Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Slim pickings

-Yes, it's frustrating that women's clothing sizes are meaningless, and that no woman today 'is' a particular size. There's a simple answer to this, and it's not radiation: start embracing styles that are not form-specific. As in, until we return to an age of made-to-measure, there's really no point trying on a million pairs of jeans, only to find the one that looks least awful, when dress plus belt fits.

In the comments to the recent NYT story on this, the complaints about vanity sizing read as opportunities for women to announce that they've been 5'9" and four pounds (or close - the number of not-short sub-100-lb NYT commenters is astounding) since high school. "The smallest 'pencil skirt' I could find at J. Crew was large enough to clothe a farm animal," one woman laments. Aside from the mental gymnastics it takes to figure out how a goat of any size would fit into a pencil skirt, that's... a nice image. And the woman who's 5'6", 92 pounds, and sick of how fat everyone else is has just about led me to make an exception to my usual rule of not telling perfect strangers on the Internet to seek professional help. Bizarrely, the women who used to take a 16 and now take an 8 are not making a fuss; the ones who were an 8 and are now a 0 are just traumatized by the experience. It's like they're vanishing!

Small women, yes, do have the experience of everything at a store being too big, but it's a mixed bag - it's a hassle, fine, but it's also a flattering problem to have, even if, as in my case, you know full well it's because you're short, not because you're a supermodel. Point being, the women who comment seem to think vanity sizing is about making the 16s fool themselves into thinking they're 8s, when the reality is, it's the 6s for whom a 0's now baggy who are most delighted (but if you ask them, horrified) with the new order.

-Library-thoughts of the day:

1) There is a "mute" function on computers. This memo has yet to go out.
2) The best way to feel super-productive is for the person sitting next to you to be fast asleep.

-I'll admit that I initially clicked on a Refinery29 (mildly NSFW, it turns out, if your W frowns on shots of emaciated women in bikinis) link that read "Ex-model Jenna Sauers breaks down just how much debt you can dig yourself into in the world of modeling" because I'd just finished a 300-page French novel, on microfiche, and by "finished" I mean "finished taking notes on," not just perusing, and this seemed like as good an antidote as any. Whatever this was, it was not going to be about the doomed marriage of a Belle Epoque anti-Semite and an ardent Zionist. Also because I was curious how any profession, assuming we're talking modeling-as-job, not modeling-as-front-for-scam-or-brothel, any profession, that is, that one does not need to go to school for, could bring about debt at a level worth blogging about. I would have assumed modeling would be like any other glamorous field - a lot of people working for next to nothing, all aspiring to be among the few who make it big. And I'd read that certain really high-profile assignments in that industry are unpaid, 'for exposure,' which is consistent with how it goes with writing sometimes, too. But debt? Was this, like, spending more than earning debt, which could happen regardless, but might be more tempting if you're young, thin, and surrounded by nice clothes? Seems not - it's quite literally debt owed to agencies. Apparently modeling - like law school, like every other human endeavor - can take the form of a scam, even if you're ostensibly qualified and going through legitimate channels. Huh.

But that's not what stuck with me. Nor was anything fashion- or body-image-specific about the post, although that would bring some good continuity with Item 1, I realize.* No, what I was struck by was the extent to which the piece is written from the perspective of someone who can hear the chorus of YPIS forever in the background. The dual and dueling impulses of 'I'm aware of how lucky I've had it' and 'I'm not, you know, privileged' take up the bulk of the preface, and resurface later in the piece. We learn that the writer graduated from college without debt. But! not because she's from a wealthy family or anything. No, she's scrappy! But privileged! And she will take a moment to thank all who helped her along the way, because she's not the clueless sort who'd take such things for granted. But let's not forget, just because she graduated without debt doesn't mean she's one of them. Yes, her shoes were Gucci. But $8.99!

Here is as good a place as any to note that Sauers is a writer for Jezebel, a site notorious for its YPIS-ful atmosphere. My sense is that this is an example of someone who writes well, and who has an interesting story, but who is held back by the disclaimer requirement that has been foisted upon her. One comes away from the piece with a very precise idea of where, socioeconomically-speaking, the writer is coming from, something that could have been summed up as 'high cultural capital, middle economic capital', but that we now know in excruciating detail. My question, then, is: what does this add? For one thing, we're not really privy to the entirety of the writer's place on the privilege spectrum - it's kind of unusual for international students to do undergrad in the US, which suggests even more cultural capital than first meets the eye. But who cares? Before we even get to the part about the rather shocking exploitation in that industry, we've heard so many apologetic disclaimers that we've forgotten what the point of the whole thing was. It becomes far more navel-gazing than an article that begins with pictures of the author's actual navel need be.

*OK, I will admit that it did occur to me that someone with a college degree, cultural capital (but not economic!), and looks that would make a career modeling plausible might consider channeling that into any number of professions for which being especially good-looking would be a plus, but not the bulk of the job description. Which is, I suppose, where she's ended up.


Britta said...

Hmm....those comments were all incredibly jerky responses to an interesting issue. I have mixed feelings about size inflation--on the one hand, getting sized out of stores sucks on a practical level, even if it's for a socially validated reason (i.e., being "too" thin). On the other, if women who were once arbitrarily a size 16 are now arbitrarily a size 8, it's no skin off my back (as long as there's something for me to wear.) The issue shows how much emotional baggage gets tied up in something so arbitrary--a number on the clothing. I've personally experienced going to a store and having nothing in my size, or being told that my size was only sold online, or being told the transparently false statement that there's nothing wrong with wearing clothes in a size or two too big (like as in, the sales person saying "you should try it on in a smaller size," and me saying, "this is the smallest size," and them saying," uh...I think it works"), and it does get frustrating. I get the "I'm too thin for American clothes" deserves a correspondingly tiny violin, or perhaps a bit of YPIS, but it is a problem with slightly more merit than "my hair is too shiny" or "my teeth are too white," or "I have too much money." Shopping in the teens or kids department is not always an option for adult-shaped women, and not all thin people are wealthy enough to shop at high end boutiques. In grad school, one can get by on clothes that are too big or otherwise ill-fitting, or designed for children, but when small women have to look professional, buying adult women work clothes at small sizes is really hard, unless you want to pay a lot of money. (Of course, you probably know all this, if anything, you probably have more problems that I do!)

On the other hand, the whole, "American women are fat cows who don't deserve clothing that fits, or don't deserve to have a smaller size label" is a pretty repellent attitude. There's also the issue that far more American women are sized out of mainstream clothing stores, and even though more women weigh over 200 lbs than less than 120 lbs, 120 lbs is still seen as more of a standard than 200 lbs. There's also the issue that slightly too big clothes can still be worn, but too small clothes do not physically fit on someone's body, so a 80 lb women can hem something, get it taken in, or wear a belt, but a 400 lb woman is out of luck if there isn't anything that fits.

Britta said...

*I mean, more plus-sized women are sized out of mainstream clothing stores.

Phoebe said...


Hmm. What I was struck by was how much these women seemed to be of the thin-but-never-thin-enough subset discussed here before, the subset for whom all the diet concerns of Western women that we imagine apply to the overweight are, in fact, more central. I guess I saw it fitting, so to speak, into the general framework of, we think about Diet as an issue faced by larger women, for example women who'd have trouble finding large enough clothing, when the women most preoccupied with this topic are often successful at maintaining a low weight, the price being that they think/talk about it all the time.

But yes, agreed, absolutely it's a pain not to be able to find clothes that fit. And it's all the less a hair's-too-shiny complaint for women who have this problem on account of being unremarkably-proportioned but short - being shorter than average is not considered a desirable trait in a woman, neither by Average Hetero Dude or by Fashion. But these are things that can be dealt with:

-By having stuff tailored.
-By shopping in the kids' section, which, contrary to the commenters' understanding, has lots of conservative options, and is not all "Justin Bieber" brand.
-By figuring out which chains tend to have smaller sizes (generally speaking: H&M yes, J. Crew no, and all the better because the former's a whole lot cheaper).
-By, if you're 35, have been the same size since high school, and anticipate never gaining an ounce, and are not bothered by looking so ten years ago, and are unable to find some combination of H&M/Gap Kids/tailored Ann Taylor that works for you, considering taking one vacation, once, somewhere where your size is "normal" - be that Paris, somewhere in Asia, somewhere with a Uniqlo, whatever. Stock up. But again, this is more the extreme option, unless you happen to be in one of these places for work or something anyway.

Basically, I think a woman with a job that requires professional dress, with an income that permits going to the typical chains, will figure something out, if she's in the "petite" range of those commenters. The one who's 5'6" and 92 lbs... will just have to accept that these are highly unusual proportions, and that as such a disproportionate amount of her time/money will have to go towards dealing with that.

Britta said...

Yeah, I think the problem and the comments conflate two different things. The first is the issue of vanity/unstandard sizing, which IMO has two problems. First, size is so meaningless that it doesn't really help narrow down the shopping process, and you still have to try on 30 pairs of pants to find one that generally fits. Second is size inflation at certain places means that if you're less than 5'6" and under 130 lbs (hardly anorexic proportions), there might not be anything for you to wear.
The problems that people seem to be complaining about are different: First, I agree that the group of women who are 5'6" and 92 lbs are so incredibly tiny (hee!) that it would be a stupid market segment to cater too. I don't have that much sympathy for people who are anorexic (or whatever her problem is) and want tight clothing. Secondly, women's bodies are never going to be proportioned the same, and it's a bit much to ask that $10 ready wear pants fit like tailored pants. If you want a tailored fit, you really have to pay for tailored clothes. (Not that I haven't complained about this in my life)

What is annoying though, is the general assumption that small women are not curvy, and, from what I hear, that large women are. I think there are enough smallish curvy women that smaller sizes should allow for above a b-cup, or a waist-hip differential. Likewise, I hear there enough non curvy larger women that large sizes shouldn't assume all bigger women have huge breasts or enormous hips. This problem could be solved by offering a straight or curvy cut in each size. It wouldn't fit all women perfectly, but women would be slightly more accommodated.

Phoebe said...


I think the problem's simpler than this. It's just that we as a society have continued to expect women in particular to have tailored-looking clothes - to associate "proper fit" with that look - when we've stopped having our clothes made to measure. Along with that, we've decided, again, as a society, that clothing that fits a woman's proportions, but via stretch material or cinching, rather than because a non-stretchy material was cut just so, is tacky/unprofessional/somehow cheating.

So we're left with the goal being that we sift through all the clothing available to find the few things that happen to be designed for our bodies. When there are obviously better ways we as a society could go. We could, for example, be not so obsessed with "fit." We could return to tailored clothes, just fewer of them, which would go well with fixing the landfill and child-labor concerns, potentially. Or we could continue to care about fit - which we're likely to do, considering showing off one's figure is how it goes in our society - but not demand that a mass-produced and non-stretchy garment happen to fit us perfectly.