old Navy? And why?!?

Have you seen this meme and others like it about the fact that Marilyn Monroe wore a plus size, like the one at right? The subtext is that our national bombshell, the acknowledged standard of American beauty, wore the same size most of us do today. The message is that the beauty icons and muses of later decades, and the legions of emaciated teens who walk the runways, are shockingly and unnaturally thin. Marilyn, we believe, was just as beautiful, but with a modern amount of flesh on her body. And that makes us feel better about what we look like, and what we’re wearing.

What the memes don’t tell us, alas, is that Marilyn would be just as confused while shopping today as I am. A woman with her official measurements could wear anything from a 00 to a size 10 today, depending on what she’s buying – and where she tried to buy it. This is why today’s twelves who want to wear vintage clothes have a really hard time finding ‘the look’ in yesteryear’s sizes 12 to 22. I hate to say it, but we brought this vanity sizing epidemic upon ourselves.

Men’s clothes are sized by actual measurement: neck size, waist size, and inseam. Simple and easy. Women, on the other hand, didn’t want to rattle off their bust and waist measurements to a store clerk, once hand-made and home-made clothes gave way to off the rack clothes. So Big Fashion chose an arbitrary set of numbers – 8, 10, 12 etc. – for each set of ‘average’ measurements. But without an official standard, each designer and manufacturer could choose their own specifications for ‘size 8’, and down the slippery slope we all went. Now, there’s a huge variation from store to store, and new sizes like 0 and 00. (Take a look here at how size 8 has changed since 1950.)

So is government-mandated universal sizing the answer to this problem? We buy more clothes when we think we’re ‘thin’, so will we buy fewer clothes if we are assigned a ‘true’ number that we don’t like? The answer is inside our own heads, of course. We should feel beautiful, valuable and happy in clothing that fits and is flattering, no matter what the number on the label is. I think it will be easier to change the sizing numbers than the human brain, so I fully expect to see size 'negative 2' sometime soon.


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