Last night, I was idly looking at some online boutiques, and although I appreciate how the internet has opened up a world of clothing options for those of us who aren’t in the narrow size range of most mall boutiques, I’ve noticed something annoying.
Many women and men actively identify with the numbers on their clothing labels: ‘I’m a size 10’, ‘I’m an extra large’, ‘I’m a 38’, and so on. It’s hard to figure out which came first: this self-identification, or the orthovestic* media coverage that frames weight gain and loss in similar terms – ‘Drop three dress sizes by summer’; ‘Nicole has ballooned to a size 18!’; ‘Nine out of ten men prefer size 14 women to size 10 women!’
Here’s what your size says about you: absolutely nothing. Feeling good about yourself cannot be measured against an arbitrary scale. When we make size shorthand for a personal relationship with clothing, it feels true because it’s imposed externally, in ways that seem objective because they are quantitative. Retail spaces are organised by size – sometimes very visibly, using signage and colour-coded hangers, forcing shoppers to sort themselves into a category – and sometimes less visibly, requiring a sales assistant as gatekeeeper (‘Are you right for sizes?’). Levi’s jeans even display their size on the outside label.
Size, therefore, becomes a public, social interaction – a space for pride or shame. Shoppers feel pleased by the idea of fitting a smaller size, and upset by the idea of a garment in a larger size, even if the tag is hidden or removed so nobody else can know.
(hmm…how do you reference page numbers in a Kindle book?)
Mel Campbell, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, Location 283-285, Kindle edition, 2013 (my emphasis)
Much of our angst about size and fit springs from the notion that to be socially successful, we need to constantly tend to and revise our appearance. I call this philosophy ‘orthovestia’, after the Latin words for ‘correct’ and ‘clothing’. You can see orthovestia in action in everything from personal training gurus and ‘body shape calculators’ to makeover TV shows and the oft-cited statistic that ’80 per cent of women are wearing the wrong size bra.’
Orthovestia doesn’t solve the practical problem of finding well-fitting clothes. Instead, it fools us into believing that if your clothes don’t fit, it’s our fault for not understanding, training or disguising our bodies properly. (Location 128-129)
I don’t think that this is ever going to be ‘solved’. Anyone who doesn’t fit within the narrow bounds of a ‘normal’ shape is always going to feel wrong in the mainstream, somehow, whether they struggle to find clothes that are big enough or small enough. I think it’s important, though, to just be aware of how manufacturers and marketers manipulate our insecurities, and to not be suckered in by it. Clothes are just clothes. No matter how frustrated or tearful they might make us feel when they don’t do what we want them to, they don’t tell us who we are. Clothes do not really make the man.