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How Vanity Sizing Destroys a Woman's Body Image

Posted: 03/27/2013 11:35 am

I remember the first time I saw "vanity sizing." It was around 1997. I was in the beginning phases of what I now know as a long and interesting career in music. I was in LA working for Mercury/Island/DefJam as a signed artist with Danny Goldberg, and being kindly advised that my hobo hippie skater look was perhaps inappropriate for stage.

My co-producer, appointed by the label to finish my still-shelved album, "Mending", suggested I start wearing clothing that flattered, or at least fit. In retrospect, he was right; I was dumpster diving for clothes for most of what I wore. I almost exclusively wore baggies. I was uncomfortable in my skin at that time, and hated being looked at, so I generally chose clothing that was loose and unflattering.

Grunge was still cool, so I got away with my slouch. But I was merging into a career on stage after doing nothing but street art and some prep cooking, where I was happily invisible. I knew I needed at least a few things that fit or flattered if I was going to be on stage as a job.

I have been pretty close to the same size since I was about 18, give or take 15 pounds. My shape has not changed very much either, both to my chagrin and joy, depending on the day. The Philadelphia Reporter once wrote my figure up as "petite but gutsy", and this is accurate.

I am lanky but have shape. My weight moves in a radius up and down, throughout the year, and it always has. That's why I never understand why people cringe at gaining 15 pounds, or cringe at differently sized clothing tags. It seems natural to gain and/or lose weight as the seasons change. To me, bodies look and feel the same give or take 15 to 20 pounds, even 30 on a taller person.

In fact, I favour the look of more weight and tend to believe it is better for our bones and sinewy connective tissues to have extra body fat. I know I am in the minority in this thinking, based on what I see in most media. Still I maintain my stance: most adults look best a bit heavier! But when was the last time a magazine headline advised women to "put on that extra 15 pounds just in time for bikini season!!"?

NEVER. In my opinion, this is unfortunate. People look beautiful in their healthy states -- and if that is heavier, they look best heavier. No? If we are active and eating well, with a little extra fat, and happy, it shows. Underweight and crash dieting, that shows too, and not for the better.

So back to vanity sizing...

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  • Lady Gaga

    After the media focused on her <a href="http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-body/news/lady-gaga-shows-off-25-pound-weight-gain-in-tight-outfit-2012229">alleged weight gain</a> in September 2012, Gaga hit back at critics by baring her body in photographs, sharing her struggles with an eating disorder, and inviting her fans to join her in a <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2012/09/26/lady-gaga-puts-bulimia-and-body-image-on-the-table-in-a-big-way/">"body revolution."</a>

  • Adele

    Adele says she <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57376080-10391709/adele-talks-about-her-body-image-and-weight/">tries not to worry</a> about her body image and doesn't want to be a "skinny minnie." "The first thing to do is be happy with yourself and appreciate your body -- only then should you try to change things about yourself."

  • Rebel Wilson

    The actress <a href="https://twitter.com/RebelWilson/status/253324823005118465">took to Twitter</a> to say, "I'm not trying to be hot. I'm just trying to be a good actress and entertain people."

  • Ashley Judd

    After the March 2012 frenzy around Judd's "puffy face," the actress fought back in <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/09/ashley-judd-slaps-media-in-the-face-for-speculation-over-her-puffy-appearance.html">The Daily Beast</a>, calling the media out for making women's bodies "a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others."

  • Allison Tate

    Tate's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/allison-tate/mom-pictures-with-kids_b_1926073.html">essay</a> about body image and motherhood not only broke the Internet; it has sparked a movement of "moms who stay in the picture."

  • Autumn Whitefield Madrano

    On her informed, thoughtful blog <a href="http://www.the-beheld.com/">"The Beheld,"</a> Autumn writes about beauty, body image, appearance and her two -- that's right, <em>two </em>-- mirror fasts.

  • Kjerstin Gruys

    Gruys went on a year-long<a href="http://www.ayearwithoutmirrors.com/"> mirror fast</a> during which she did not study her reflection in mirrors or other reflective surfaces, or look at photographs of herself.

  • Christina Aguilera

    "I am always in support of someone who is willing and comfortable in their own skin enough to embrace it," the singer said in a<a href="http://www.ianslive.in/index.php?param=news/Aguilera_wants_to_empower_women-389922/ENTERTAINMENT/15"> recent interview</a>.

  • Lena Dunham

    At the 2012 New Yorker Festival, the magazine's TV critic, Emily Nussbaum, asked Lena Dunham, producer, creator and star of the hit HBO show "Girls," why <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/08/lena-dunham-new-yorker-festival-emily-nussbaum_n_1948596.html?utm_hp_ref=women&ir=Women">Dunham is naked in so many scenes</a>. Dunham responded, "I realized that what was missing in movies for me was the presence of bodies I understood." She said she plans to live until she is 105 and show her thighs every day.

  • Alexa Chung

    Chung <a href="http://fashionista.com/2012/10/alexa-chung-on-her-upcoming-line-and-struggling-with-body-image/2/">responded to critics</a> who suggested that her slight frame made her a bad role model for young women, saying: "Just because I exist in this shape doesn't mean that I'm, like, advocating it."

  • Stella Boonshoft

    The NYU student started the amazing <a href="http://thebodyloveblog.tumblr.com/">Body Love Blog</a>, where she posted this picture of herself and wrote an <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stella-boonshoft/self-portrait-ask-me-why-_b_1987406.html" target="_hplink">open letter to those who feel entitled to shame others</a> for the size or look of their bodies.

  • Beth Ditto

    This 5-foot-tall, 200-pound singer spoke openly about her weight to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/01/beth-ditto-talks-skinny-privilege-fiancee-body-image_n_2057290.html?utm_hp_ref=women&ir=Women">The Advocate</a>, saying, "I feel sorry ... for people who've had skinny privilege and then have it taken away from them. I have had a lifetime to adjust to seeing how people treat women who aren't their idea of beautiful and therefore aren't their idea of useful, and I had to find ways to become useful to myself."

Growing up from a lanky teenager in Calgary, I had always been a size 6/8 for dress fit, and in general favoured loose androgynous clothing, wearing a size up for comfort. I didn't and still don't see the point in displaying my figure in tight clothes day in and day out. For working on stage and in the media though, I realized at the start of my career that I may need to own some complimentary outfits. So that year back in around 1997, I entrusted my then co-producer to lead the way.

We were working down in LA at that time, and he decided to take me into some stores. We started with The Gap. I don't remember why. The girl asked me what size I wanted in the skirt I liked, a long flowing yellow starched cotton skirt. Yes, I WISH I had bought it. I still remember that pretty skirt. Sigh. Anyway, when I answered, "....size 6 please, or an 8...", her eyes glazed.

"Um. I don't think you are a 6... I'll get you a 2."

This was the first time I had ever even seen those numbers. That day in LA, my co-producer and I went into The Gap and a number of other stores. Many of them had converted to the new size codes as well. Boutiques and chains alike. Instead of being my usual 6/8, I had somehow become a 2/4, numbers which I had never seen before on clothing tags.

In some stores I was still a size small or small/medium, but in many stores I had miraculously become an extra small. WTF? I know my body is not an extra small, I am 5"8! I weigh between 120 and 135 pounds at any given moment. I have an ample heart-shaped bottom, a 34C/32D chest. So WHY was I being told by designers that I had become an extra small?

What was it that prompted designers to change their sizing codes in North America? Was it an effort to convince western women worried about our weight that we had, as the magazines continually badgered us into wishing we could, "dropped two dress sizes"? Was it the merging of youth and grown up fashions as the big chains like The Gap grew into one-stop shopping for mommy and pre-teen daughter?

Personally, I feel like there is a whole machine in place telling perfectly healthy and beautiful women to "lose weight" and seek a teenaged body when we don't need to. Magazine after magazine tells us 'how to lose that last 15 pounds" and seek the six pack abs of a kid, or someone who does nothing but exercise.

I know far too many kick ass women who are healthy and gorgeous, intelligent and funny, loving and beautiful people, and CONSTANTLY dieting/fasting/cleansing in a yo-yo cycle of self-doubt one month, and then on top of the world in the next month after they shed that 10 or 20 or just five pounds. WHY?

The numbers are random in the weight loss these women seek, but they are numbers nonetheless, encouraging women to measure and compare, compete with the scale or the size on the tag, and fight with our own bodies. These numbers are deeply infused into female thinking, and they deflate or boost up self esteem. Why does a number on a tag tell us how to feel about ourselves? Why does the scale tell us we are ok or not ok?

I don't know if I am the only one who feels like we have been duped into thinking we are only beautiful if we are "smaller" but I doubt it. I see a relationship between the rise of intrusive, unhealthy media via constant access to the internet, the rise of consumer culture, populations booming in cities as we spend, spend spend, and the rise of vanity sizing.

It seems like all these forces combine to convince women to expend well-earned capital on dieting tricks and fads in combination with the push to become smaller for a minute according to a tag on a garment. Look this trend up if you don't believe me. Where it seems vanity sizing becomes a consumer trap is by feeding a "rated" reward system through numbered self-evaluation. As the number on the tag gets smaller, the doorway to "treating oneself" for getting "smaller" is opened, and our dollars fly out the window.

As a caveat, I understand that I am referencing a specific demographic here of women who have the extra income (or credit cards that trick us into thinking we have the extra income) to spend on shopping. I am a part of this culture. I am a consumer. I am well aware that many women A) don't care about shopping and are not consumers B) don't care about dieting or vanity sizing C) have their heads and hearts way above this type of conversation.

I know I'm kind of vain to even have noticed the vanity sizing shift. If I was a stronger woman I wouldn't care. I would never shop, never use eyeliner or a hairbrush, never look at media, never look into the mirror to see if I look presentable. But I'm not that strong. I am affected by media culture even though I try to steer clear of unhealthy messaging.

I work in pop culture, both to my merit and detriment. And a big part of me feels that the shift in sizing codes, along with the rise of celebrity culture via the internet, and the internet itself, has put even more pressure on women to think of ourselves as compartmentalized and evaluated, inadequate unless we have shrunken frames and perfect clothes and well done hair and celebrity imitated styling. It has infected my mind, and I don't like it.

I am told sometimes that I am too inquisitive and feminist-minded, that I should just "lighten up" and embrace the world we live in. Sex it up more than the occasional photo shoot. Get with the times. But I was raised by a criminal defence lawyer and an educator, and they taught me it's ok to question everything. So I'll just be me here, and take whatever flack comes my way when I state implicitly that I don't like the fact that so many women I know who are running businesses or raising children, often both, and generally just working their butts off, are OBSESSED with wanting to fit into such and such a size jean or lose X number of pounds.

Thin or heavy, it's round and round these gorgeous women go, feeling defeated when they gain weight, then starving themselves to lose pounds again til they feel "smaller". Once they have lost weight, they become ecstatic at the numbers on the scale. They begin relaxing and eating more balanced meals again, only to hit the same weight gain in a few months and begin to feel awful again.

At this point, the cycle to stave off body fat resumes once more. Fasts/cleanses/diets resume. Food becomes a fixation until some weight is lost. Once successful according to the numbers on the scale, the ecstasy of having shrunken a bit (again) is followed by the need to shop -- preferably at the stores that use the new millennium's vanity sizing numbers.

 

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