This is an extract from Mel Campbell’s fascinating new memoir, Out of Shape, which explores the tensions in our culture between size and fit. You’re invited on a jaunty adventure through fashion malls, boutiques and vintage fairs as Mel’s endeavours to get to the heart of the question: why do clothes make us feel bad so often? Mel is a regular contributor to Kill Your Darlings, writing on film, television and popular culture. Out of Shape, published by Affirm Press, is on-sale this month.
Many women and men actively identify with the numbers on their clothing labels: ‘I’m a size 10’, ‘I’m an extra large’, ‘I’m a 38’, and so on. It’s hard to figure out which came first: this self-identification, or the orthovestic media coverage that frames weight gain and loss in similar terms – ‘Drop three dress sizes by summer’; ‘Nicole has ballooned to a size 18!’; ‘Nine out of ten men prefer size 14 women to size 10 women!’
Here’s what your size says about you: absolutely nothing. Feeling good about yourself cannot be measured against an arbitrary scale. When we make size shorthand for a personal relationship with clothing, it feels true because it’s imposed externally, in ways that seem objective because they are quantitative. Retail spaces are organised by size – sometimes very visibly, using signage and colour-coded hangers, forcing shoppers to sort themselves into a category – and sometimes less visibly, requiring a sales assistant as gatekeeper (‘Are you right for sizes?’). Levi’s jeans even display their size on the outside label.
Size, therefore, becomes a public, social interaction – a space for pride or shame. Shoppers feel pleased by the idea of fitting a smaller size, and upset by the idea of a garment in a larger size, even if the tag is hidden or removed so nobody else can know.
I’m pondering this in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve come into the city to purchase a replacement toaster (as a freelance writer, I subsist largely on toast-based cuisine), and as I wait for my tram home, I realise why I often feel ungainly and uncomfortable in my clothes, certain that people are judging me on the street or on public transport. It’s because, right now, I’m doing the same thing to other people.
Sometimes I’ll find myself looking critically at a stranger’s body (‘Those pants… What was she thinking?’) and comparing it to mine (‘She looks about the same size as me. How come she can find skinny jeans to fit her?’). Public spaces are also hunting grounds for television news and current-affairs programs that film fat people from behind, or from the neck down, to accompany stories about obesity panic. English fat activist Charlotte Cooper memorably dubbed this media phenomenon ‘headless fatties’.
It’s this act of critical assessment, the gaze, which makes us feel vulnerable, because we can’t control how we appear to others. I’ve never forgotten something I read on a blog once: ‘I can’t hold the entire world’s face at MySpace angle height.’ But are other people’s gazes accurate? Can they tell which dress size I’m wearing simply by looking at me? I decide to test my theory immediately, by asking sales assistants.
Abandoning the tram stop, I head east down the mall, past the neoclassical splendour of the GPO, which now houses various chichi boutiques. The atmosphere is cacophonous: tram bells, tourist chatter and the hoots of boisterous teenagers mingle with buskers on Andean pan pipes, flamenco guitars and honky-tonk piano.
To my left, department store rivals Myer and David Jones hunker down behind towering facades as grudging neighbours. They’re stayers, but the mall is a palimpsest of retail boom and bust: the large site now slickly occupied by Spanish fast-fashion behemoth Zara used to be a loud, dark cavern of Supré teenwear, and before that a shabby, rundown Katies catering to middle-aged women.
I can’t quite face the yooffulness of streetwear emporium General Pants Co, so I head into Forever New, past a posse of imperious mannequins rotating on plinths. This Australian chain caters to young women with feminine, sophisticated and slightly retro looks at fast-fashion prices. It is preposterous that I would ever fit into any of its clothes; I only go in there to look at the accessories, which are gratifyingly colourful and sparkly. I don’t get far into the store before a perky young sales assistant bails me up. Usually when this happens, I say something non-committal like, ‘Just browsing, thanks’, but this time I ask her directly, ‘What dress size do you think I should try?’
As she looks me up and down, heavily mascaraed eyelashes fluttering on her cheeks, I feel self-conscious about my brightly coloured outfit (red shoes and skirt, violet tights, hot-pink top, yellow cardigan). I must look like a clown to her, I think. Impressively, she maintains her composure and assesses me as a size 14, but says that the size I take will vary according to the style of the garment; the shop has a lot of dresses with cinched waists and full skirts, as well as A-line shifts.
A little further down the mall, Sussan has an older, more maternal target market; it still offers fashionable styles and colours, but its sizing is more generous and it sells a lot of sleepwear. I am old enough to remember the very daggy ad jingle, This goes with that at Sussan. Appropriately, an older, more maternal sales assistant advises me that I would be a ‘medium to large’. Again, she says this would vary depending on the style I choose, adding that once I find something I like, she can help me with sizes.
I bypass Portmans and Just Jeans, the Just Group stablemates nestling side by side between Union Lane and the Walk Arcade. I’m ‘just’ not interested in their rather safe, overpriced merchandise. Nor am I sporty enough to feign an interest in anything at Jetty Surf or Adidas, but I go into Sportsgirl and wander around for a while. But to my astonishment, not one of the bored sales assistants greets me or offers her assistance.
Cue, on the other hand, is the kind of shop I’m usually too intimidated to enter. A sophisticated brand for young corporate types who still want to look a little edgy, its minimalist Bourke Street store looks more aesthetically coherent than most high-street chains – more like a designer boutique. Its clothes are slim and tailored, with unusual, almost futuristic finishes such as zips and sportswear-inspired fabrics. They come in a severe colour palette of black and grey, with occasional jolts of acidic chartreuse, coral and cobalt blue.
The young sales assistant’s eyes are also a startling blue as she subjects me to that up-and-down gaze. I am dubious – I’ve examined some dresses on the rack. They are never going to fit me. So I feel relieved, even grateful, when she, too, suggests I try a size 14, depending on the garment style.
This is when I give up my mystery-shopping experiment. I realise that because sales assistants are trained to make sales, they will always flatter the customer and try to find something in the store to sell them. Even my friends, family and colleagues would feel bad about telling me, to my face, what size they think I wear, because clothing sizes are so psychologically fraught.
The next day, I decide on another experiment: an anonymous survey in which I invite my blog readers to look at two full-length photographs of me and guess what dress size they think I’m wearing. I get my friend Penny to take the photos. They’re pretty confronting and dispiriting. Is this really what I look like? I’m worried that the survey is an act of extreme masochism, akin to being in a ‘guess the fat lady’s weight’ sideshow or asking visitors to a dating website to rate my ‘hotness’. I mean, wouldn’t it be better not to know the judgments complete strangers make about your body?
The results are actually fairly accurate. In the first photo, I’m wearing a loose jacket open over a stretch jersey dress; I wanted to see how people responded when they couldn’t tell my waist size. Almost half the respondents – 94 per cent of whom were female – correctly guess that my dress is size 16; a further third guess it’s a 14. In the second photo, I’m not wearing the jacket. Size 16 is still the most popular guess, but only 41 per cent of respondents choose it now that they can see my awful, flabby silhouette in all its sausage-like glory. Only 22 per cent now think I’m a size 14; 28 per cent choose size 18.
Some people comment on my blog that height helps determine their perception of size and the photos offer no clues to how tall I am. Further muddying the waters is the difference in numbered sizing between countries; an Australian size 16 is an American size 12 and a British size 14. With my jacket on, Australian and New Zealand respondents are surest (57 per cent) that I’m a 16, while 14 is the most common guess (43 per cent) among respondents from North America. British respondents narrowly favour a size 16 with the jacket on, but once I take it off they strongly favour 18 (60 per cent).
I’m getting confused just writing this. Probably the clearest message I take from this survey is not to take my jacket off, if I can help it. And the second clearest message is that even though we can guess someone’s dress size with reasonable accuracy (nobody was under any illusions that I’m a slender sylph), it’s still an arbitrary decision that we shouldn’t take personally.
So why does size still make us feel so bad?