By Katelynn Bishop and Kjerstin Gruys
Feminist scholars have long been critical of how the fashion industry harms women’s body image through media images of ultra-thin models.
However, catwalks and advertisements are not the only way the fashion industry influences women’s body perceptions. Clothing size standards are a means through which fashion retailers label and categorize women’s bodies.
These unstable and shifting standards have received little sustained scholarly attention, despite their omnipresence in women’s everyday lives.
In our Gender & Society article, co-authored with Maddie Evans, we delve into women’s everyday experiences with clothing size(s). We examine how retail spaces organize women’s access to clothing in particular sizes, how diverse women navigate these categories, and how these experiences reinforce or challenge inequalities.
Our article combines three qualitative studies, which we conducted individually before meeting at a conference.
Katelynn Bishop interviewed five owners of specialty bra boutiques, conducted participant observation at one of these stores, “Intimate Fit,” and interviewed 65 women about their bra shopping experiences. Kjerstin Gruys performed participant observation at a plus-size clothing store, “Real Style,” where she was an employee. Maddie Evans conducted an ethnography at a high-end bridal boutique, “Elegant Bride,” and also interviewed brides and shop employees.
Integrating data from three studies was uncharted—and fruitful—methodological territory for us. Bringing together our separate studies allowed us to examine the clothing shopping experiences of women with a range of body types, and women’s experiences shopping for both day-to-day clothing and clothing for special occasions.
What We Found
We found that women performed what sociologists call “identity work” and “body work” in relation to size categories. They did “identity work” by using these categories to make claims about themselves. For instance, women disputed employees’ assessments of their size when these assessments were unexpected or undesirable, insisting upon their “true” size. Such disputes were common in the bridal shop (where sizes ran smaller than most everyday brands) and the specialty bra shops (where employees used “alternative” sizing practices). Women on the edge of Real Style’s size range sometimes chose to shop elsewhere in order to avoid being categorized as plus-size. The inconsistency of size categories made such identity work possible. That is, because size 14, for instance, has no absolute meaning, women (particularly those near the plus-size/standard-size boundary) could use size categories to define themselves in desired ways.
In other cases, women altered their bodies to fit into particular size categories. Several brides lost weight to avoid wearing “plus-size” dresses; no longer needing to shop at Real Style was often interpreted as a positive outcome of dieting; and wearing larger bra sizes contributed to women’s decisions to pursue breast reduction.
We grappled with the counterintuitive fact that women cared deeply about clothing size categories, even when they knew these categories were inconsistent. Because women’s worth is conflated with their body size and shape, we theorize that women desire external markers that their bodies conform to cultural norms, however tenuous these markers.
The organization of retail spaces is one everyday means through which women are confronted with the hierarchical divisions between body sizes and shapes. For instance, plus-size stores are labeled as such, implying that other, unlabeled stores carry more “normal” sizes—even though most American women wear plus sizes. Conventional bra retailers, as opposed to specialty shops, offer limited size ranges, implying that sizes beyond these ranges are “abnormal.” The bridal shop penalized larger brides through charging a fee for plus-size gowns, and stocking sample sizes only in smaller sizes.
What We Would Like to Change
As body-positive feminist scholars, we seek not only to understand women’s experiences with clothing size, but to foster body positivity. We believe that clothing retailers could help to mitigate some of the inequalities reproduced through clothing size categories by heeding activists’ calls to eliminate labels such as “plus-size,” and by making clothing of varied styles available in a wider range of sizes, and readily accessible, economically and otherwise. We acknowledge, however, that consumer-oriented solutions present limitations, and we support broader efforts to create a culture that values bodies of all sizes and shapes, and in which women’s worth is not reduced to their bodies.
*Captions are intended to provide access for the visually impaired.
Katelynn Bishop recently earned a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include gender, embodiment, and consumerism. Her dissertation and current book project, Imperfect Fit: Bras, Embodied Difference, and the Limits of Consumerism, focuses in part on the social constraints generated by expanded consumer choice. She has been published in Body & Society.
Kjerstin Gruys is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on how intersections of gender, race, class, and embodiment affect social inequality. She is writing a book tentatively titled True to Size?: A Social History of Women’s Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Ready-to-Wear Fashion Industry.
Maddie Evans holds an MA in sociology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is currently pursuing a career in medicine.