What size clothes do you wear?

Are you sure?

Last week I went shopping. Not ground breaking news, but I wandered into TK Maxx and took 4 dresses in a size 12 into the changing rooms. Two were too big, one made me look like I was wearing a kids party dress because of the insanely high waist band, but it did fit (Red Legs in Soho feels the same about the High Streets obsession with the Empire Line) and the fourth was so small it wouldn’t even do up around my torso.

If that number on the label of a dress can’t help you pick out a dress that will fit then what relevance does it have?

Originally the idea of a dress size was to take the average measurements of a woman and divide them into easily recognisable sets to make purchasing standard sized clothing easier. Almost unbelievably there is actually a British Standard for clothing sizes, introduced in 1982. Yet as there is no requirement for manufacturers to use it it is largely useless.

What size are YOU according to the British Standard?

For the record this chart gives me hips on the lower end of a size 18 and a size 14 bust. Though even when I was 2 stone heavier than I am now I never once bought an item of clothing in a size bigger than a 16.

The Oasis dress on the left is a size 12. The M & S dress on the right is a size 10.

So if we can’t rely on the size label in a dress to tell us if it will fit, then what is it’s purpose?

The use of vanity sizing by High Street manufacturers is quite simply one of marketing. Most of us already have wardrobes full of clothes that fit, keep out the wind/rain/sun and cover all the bits that we would get arrested if we didn’t cover in public. To keep us spending on “fashion”, brands need to make us feel good. In a world where body image and appearance is so important a regular High Street shopper will learn, for instance, that in store A they wear size 12 jeans. When they walk into store B and find themselves needing a 14 they feel bad, so they go back to store A.

This essentially means that the sizing in High Street stores is based on it’s target customer. If Topshop is aiming at slim teenagers and women in their early 20s their size 10 will be smaller than a store like Wallis that targets an older, more affluent consumer in her 30s.

This lack of standardisation also allows brands, like Next, to state that they only use models size 10 or above. Does this mean a hip measurement of 34.3″, as per the British Standard, or 36″ as per the Next size chart (making them a BS size 12)?

Focusing on the number on the label could not only be misleading, it could also be dangerous.

The NHS advises that a waist measurement above 32″ for women can lead to increased risk of heart disease. Diabetes UK says a waist measurement over 31.5″ could put you at increased risk of type 2 diabetes. However, a woman with that waist measurement could easily be wearing a size 14 in most UK High Street stores and reassuring herself that she’s even wearing a size smaller than the UK average. That can’t be unhealthy, right?
(Note: Just want to make clear that waist measurement is one of a number of risk factors in deciding whether you are at risk of possibly developing these diseases. It is by no means the only one!)

Research from the University of Leicester shows that Women also under estimate their waist measurements by an average of 2.2 inches. So, by deluding ourselves that we’re smaller than we really are, or that we are an “average” sized woman, we could actually be putting our health at risk.

It’s easy to blame magazines and media for showing unrealistic images of super skinny celebrities and making “normal” women feel bad. But maybe they should be feeling bad if normal =  unhealthy.

Body size shouldn’t be a political battleground. The increased risk of heart disease and diabetes is a simple fact, as is the increased risk of stroke, arthritis and Cancer. Celebrating overweight celebrities, like Beth Ditto (shown here on the cover of LOVE magazine) isn’t about promoting a more realistic image of women. It’s about making yourself feel better. If the average woman in the UK has a waist measurement of 34″ then that means the average woman is slowly killing herself, and all the while blaming magazines for promoting an unrealistic body image.

So, if you do one thing today, be honest with yourself. Ignore your clothes labels, the scales and the magazines and get out your tape measure.

What does it REALLY say?