A FACEBOOK PHOTO from Deena Shoemaker, a mentor trainer at Youth Horizons in Wichita, went viral in December 2016, after the teen counselor stitched together six images of herself in pants and shorts of varying sizes with one very clear message: You are not your clothing size. Seeing the same woman wear sizes 5, 6, 8, and 12 with ease opened up conversations about how the women’s clothing industry labels its products, and how that labeling affects girls and young women.
To be fair, that’s not a new subject, by any means. How many times have you heard an adage about Marilyn Monroe’s dress size — noted as 8, 12, or even 14 — used as a weapon against a culture that’s purported to be more obsessed with thinness now than in past decades? This, in spite of the fact that the 118-lb. Monroe was reported to be a “too plump” size 12 in 1945, at a time when the lowest dress size was an 8.
From the late 1950s through the early 1980s, women’s clothing manufacturers in the U.S. labeled their products according to industry standards, in sizes ranging from 8 to 38. As the average American woman increased in size — a trend caused by a variety of factors too numerous to name here — clothing manufacturers abandoned the industry standards, and scaled their sizes up, so that women could remain in “their size.” As size 8s increased by several inches, smaller-bodied women — who would have been the size 8s of the past — became sizes 6, 4, 2, 0, and even 00.
Today, as Shoemaker shows us, the same woman may wear any number of clothing sizes, because manufacturers do not hold themselves to anything resembling an industry standard. At the very least, this creates a major inconvenience for women who need to shop for new clothes, because they must carve out the time to go into each store and try on numerous items. Even if you know your measurements, you cannot guarantee that one store’s 36 inches will be the same as another’s, and even sizes from your favorite manufacturers may fluctuate without warning.
Clearly, a return to industry standards is in order. It seems like an easy fix, doesn’t it? Just fix the sizing and the problem goes away! But clothing manufacturers have spent more than 30 years creating an obsession with an arbitrary number on a label, and the issue with women’s clothing sizes goes beyond mere vanity. The people who design, make, distribute, and sell women’s clothing have no incentive to return to the size standards of the past, simply because they know consumers have no alternative but to buy into the system they’ve created.
Women’s clothing is made from cheap labor and materials, which means it wears out more easily than men’s clothing, and must be replaced more frequently. It also costs more, and, although women of means can pay for quality garments, the millions of women who live at or below the poverty line do not have the resources to escape the big-box store trap.
Because of this, any clothing startup that wanted to offer quality women’s garments, manufactured fairly, with a reasonable sizing system would be unable to reach the masses, simply because their products would be too expensive for non-boutique shoppers to buy. Without mainstream business, such a startup could not disrupt the women’s clothing industry enough to effect change.
Because of its close association with women and femininity, fashion isn’t considered a topic worthy of real discussion, so it’s highly unlikely that we will ever see a return to mid-century clothing standards. That doesn’t mean future generations are doomed to languish in a sea of eating disorders and fad diets, however. When it comes to keeping women and girls safe and healthy, media literacy can go a long way toward solving our problems.
When teens are media literate — meaning they have “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media” — they can decode the myriad messages they receive from television, film, video games, and printed advertising. Unfortunately, although Millennials and younger generations are digital natives, they do not receive the media-literacy instruction necessary to be informed consumers and netizens.
The average person spends more than 10 hours per day interacting with media, but most students are unable to identify sponsored content and manipulated images, cannot tell the difference between fake and real news sources, and are unable to differentiate between mainstream and fringe groups. Fake news played a huge role in the 2016 presidential election, and, with white supremacists and their supporters mounting a campaign against journalism and fact-checking, having the ability to determine which stories are real and which sources are reliable has never been more important.
So rise up. Find out if you’re media literate and learn how to give the kids in your life the media education they deserve. Our relationship to the labels in our pants is just the tip of the iceberg.