Until recently, it had long been estimated that the average American woman wore a US size 14, or just at the threshold between standard and plus-sizes. However, a new study by Deborah A. Christel and Susan C. Dunn of Washington State University, which was published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, suggests that the average woman now wears between a size 16 and 18. Said differently, the average American woman is now, incongruously, considered "plus-size" according to standard American sizing conventions.

Christel and Dunn’s study emerged from the observation that while the size 14 statistic had long been bandied about by scholars, designers and fashion writers, the claim had not been substantiated by a formal study. By comparing data aggregated from the National Health and Nutrition Examination to ASTM International clothing size standards, the scholars found, to their surprise, that today the average woman is actually one to two sizes larger, placing her firmly within the range of plus-sizes.  

However, what does this knowledge mean for the consumer’s psyche?

First and foremost, these findings lend a certain degree of gravity to societal concerns about Americans’ ever-expanding waistlines. Indeed, although estimates fluctuate with every passing news cycle about what proportion of the population is considered “obese” according to the increasingly-contentious Body Mass Index (BMI), garment sizing, on the other hand, stands as a universal and highly-relatable gauge against which we measure the body.

Indeed, Ingrid Jeacle, professor of accounting and popular culture at the University of Edinburgh, has called standard sizing one of the most pervasive normalizing mechanisms of the twentieth century for the manner it assigns a statistically generated number to the organic human form, and creates and perpetuates what we regard as “normal” and “deviant” bodies. Although it is widely acknowledged that the standard sizing system is flawed—with sizes oftentimes differing from store to store, meaning that most women have come to expect that they wear a range of sizes—being designated as plus-size is nevertheless something of a damning fate for many women.

In my own research, I have found that at the moment a woman “crosses over” from being standard size to being plus-size can set into motion a sort of identity crisis. This is due to the fact that plus-size fashions have long held a reputation for being unfashionable, poor-fitting, cheaply made, expensive and difficult to procure. Indeed, in only the most recent instance of retail size inequity, the Swedish fast fashion giant H&M has decided to pull plus-size fashions from their New York stores. A mere five pounds can therefore mean that a woman can go from being able to shop at most high fashion and mass market retailers and to participate in fashion trends, to being faced with a serious lack of options.

Although many are quick to deride fashion as frivolous, clothing is an instrumental tool in the process of identity construction and maintenance. Indeed, as sociologist Joanne Entwistle has argued, “The social world is a world of dressed bodies,” and thus dress is one of the primary mediums through which “bodies are made social and given meaning and identity.” To illustrate this notion, we may take the “burkini”—or the conservative, body-covering, wetsuit-esque swimsuit worn by some Muslim women—as an obvious example of a garment that, while designed to give women more freedom, nevertheless became an object of great controversy in France this summer where it was regarded as a symbol of women’s oppression and sparked latent fears about religious extremism. Amid these debates, women who wore the burkini suddenly became cyphers of religious extremism themselves, and were therefore highly stigmatized in French society. Indeed, it is hard to forget those images of armed police officers forcing a woman to remove her burkini on a French beach.

In a similar vein, the symbolic act of shopping in the standard size departments one day and plus-size the next means that a woman undergoes not only a sartorial but also a social transformation as well. Plus-size fashion—or the umbrella term for what have colloquially been referred to as “fat sacks,” “tents” and “muumuus”—is in many ways emblematic of an exceedingly marginalized and stigmatized form of embodiment in contemporary society. Applying Erving Goffman’s discussion of “abominations of the body” as stigmas that are worn on the body for all to see, solely because of their appearance, obese people encounter greater social hurdles than normatively-sized people. Indeed, as a number of studies have shown, they face greater obstacles to employment, bias in the classroom and are sometimes discredited by medical professionals. To this list, we may now also add “sartorial stigma” as an impediment to identity construction since plus-size garments are oftentimes designed with certain moralizing discourses about “figure flattery” and hiding and concealing fat flesh in mind.

The question remains, however, how can the fashion industry become more inclusive?

While it is not Christel and Dunn’s claim that the fashion industry suddenly changed its sizing standards, making hundreds of thousands women suddenly plus-size overnight (indeed, their findings actually suggest the opposite—that it is women who have gotten bigger rather than sizes getting smaller), they nevertheless point to the fact that there is much work to be done to correct the problems in sizing. One suggestion they offer is that sizing standards be enforced across the industry—a measure that will lead to both greater consumer satisfaction and to fewer returned items.

Extending their reasoning, however, I would also again point to the fact that, because of current sizing conventions, which separate standard and plus-sizes—effectively creating two parallel industries—the typical American woman is at once both average and deviant.  A way to rectify this incongruity would therefore be to enforce not merely correct sizing but also inclusive sizing, thereby eliminating the contentious term plus-size altogether. Under this model, the woman who wears a size 14 or 16 would not need to shop in a separate department or specialty store, but could buy her size off the rack, alongside the size zeros and twos.

In doing so, and as Christel and Dunn ultimately conclude, designers and retailers could “reposition themselves in consumers’ minds to regain their lost target market.” Indeed, such measures would benefit both the fashion industry—which stands to make millions of dollars from newly empowered consumers—but also the fat, female consumer herself who would no longer be defined by the clothing department in which she shops.

Further Reading

Entwistle, Joanne. 2000. The Fashioned Body. Cambridge: Polity.

Goffman, Erving. 1986. Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Peters, Lauren Downing. 2014. “You Are What You Wear: How Plus-Size Fashion Figures in Fat Identity Formation.” Fashion Theory 18(1): 45-72.

About the Author

Lauren Downing Peters

Lauren Downing Peters is a Ph.D candidate at the Centre for Fashion Studies, Stockholm University and is the founding editor of The Fashion Studies Journal

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