Nobody's Normal, Or Why Jeans Never Fit
My new Atlantic column takes on one of my favorite subjects: how to accommodate human heterogeneity. Or, if you prefer the less abstract version, why it's so hard to find jeans that fit and what businesses are doing to attack that problem. Here's the opening:
As a teenager, I squeezed into size-12 jeans. Over the past three decades, I've put on about 20 pounds, mostly below the waist. I now wear a size 6. People in the garment business call that bit of flattery "vanity sizing." Sizes aren't what they used to be.
But some things haven't changed. No matter how low the digit on the hang tag, trying on clothes is still a frustrating, even traumatic, experience. Though designed as a mere convenience, clothing sizes establish an unintended norm, an ideal from which deviations seem like flaws. There's nothing like a trip to the dressing room to convince a woman—fat, thin, or in between—that she's a freak. Her torso is too long for the jacket or too short for the dress. Her arms are too short for the blouse that fits her bust. Her seat is too flat for the pants that hug her waist. Her hips nearly split the skirt that fits her waist. The more tailored the garment, the greater the problem. (Men's clothes are easier, because they tend to be looser and because, as one industry expert puts it, men "have fewer bumps.") Jeans are particularly troublesome. With its body-hugging fit, America's egalitarian uniform provides little room to hide deviations from the norm.
And nobody's normal. Sizes are standardized. Bodies aren't.
Clothing sizes reflect a classic modern dilemma, a conflict between human heterogeneity and mass production. Standardized sizes made inexpensive, off-the-rack garments economically feasible. They gave shoppers a reliable guide to finding clothes in self-service shops. (Historically, the biggest advocates for standard sizes were mail-order catalogs, whose customers couldn't try on the clothes they were buying.) Standardized sizes seemed efficient and scientific. Clothes could be as predictable as screws or frozen peas—and as regimented and impersonal as an assembly line.
Just in time for the return of pantyhose, while researching the column I learned the reason for something that has always baffled me: Humid summers aside, why do so many women hate pantyhose and why, more specifically, do they complain so much about tight waists? I've never minded wearing hose, much less found them "the bane of womanhood." But it turns out that's because I'm a physical freak. Pantyhose, even more than most women's trousers, conform to size standards that assume a big difference between waist and hip sizes. As a result, their waistbands are too tight for most women. My waist-hip ratio may be praised by evolutionary psychologists but it's hell to shop for, unless you're buying pantyhose. Better data about actual body shapes is good news for most women--and, perhaps, for slow pantyhose sales--but not for me.
In other column news, The Atlantic has let last month's column, on the great housing divide, out from behind the subscriber-only wall.