The average women’s clothing size explained

woman getting dress sized

The average women’s clothing
size is a bit of a moving target. In 2016, a comprehensive study by
the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education debunked
a figure most women had come to accept as “average.” In summary, the
journal suggested prioritizing a fairly massive overhaul of both Misses and
Plus size clothing standards because the average American woman actually wears
a size 16 to 18, not size 14, as once was assumed.
What’s the reason for the
increase in clothing size? And why, in 2018 — despite the incredibly thorough
report and resulting recommendation — is the average American
woman struggling to feel normal and instead feeling somehow less than her
slender peers?
To understand this, you’ll
first have to go back in time.
in 2016 were over 20 pounds heavier than in the 1960s
woman stepping on scale
According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one-third of American
adults are obese, with an even higher prevalence of obesity in women. In fact,
after collating data from the CDC, CBS Atlanta News reported
that as of 2016, women began to weigh the same as the average man weighed in
In fact, according to report
statistics from The State of Obesity compiled by US News, the average American
weighs about 24 pounds more than in 1960. 
There’s really no denying that
Americans have put on some pounds, but why? There’s a myriad of reasons, as
stated by the CDC — from your genetics even to where you live — causing the CDC
to label obesity as a “complex health issue.” 
aren’t the only ones
measuring tape around globe
Are people in the United
States the only ones sporting a few extra pounds? No, not even close. While
one-third of the United States population is considered obese, the rates are
even higher in other parts of the world. In Tonga, for example, the obesity
rate in men has exceeded 50 percent, according to a study by The Lancet. It’s
not just men dealing with obesity overseas either. Women from other countries,
too, have surpassed the United States obesity rate. In Qatar and Libya, among
others, more than half of all women are obese. 
Even in parts of the world
where the statistics are indeed lower than in the United States, they’re still
quite high. Another study published by The Lancet reported 21 percent of
both men and women in western Europe are obese and the number is only expected
to increase.
Surely, obesity is not just of
interest to the American people. Still, if obesity is thought to be genetic,
there’s nothing you can do but accept your size, right? Well, there’s more to
it than just your genes. As it turns out, it has a little something to do with
your jeans, too.
size 8 dress in 2018 would’ve been a size 16 in 1958
vintage photo showing woman's dress size
Men and women may be heavier
than in years past but weight is definitely not the only thing affecting the
average clothing size, especially for women. According to Slate, prior to the
1940s, most of women’s clothing was made-to-measure so there was really no need
for standardized sizes. When ready-made clothing hit the market, that all
changed. But, who was to decide what was, say, a size 4 and what was a size 12?
The government, apparently.
The article further explained
that the federal government attempted to quantify the average American female
body, but that didn’t go so well considering they used men’s measurements —
essentially just chest dimensions — as their model. Women’s bust sizes are, of
course, a bit more variable. 
Fast forward to 1958 and
numbered sizes 8 through 38, along with the letters T, R, and S, which stood
for tall, regular, and short respectively, became the industry standard.
However, by 1970 this standard became voluntary and, in 1983, the government
withdrew the standard in its entirety. And for very good reasons, it seems. The
results of the study — which were used to determine the standard clothing sizes
— were potentially tainted by paying people to participate. Not only that but the
study also failed to include any women of color.
So, where does that leave
American shoppers today? In a world of vanity dress sizes, it seems.
sizes vary… on purpose
dress sizes on rack
Thinking of your own
experience shopping for clothes, I’m sure you’ve noticed the absolute madness
that is women’s clothing sizes. In the fitting room, you might feel a bit like
Goldilocks trying on a size 12 that’s too big, a 14 that won’t even budge
passed your hips, and, somehow, another size 12 that fits perfectly.
Designers began taking
liberties when sizing women’s clothing within the past few decade, adding extra
fabric — sometimes as much as eight inches —to garments without altering the
number on the label. This has been dubbed vanity sizing, according to Cosmopolitan. 
Sales go up when dress sizes
go down, it appears. Women feel better, and therefore buy more, when they fit
into a size smaller than expected. This psychological trick may benefit
companies but it wreaks havoc on a consumer’s psyche. 
“Since size is something
we care about deeply, our emotional response overpowers logic. We want so badly
to be assured that we’re thin and beautiful,” Susan Head, a body-image
specialist and clinical psychologist, explained to Cosmopolitan. Head also
added, “The fact that there’s not one standard to compare ourselves
to creates anxiety because we have no control. We are in the dark and
detached from our bodies.”
“black hole” of sizes 10 through 16
plus size woman unable to find her size
With dress sizes being, quite
frankly, all over the place, you’d think there would be a wide range of sizes
readily available to you. Unfortunately, that is not the case. 
Women’s Wear Daily reported
that women’s clothing is a $110 billion business. Yet, plus size sales only
account for around 16 percent of that total. Knowing that the average American
woman is indeed considered plus size, you have to ask, “What in the world
is going on here?
At the time the article was
published, stores like Lululemon, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew didn’t even sell
sizes above 12 while other stores were choosing to stop at size 10. While there
are speciality stores for plus size women, they often begin with the lowest
size of 16, according to Cosmopolitan. What of the women in between?
Women’s Wear Daily dubbed this the “black hole” — too thin for plus
size and apparently too “big” for regular. 
18 has become average yet it’s still considered plus size
plus size woman with mannequin
Plus size stores merely
existing doesn’t mean the options for average American women are endless. Poor
fit is still a common problem. After all, plus size clothing is based on the
dimensions of women between the sizes 0 to 6, according to an article by
Forbes. In a way, this is similar to how women’s ready-made clothing was first
designed in the 1940s — fashioned after men’s dimensions. Of course, this
isn’t the 1940s anymore so American clothing has some major catching up to do.
Even the term “plus
size” itself could be called into question. What words come to your mind
when you think of the word “plus?” Perhaps “additional” or
“more,” maybe “extra” or  even “bigger.”
What woman would want her body thought of in those terms? 
“Words have power.
Calling women plus size is denigrating,” author and fashion designer
Western Bonime wrote for Forbes. It’s also worth pointing out that if the
average American woman wears a size 16 or 18, why are sizes 16 and above
referred to as plus size? It’s a head-scratcher, for sure.
index versus dress size: which to trust?
body mass index bmi
Now that you know you can’t
trust your dress size not to lie to you, who or what can you trust? Many look
to their Body Mass Index (B.M.I.) in order to determine whether they are either
underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. It is certainly the easiest
way to get a snapshot of your health, but it’s really not a complete picture.
“The B.M.I. tables are
excellent for identifying obesity and body fat in large
populations,” Dr. Carl Lavie, a cardiologist at the Ochsner Heart and
Vascular Institute in New Orleans, told the New York Times. He added,
“[B]ut they are far less reliable for determining fatness in
Being thin doesn’t necessarily
mean you’re healthy just as being overweight doesn’t necessarily mean you’re
unhealthy. Dr. Lavie explained the limitations of the weight index, “A
woman who is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 120 to 125 pounds could be quite
fat even though her weight and B.M.I. seem O.K.” Additionally, “a
six-foot, 250-pound man will be obese, but if he were an N.F.L. lineman of 6-foot-3
weighing 280 pounds, he might be solid muscle with only 2 percent body
Still, your B.M.I. is more
reliable than going by dress size. However, an even better indicator, as
discussed in the article, would be the skin-fold test — essentially a test
using calipers to measure select areas of the body, like thighs and
your dress size even make a difference in your health?
plus size woman doing yoga
We know dress size doesn’t
define beauty. But does your dress size, or even your B.M.I., really matter
when it comes to your health? Well, yes. Sort of.
According to a study published
by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the “obesity
epidemic” is, at times, greatly exaggerated. Both the causes and
consequences of obesity have been found to exceed the scientific proof. That’s
not to say being overweight is necessarily healthy. Heart disease, high blood
pressure, and diabetes have all been definitively linked to obesity. However,
it’s more than just your weight that matters.
Another comprehensive study
published in PLOS Medicine found that obese people who exercise have a
longer life expectancy — over three years — than those who are of normal
weight. Exercise, it would appear, makes an even more profound impact on your
health than weight.
fashion industry is finally catching up to the average American woman
plus size fashion
Thankfully, the fashion
industry is beginning to realize that the average American woman likes to
exercise too. Go figure!
Women’s Wear Daily reported
that Universal Standard launched an activewear collection in 2018. The
company’s cofounder and chief operating officer, Alexandra Waldman, told WWD,
“This consumer is so consistently sidestepped in terms of quality and
performance, that she is in a continual state of waiting to be taken seriously.
We knew what was missing not only from the constant stream of feedback from
this consumer — but from being this consumer.”
While it is a bit discouraging
that massive change in this market didn’t really begin until 2018, it is
exciting to see women sizes 10 to 28 finally incorporated. After all, an
estimated 100 million American women are thought to be a size 14 or above, now
also known as “average.” It’s not just the end of exclusion for
fitness wear either. The end of “plus size” is, seemingly,
“If we are still talking
about a plus-size market 10 years from now, we will have failed,” Waldman
explained in an interview with Fast Company. “Our goal is to make sure
that term doesn’t exist anymore.”
Well, it’s about time.
Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.