As enjoyable as shopping for clothes is, it can also be frustrating, annoying, and quite frankly, not the best for one’s self-esteem. The range of sizes offered to women is entirely non-diverse (and don’t even get me started on the unflattering lighting in the fitting rooms). The amount of time I've spent hunched over in a dimly lit dressing room trying to contort my boobs to fit into a bathing suit that doesn't offer mix-and-match sizing is, well, a lot. We all have different bodies, we all take different shapes. So why are women consistently confined to a scale that doesn't include such variation?
I have written my thoughts about gaining, losing, and trying to maintain weight. It's all tough. But there is certainly room for improvement when it comes to women’s clothing sizes, and that's an understatement. And—no surprise here—as it turns out, the information retailers have been using is completely outdated. After all, there is no such thing as one ideal size or weight for all women.
Ahead, Cassie Christopher, MS, RD, CD and Lynn M. Yudofsky, MD explain how to determine a healthy weight for your body, along with the factors that influence our individual sizes and body types. Read on to learn about the average weight for women in America and how to determine the healthiest weight range for you.
Meet the Expert
The Average Size for Women in America
The average size of an American woman has historically been reported as a size 14. The clothing industry somewhat took this into account and adjusted its sizes. Though, most labels didn't even do that; the majority of clothing lines still sell up to size 12 and that's it. Then, a study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education revealed that "the average size of an American woman is now between 16 to 18, which is an increase from 10-year-old data that indicated most women in the U.S. were a size 14." This information even further brings to light the need for clothing in sizes above the previously acceptable numbers. It's infuriating, really, and it's time something tangible is done to rectify the long-standing oversight.
The authors of the study determined that the average waist circumference has increased 2.6 inches in the past 21 years. According to a report from The Revelist, "In conducting the study, the researchers write that they hope 'that women may be relieved in knowing the average clothing size worn is larger than [they] thought,' and that it alters the public's perception of 'average' size."
The Average Weight for Women in America
According to a 2018 study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average weight of women over 20 is 170.5 pounds. While this number is considered the average weight of American women, Christopher urges women to not become fixated on this number. "Knowing the average weight of Americans or anyone else in the world is irrelevant to an individual woman's health," she says.
Dr. Yudofsky also says to steer clear of focusing on numbers but instead focus on what's the best weight for your body. "The 'best weight' for one person may be very different for another. This is due to the fact that everyone has a different body composition, a unique medical history, different hormone levels, and varying preferences too," she explains.
How to Determine Your Healthiest Weight Range
"Although most practitioners start by accessing a person's BMI, this is merely one data point among many that should be taken into consideration when determining a healthy weight. It is also equally important that people find [the] weight at which they also feel like their 'best self'—and that comes in all different shapes and sizes," says Yudofsky.
If you're curious to know your body mass index (BMI), use a BMI calculator from a trusted organization, such as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Using your height and weight, the calculator will determine your index number. Once you have your BMI, consult the BMI categories to see if yours is considered underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. While BMI is an indication of body fat, it is not the only factor involved in determining a healthy weight range. The circumference of your waist and other risk factors for ailments related to obesity should also be assessed by a healthcare professional.
However, if you're planning on losing weight on your own, Christopher cautions against restricting your eating habits and lifestyle choices. "If one chooses to lose weight, creating smaller [...] goals, using non-restrictive diet and lifestyle plans, and working on body acceptance (no matter your size) are the healthiest ways to go. [If] someone feels restricted and has extensive lists of things they can't eat, it usually results in weight regain later when the willpower runs out," she says.
When navigating how to make changes in your lifestyle and eating habits, Christopher advises trying to start small. "Creating a smaller goal and then practicing maintenance behaviors, (like significantly increasing physical activity according to the National Weight Control Registry and American College of Sports Medicine) may give you a better shot at long-term success with weight loss, which is the harder achievement," she explains.
If you're looking to lose weight, start with making small goals, including learning to love yourself.
What Other Factors Impact Weight?
- Genetics: "Genetics can certainly play a role, and genes have been found that may increase the likelihood of obesity. That doesn't mean the associated risk of having a higher body weight is nullified, but rather that someone can perhaps feel free to focus on behaviors rather than a number on the scale," explains Dr. Yudofsky. Though your family history isn't the be-all and end-all to impacting your size, know that it may explain why you have a certain body type and weight.
- Hormones: Christopher says that hormones are also tied to weight gain and weight fluctuation. "For instance, the stress hormone cortisol causes weight to be moved from other parts of the body to the belly," she adds.
- Age: Age certainly plays a role in how much we weigh. "Age plays a role, as the older we get the more challenging it is to lose weight. This is due to changes in hormone levels, body composition, and metabolism," notes Dr. Yudofsky.
Remember, Weight Isn't Everything
Model Sonny Turner decided to do her part to help stop the madness of women's sizes by posting a photo on her Instagram page. The photo's caption aired her grievances with swimsuit designers specifically. "[High-street] bikinis do not cater [to] women of my body type. [The] majority of online stores don't either," she wrote. "We need straps that aren't so tight… it's as though our neck is about to snap off. We need bikini bottoms that don't give us wedgies when we walk. We need string bikinis that don't expose our vagina lips. We need swimsuits that fit over our hips without dragging the neck of the costume down causing neck ache."
If I had any musical talent whatsoever, I'd turn her bullet points into a pop anthem. The fact of the matter is women who wear clothing that qualifies as "plus-size" (a word that isn't concrete in meaning either) are left with few options. Our society has decided without warrant that women of all shapes, curves, and edges shouldn't feel good about their form.
We grow up learning to feel bad about our bodies for no other reason than it doesn't look like the altered versions of those featured on billboards. It's oppressive to solely have access to swimwear that fits certain idealized bodies—the same bodies that are essentially cooked up behind someone's computer. It has to stop. Here's hoping it will. In the meantime, we'll be posting about it as much as we can as resistance because weight and size are not the only indicators of a healthy person.
The Bottom Line
There is no such thing as an ideal size, body type, or weight for all women, and a specific weight is not the only factor when looking at the big picture of a person's overall health…but there are ranges that are considered healthy for each person. And it's your physical and mental health—not the number on the scale—that matters.
Christel DA, Dunn SC. Average American women’s clothing size: Comparing National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys (1988–2010) to ASTM International Misses & Women’s Plus Size clothing. Int J Fash Des Technol Educ. 2016;10(2):129-136. doi:10.1080/17543266.2016.1214291
Fryar CD, Kruszon-Moran D, Gu Q, Ogden CL. Mean body weight, height, waist circumference, and body mass index among adults: United States, 1999–2000 through 2015–2016. National Health Statistics Reports; no 122. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2018.