Tag Archives: women’s clothing

The Dark Art of Women’s Clothing Sizes

An extremely fat white woman wrapped in dressmaker's paper that says "sample size" all over her body. She also has elaborate tattoos on both arms.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Somehow, we’re just not surprised that Professor Lauren Downing Peters, who has just written Fashion Before Plus-Size: Bodies, Bias, and the Birth of an Industry, is no more able to define “plus-size” than anyone else. Speaking to Kristen Rogers at CNN, Downing Peters said plus-size is “kind of impossible to define.”

Rogers interviewed Downing Peters for a reasonably comprehensive article on not just the history but the current state of plus-size clothing but — unsurprisingly for such a mainstream source — she doesn’t address the deeper question.

True, “the largest size many retailers offer is a 12,” and

True, ” anyone, regardless of whether they’re plus-size or sample size, can be one size at one store and another somewhere else” and

Largely true, “The dearth of plus-size clothing adds to a stigma that makes people with bigger bodies feel marginalized” (a quote in Rogers’ article from Professor Carmen Keist”) and

True, “men’s fashion tends to be more size-inclusive.”

However, Rogers doesn’t drill down to the fact that women’s clothing sizes are based on completely arbitrary numbers: a 12 may have changed over time, and it can, because it doesn’t refer to 12 of anything. Men’s pants are generally sold by waist size and inseam size numbers, and their shirts by chest size and neck size, while women’s are sold by 12-14-16-18 or S-M-L-XL. So women purchasing clothes have nothing to go by except comparisons: am I smaller or larger than the person in the next dressing room? Am I smaller or larger than I was last year? (That one doesn’t even allow for the difference in manufacturer’s definition of the sizes that may have occurred in the last year, or the difference in the garment you’re buying from the one you got last year.)

Having watched the evolution of fat women’s clothing from the days of nothing but horrible polyester floral patterns at Lane Bryant’s, we would say that the situation has improved more for fat women than Rogers and her interviewees describe. As a fat woman, Debbie can now buy attractive natural-fiber clothing for anything from a sports workout through a sexy date to a wedding, with lots of choices in all categories (yes, they are usually more expensive, see below). However, the improvement for fat woman is (of course) incomplete and insufficient, and it basically comes at the expense of all women: sizing has gotten more arbitrary and more variable, and the emphasis on comparison has gotten more intense.

Downing Peters attributes the extra cost of fat women’s clothing as more “about additional materials as it is research and development.” … “What’s even more expensive,” she added, “is devising all new patterns for larger sizes, because you can’t just take the blocks upon which you’re working and make them larger, you have to completely reconceive the proportions.”

Again, of course, this misses the point: fat women’s bodies are not only differently proportioned than “average” or thin women’s bodies, but they are also much more variable than the smaller bodies (which themselves are much more variable than clothing manufacturers account for). If we could buy clothes based on our bra size, waist size, hip size and inseam, those factors would have to be taken into account, and we might — at all sizes — honestly find clothes that *gasp* actually fit.

We’d like to see Downing Peters’ next book — or someone’s next book — be about the history and current practice of sizing clothing for all women … and see it end with a chapter on what would actually work to make it possible to find well-fitting clothes for variable bodies. It’s about time.


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When People Help: Battered Women, Staged Scenes, and Interventions

Our technical problems are fixed, thanks to Paul at Juniper Webcraft, our dauntless webmaster. And we’re off to WisCon 34. We may blog from there; otherwise, we’ll be back in very early June.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Jezebel and Sociological Images crossposted this piece reporting on a segment on ABC’s tv show “What Would You Do?”, a 20/20 spin-off which contrives uncomfortable situations to observe and analyze what observers and bystanders do, and then reports on their findings.

In this case, the situation involves a conventionally pretty, heavily bruised woman in a busy restaurant with an angry “boyfriend.” The man and woman are both actors, but if you don’t know that, it seems very clear that he’s beaten her before, and he’s ready to do it again.

The clips are both at the Jezebel link. Be warned that they contain significant, upsetting instances of verbal and physical violence against women. They cannot be stopped, fast-forwarded, or paused.

In the first clip, first two white actors and then two African-American actors play out the scene. A man and a woman eating together intervene immediately with the white woman.  Two sisters intervene immediately with the African-American woman, and they are rapidly joined by more women.

In the second clip, the same four actors play out similar scenes, except that the women are dressed for an evening out. As Lindsay said on Jezebel, “we’re talking clothing that’s pretty average for a Saturday night, not Julia Roberts’ blue-and-white monokini-thing in Pretty Woman.”

No one, not one diner, helps either woman, though the scenes went on for 25 and 16 minutes respectively, an extremely long time.

Both Lindsay and Samhita at Feministing are, as we are, very aware that these encounters are what Samhita calls “subject to multiple variables and staged.” One variable that no one else seems to mention is extremely important: in the second set of clips, both men are criticizing the women for how they are dressed, thus making the clothing choices even more of an issue than they might be otherwise.

In the clip where the women look hot, two white women find it easy to assume that the African-American woman is a prostitute, whereas no one says that about the white woman. And, as the African-American actress points out, if she was a prostitute and he was a pimp, that would in no way justify how he is treating her.

In the “hotter” sequence, as well as an earlier sequence they cut to from a different episode (in which the woman is not dressed up), there’s a clear message from the male bystanders that beating your woman isn’t wrong–what’s wrong is doing it in public. One of the ways that these scenes are contrived is that the women’s bruises are very obvious (made with makeup) while in the real world they would be covered by makeup. Far far far too many people still believe that “taking it private” is the important part, and protecting the woman is irrelevant or at best very secondary.

The clips, and the show, are about when and how people intervene. Sometimes a person can be too scared to intervene, or paralyzed by not knowing how to intervene. These skills can be learned, and practiced; one of the many sad moments on these clips is watching a woman berate herself and feel guilty because she felt she didn’t do enough. In an abuse culture, whatever we do to stop abuse is definitionally incomplete. People who want to intervene more actively are better off cutting themselves some slack and examining where they got stuck than beating themselves up.

It’s encouraging to see people intervening, and doing it well. Intervening is complicated, and one way people convince themselves not to intervene (as comes up in these clips) is because they know, correctly, that when an intervention is not a rescue, it often results in the perpetrator doing more damage to the victim at the first opportunity. Nonetheless, as Alice Miller and many others have demonstrated, intervening is incredibly important. It gives the victim the confirmation of a “good witness,” someone who knows that the victim doesn’t deserve what is happening to her, and is willing to stand up for her. Not intervening never saves the victim from harm.