Sizing up

I am a size 16, which makes me basically average for a woman in the UK. I really like my body, but I’ve still been in low level denial for a few years that I’m not magically going to drop down to a size 12 again.

I’ve been occupying a paradoxical space where I simultaneously prefer how I look now but also think I should be the size I was before. There’s a complete disconnect between the confidence that I feel most of the times I look at my body in the mirror or get naked with someone for the first time and the worry I feel when I think about actual numbers. That’s why I’ve clung onto buying size 12 clothes for way, way longer than they’ve been the best fit.

So I’m now at that stage where I’m getting real about the fact that trousers I can’t yank over my arse are not, realistically, worth hanging onto, and it might be preferable for me to actually try on some clothes that might possibly fit me. They could be comfortable. They could complement my figure. Imagine that.

But when I say I’m a size 16, let’s be clear. That means basically nothing. One of the reasons I’ve been able to be in denial for so long about changing sizes is that manufacturers are making it up as they go along.

After a particularly frustrating afternoon trying to shop, I decided to find out how different sizes could be. I was vaguely aware there would be variation, but I was surprised by how much there was.

I looked at the size guides for 15 high street and online womenswear shops to see what their measurements were for size 16. There wasn’t a very sophisticated selection process – I simply looked up the ones I am most aware of. A few didn’t make the list because they don’t use UK women’s dress sizes, didn’t have a size guide available online or their clothing ranges don’t go up to size 16 (again, the average size for women in the UK).

These are the results.

ShopBust (cm)Waist (cm)Hips (cm)
Forever 2196.577.5100.5
Dorothy Perkins10284110.5
Miss Selfridge10284106.5
Marks & Spencer102.586110
River Island10384110
Fat Face10485111
New Look10586111

Look at bust size. There is a 9cm difference between H&M and New Look. Stop and think about what 9cm looks like and what your boobs would look like if you added that on. It’s not insignificant. There’s an even bigger difference between Forever 21 and Evans in terms of waist measurement. And there is more than 10cm between Forever 21 and the four shops that jointly give the largest measurement for hips: Peacocks, Evans, Fat Face and New Look.

If you comfortably wear a size 16 in New Look, you would need to wear a size 20 from H&M. That’s what this comes down to. You can walk from one shop to another and go up two dress sizes.

There are some advantages to this. The main one I can think of is that because different shops have different ratios of bust, waist and hips, there’s a bigger chance that there’ll be one that works for you. A more standardised measurement might erase this variation.

Despite this, I can’t help being frustrated. Women and girls are constantly showered with messages telling us that we should be smaller. Whether it’s big red circles around celebrities’ perfectly innocuous body parts in magazines, the brisk conveyor belt of fad diets, smiling models photoshopped away in billboard ads or even the drip drip drip of casual chats with colleagues, friends and family, it’s hard to escape the pressure.

Meaningless clothes sizes exacerbate this because it’s something you are confronted with when you might otherwise be fine. You might have no problem with the way you look but feeling an item of clothing in what you think is your normal size pinch or stretch forces you to think about it.

I already have movies, magazines and my mum telling me I’d look better if I was smaller. It’s not true. I wish that now I’ve realised that, I didn’t have to keep being reminded of my latent insecurities. It’s not as simple as recognising that I love my body and saying the size on the label doesn’t matter because the size on the label keeps changing.

The photo is by Marcy Leigh and is used under a creative commons licence. It shows a pink measuring tape coiled up on a vibrant blue background. It is unwinding slightly and the numbering of the first four inches can be seen.