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Healthy Living

Dress Size Anxiety

Dress-size Anxiety

You know it's just a random number -- especially since sizes now vary so much from store to store, designer to designer. So why do we let it do a number on us?

A funny thing has been happening to weights and measures in the last few years. Depending on whom you listen to, you're either bigger or smaller than you thought. The National Institutes of Health redefined "overweight" in 1998, so that now you can be called overweight at the same body mass index (BMI) that used to be considered a healthy weight. You're "officially" heavier. But walk into a clothing shop and try on a few garments and, miraculously, you're no longer wearing a size 8 but a size 6 -- you're (not-so-officially) slimmer, smaller. Chalk it up, perhaps, to our continuing cognitive dissonance about eating and body size: Americans eat and weigh more - yet worry about their food and health more - than almost any other culture. So here we are more overweight, and yet squeezing into smaller sizes!

Dress size carries with it all kinds of psychological baggage. Like it or not, size often functions as a barometer of fitness, our gauge of where we stand on the bell curve of shapeliness. It's hard enough to make sense of that when sizes are consistent; when they vary from store to store, from designer to designer, it's enough to induce body-image schizophrenia. But that doesn't seem to stop anyone from obsessing about size tags.

"I would love to meet the person who isn't susceptible to dress-size paranoia," says a friend who hovers between sizes 12 and 14. "These numbers - clothing size, pounds on a scale - do figure into your day. Size is one of those numbers you keep tabs on, and when you go down a size, it's a little lift - even though it's so random."

The incredible shrinking label

Women's sizes have always been more variable than men's, which are beautifully rigid in their measurement by inches: If you have a 42-inch chest, you're a 42 jacket size. But what on earth is a woman's size 8? (A generation agd it used to mean a svelte figure; not it's average-sized.) Not even the fashion industry can say for sure. Larry Martin, president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, admits that "the word on the street is that sizes are more generous than they used to be. That's what we hear anecdotally, but we don't have anything to back it up. There's no way to really nail it down."

Jill Garfunkel, a free-lance fashion stylest who worked in-house at Liz Claiborne for almost 10 years, feels that sizes have definitely become roomier in the last few years. "I have a closet full of clothes of different sizes, and I do think certain designers are labeling their clothes smaller," says Garfunkel, "I never used to be a 4, and I just bought a size 4 at Banana Republic. I think the bigger, more mass-market companies - like Gap, Old Navy - cut more generously, make their sizes more forgiving, partly to make their customers feel better." Your best bet, she feels, is to find the designers you like, whose clothes work well on your body, and get comfortable with their particular sizing - without putting any significant value judgment on what that sizing means.

The absurdity of the incredible shrinking label size is demonstrated in someone like Lynn Drobbin, an architectural historian who is under 5 feet tall and weighs 95 pounds. "I used to be a size 2," says Drobbin. Now the 2s seem huge, and even the size 0s don't always fit. I buy about a quarter of my clothes in children's stores. It obviously has been changing, and probably because it makes women happy to be able to say they squeezed into a size 2." Shopping recently for a black-tie party dress to wear to business events, Drobbin would have been willing to spend a thousand dollars for something really great. After hitting all the major department stores, she ended up in the children's section of Lord & Taylor, buying a size-12 girl's dress for $31. "I got a lot of compliments on it, too," she laughs

Like a number on the scale

"This is a huge issue for everyone, whether they admit it or not," says Emme, the former plus-size model who recently started her own plus-size clothing line. "As a designer, I was faced with this: Are you going to 'vanity size,' that is, make a size 14 and call it a 12? A 20 and 18? I'm on the larger end of the scale but it's the same issue as for smaller women." Emme has noted the rise of vanity sizing in the industry, and her theory is that it depends partly on how high-end the designer is, with the moderate- and discount-priced lines being more "forgiving."

"Back in the 1950s," Emme says, women could say there were a 4, an 8, a 10. But there were fewer choices, fewer lines, and standardization was more controllable." Now sizing is so variable that when Emme included a consumer on her Web site, out of 10,000 women responding, 50 percent said they didn't know what size they wore.

The fashion industry is on to something, of course: the incredible power of such benchmarks in women's lives. "Even though you know it's just a number, it does a number on you," comments Susan Head, Ph.D., a psychotherapist who deals extensively with weight issues. "For most people, clothing size functions a lot like the scale - both are external indicators that seem to tell us something about ourselves - and we attach a special significance to it." Head has seen clients be competitive with their friends about size and be reluctant to move a size up even when they really need to.

Although men used to be somewhat more immune to such obsessing, Head says she has male clients who refuse to wear a big enough size, bragging about the fact that they wear the same size as a decade ago. "Men used to focus on much more than women on how their bodies functioned, rather than how they looked," comments Anne Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute, who deals extensively with body-image issues. "But recent data show that's changing, in adult men and even in middle-school boys. They're showing higher levels of body dissatisfaction and more concern about their looks." Kearney-Cooke feels the solution is the same for both sexes: to focus on what their bodies can do for them - run a 5K, bike a mountain trail - rather than external guidelines.

It goes back to being so out of touch with our bodies," Head says. "We really don't know how our bodies look, because our body image is so confused with issues of self-esteem and self-worth. We need this external yardstick to make sure we're still OK; we're looking for something to grasp onto." The power of that yardstick was revealed recently in a lecture by a therapist who deals with eating disorders: She told of a teenage client who felt her bulimia began the day a catty friend said: "You wear a Gap 4? You're so big!"

The symbolism here, of course, is unavoidable. If your goal is to be a size 0, what are you really trying to do? To disappear?

What do you think?

Join our discussion and share your views!

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