By Sica Schmitz
Founder of Bead & Reel, frequent speaker, writer, and sustainable stylist.
In the past 13 years, I’ve dressed a lot of women. Like, a lot. I’ve been trying to do the math and figure out an exact number, and while I haven’t at all succeeded, I can safely say that between my years in retail and costumes and styling and now private shopping at Bead & Reel I’ve definitely personally helped put clothing on well over one thousand women. During this time I’ve seen such a beautiful variety of different sizes, shapes, colors, and personal choices, and yet, one thing remains fairly constant : a perplexing obsession with Size Small (which I have capitalized, since it has basically taken on a life of its own in my career).
A quick history on fashion sizing: In 1931, a size 10 meant a woman had a 23″ waist. Today, depending on the brand, it is closer to a 29″ waist. Neither is right nor wrong – these are just words and numbers that are supposed to help you figure out which option to choose to fit your body best. And, beyond changing definitions over the decades, every brand and potentially every style truly can have its own idea of what Size Small means. So if you’re confused as to what qualifies as a Size Small, don’t worry, you’re supposed to be because it doesn’t mean anything.
Yet despite this, and regardless of a woman’s height, weight, or measurements, so many women I have dressed over the years will avoid having to wear any other size – even if it’s the better fitting size – as if her life depended on it. I have watched my customers and clients and actors squeeze themselves into something that doesn’t fit at all, and even though going up a size or two would potentially make them both look and feel better, this suggestion is often met with shock and indignation. I’ve had women refuse to wear “that size” (whatever the offensive better-fitting size may be), or insist on buying the smaller size that doesn’t fit over something that fits them beautifully right now, because maybe, just maybe, one day the words Size Small can be hidden inside their clothing somewhere.
This situation is challenging as a stylist. On the one hand, I want women to wear whatever the hell they want and to use their clothing to feel great about themselves, and if having this coveted Size Small inside of their skirt or blouse or dress will make them feel that way, then mission accomplished. But on the other hand, I am hired as a professional who is skilled in dressing women, and letting a client walk out of my studio in something that doesn’t fit (no matter how happy the words Size Small makes her) isn’t really honoring either of us.
So what is it about this Size Small that is so attractive, and why does it cause so many women so much unhappiness if they can’t claim this term for themselves? Since I’m not a psychologist nor a scientist, I don’t have the answer for you, but I do have some theories. I think there is a deep cultural component of generations of women being trained to take up less space and being praised for being diminished versions of themselves (mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and absolutely physically). I think there is a very old, subconscious desire, born out of fear, internalized by both men and women, to control women’s bodies, and quantity of food is one powerful way to do that. And I definitely think there is a long history of patriarchal systems that want to keep women hungry, dieting, and obsessed with achieving a standard that isn’t feasible or healthy for many women, because if women spend most of their time and energy focused on how they look, they are much less likely to be able to focus on achieving power, representation, and equality.
I have never met a woman – regardless of size – who hadn’t been criticized or judged for how she looked. Yes, even the Size Small ones. I have never met a woman – regardless of size – who had an easy time accepting and loving her body. Yes, even those beautiful models and movie stars we are taught to aspire to be. In fact I know very very few women who actually love their bodies. In the privacy of my fittings, almost every woman will worry about some part of herself, or confide to me how much she hates ______ (fill in the blank) about herself, or ask me how to hide or diminish some part of herself.
The real issue isn’t about size – the issue is how women are viewed and treated, both by other women and by men and by themselves.
So, next time you are looking through your closet or shopping for something new, consider this challenge: pretend that the size label didn’t matter. Consider choosing something based on the way it looks, not on the size it says. Consider trying a size you are very certain you don’t want to wear, just to see how it feels (and to spite the patriarchy, which is always a great reason to do anything). Consider putting your value in the number of times you’ve helped others today or the number of positive things you’ve thought about yourself instead of the number in the back of your clothes.
There isn’t a prize for squeezing into the smallest possible opening your hips can get into. But there really is a huge reward for learning to love and accept your body, just as it is.