As a stylist at a high-end boutique, I recently watched a client browse the racks until she landed on a dress she seemed to love. “Wow, this is so beautiful!” she said, holding it up to herself and twirling childlike in front of the mirror.
“Would you like to try it on?” I asked with a smile.
The client became tense. “Eh, 12 pounds off and I’d try it on.”
“We have other sizes in the back,” I offered.
“I just feel like I need to lose my COVID weight first,” she shrugged, leaving empty-handed.
If you’re female-identified, you’re probably very familiar with this kind of talk. It’s the sort of casual, self-critical chatter that older generations treated like a girly bonding ritual. Nowadays, topics like body positivity and size inclusivity are gaining traction in our public consciousness—but many of us are still actively unlearning (or unconsciously enacting) the toxic ideas we’ve picked up along the way. Personally, I try to identify as body neutral—which is a privilege that I have as someone whose sizes are widely available, affordable, and offer plenty of choice—but I’ve certainly struggled with my self-image, so I’m sensitive to the pain underneath these flippant, self-deprecating comments. The fact that they’re so prevalent tells me that this is something we’re still very much struggling with as a collective. And the baffling fact remains that many women would rather forego an item they might have really liked altogether than simply buy a size up from their usual.
To be clear, I’m not blaming the women. As humans who are alive at this time in history, we receive so much messaging from a young age equating our attractiveness and even our worth to our physical smallness. I can remember being in fifth grade and shopping at Limited Too (R.I.P.) with a friend, and being mortified that she wore a girls’ size 10 and I needed a size 14. I felt huge in comparison—which is crazy, because when I look back now on photos of myself at that age, I just look like a normal 10-year-old kid. But the idea of “smaller is better” was a message that I internalized so early in life, at a time when I didn’t have an objective lens on my own body or voices around me who were equipped to counter those messages. And I know I’m not alone there. Somewhere along the line, most of us lose touch with the idea that our clothes are meant to fit us —to serve as expression and protection for our bodies—and we flip it to the reverse, where we are the ones that need to fit into our clothes and into whatever size we’ve deemed appropriate.
Challenging this status quo means developing a more neutral relationship with the numerical size or sizes we’re wearing. I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, The Devil Wears Prada, and the scene where post-makeover Andy is so excited to tell her snarky senior colleague Nigel that she’s finally a size four rather than a six. That number represents something to Andy beyond the practical measurements of the garment and whether or not it will fit her body. It represents her assimilation into the fancy, appearance-driven magazine world and, sadly, how deserving she feels of her own success in it. Even if we’re not receiving such overt messaging in our personal or professional lives, I would venture to guess that most of us have a size in our heads that we like to identify with. And sure, there’s a practical component to this, of being able to select the right size when we’re shopping, and of wanting to build a wardrobe that aligns with where we sit when we’re living our happiest, healthiest lives (which is hopefully a stable place, give or take minor fluctuations). However, we can hold that knowledge loosely for its utilitarian value, and also know that brands cut and label their clothes at random, and the number or letter you see on the tag is a guideline to help you select the right piece, not a standard you need to hold yourself to.
Normalize having a closet full of all different sizes. And here’s the best part—no one will ever know but you. All others will see is the way a garment sits on your body, the comfort and confidence you project while wearing it, and how that particular item of clothing supports or constricts the actual body you have in this moment. If you’re a little obsessive (like me!) and don’t like looking at all different size tags, cut them out, and eventually you’ll forget what size you purchased. But you will derive so much more value from a garment that fits you comfortably and supports your lifestyle than something you bought to shame yourself into wearing a certain size… for no other reason than because you’ve decided that’s your size. It’s time we understood that our beauty lies in how we show up as living, moving, breathing, eating, drinking, expanding, contracting, ever-evolving beings. And it’s definitely time to stop waiting on a specific size in order to start living our best-dressed lives.