Guessing a woman’s dress size offhand is like guessing how many jellybeans are in a jar at a car dealership—you’re just not gonna get it right. That’s because there are so many different types of bodies, weights, heights, and proportions, and two women who typically purchase the same size at the same store could have wildly different looking bodies. A woman’s dress size is basically meaningless in terms of physical fitness, health, or beauty, yet it’s a point of fixation for people within and outside the fashion world.
In a recent study out of Washington State University, researchers attempted to find out how the size of the “average” American woman changed from 1988 to 2010. The team used stats from a few different surveys and industry standards to figure out this average, and after mixing it all together, they landed on a size 16. While that may sound like a high number (because we’ve been conditioned to feel that way), there’s no reason to take this as a sign of a horrible, unhealthy epidemic. In reality, you probably know many size 16s—and they probably look damn good.
Prior to this study, most media and fashion insiders believed the average American woman was a size 14. But the researchers in the latest study, Deborah Christel and Susan Dunn of Washington State University’s Department of Apparel Merchandising, wanted to find out if that figure was accurate, given it was often presented as fact without a clear origin. To do so, they compared data from the most recent National Health and Nutritional Examination Surveys and the American Society for Testing and Materials’ (ASTM) industry clothing size standards. They also looked at national statistics about waist size from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and found the data to be potentially misinterpreted, leading to the widely accepted size 14 figure. Despite being only a size off, they wrote in their findings that the one size upgrade is a very big deal.
“The results indicate that the [average American woman has] been evaluated under false data for decades,” Christel and Dunn wrote. “Countless news articles, fashion periodicals, and academic manuscripts have justified research and discussions based on the outdated and misleading conclusion that the AAW [average American woman] wears clothing size 14. The consequences of misrepresentation of data may be damaging for all parties involved.”
So much of body image is based on seemingly arbitrary numbers that indicate if one is “fat” or “skinny.” The researchers said that many women use the supposed average size as a point of comparison—so if they’re a size 8, say, they’re well below average and feel good. But because the new and proven average size is 16, they speculated many women will be “relieved” that they’re at or closer to the comfort of being average.
This may be true, but it's important to remember that these numbers really are random. In reality, a dress size can be completely arbitrary, especially, as the researchers wrote, when many private manufacturers are allowed to create sizing at their own discretion. For example, Urban Outfitters brand Kimchi Blue offers certain items in size extra small to large. According to their size chart, a large is the equivalent of a size 11/12 in U.S. apparel. By contrast, the sizing chart for e-retailer StyleWe, which offers items in small to 5XL, says an XL is the equivalent of a U.S. size 8 to 10. And it's impossible to know what those sizes really mean until the garment has arrived at your home and you're standing in front of the mirror with the zipper stopping halfway up and feeling pretty damn bad.
I personally will never forget the time I went bridesmaids dress shopping for my friend’s wedding, only to be told by the store manager that I’d have to order my dress in a full FIVE sizes larger than I typically buy. I recall going back to the dressing room in tears, and feeling like this size represented some sort of personal failing. I tried to tell myself it was “just a number,” yet I left the store feeling immense shame. But when you examine what actually goes into sizing, you realize it truly is just a number–and a meaningless one at that.
Last month, Good Housekeeping beauty editor Sam Escobar tried to make a similar point about the way people perceive weight. Escobar, who identifies as gender non-conforming, includes their height and weight on their Twitter bio, which may seem like an unusual choice to some (especially outside of the confines of online dating)—but in a series of tweets, they explained why they decided to share stats that most keep very close to the vest.
“I think it’s weird how people have no idea what different weights look like,” Escobar shared. “It’s nice 2 b honest about my size/weight bc ppl are often surprised I shop plus size which proves they dont know what plus size look like.” They continued: "Hey I’m 5’7”, 172 lbs, approx a size 12/14 with 34E boobs & I see nothing to hide about that. These are just facts, measurements and ratios.”
Escobar explained how they struggled with bulimia for 14 years and dealt with a numbers "obsession." They then invited others of any gender identity to share their heights, weights, and photos to confirm the idea that a number means nothing in terms of beauty and confidence. And many happily obliged.
Many women at the average size 16 are not shy about sharing photos of themselves via social media, and particularly on Instagram. Cull through the hashtag #size 16, and you'll find a whole lot of mirror selfies of these "average" women looking happy, confident, and proud—not ashamed, like the label of "plus-size" and the dearth of clothing options should make them feel.
Recently, Tim Gunn, of Project Runway "make it work" fame, confronted the way women above a certain size are are systematically ignored by the fashion industry in a Washington Post op-ed. In the piece, he nods to the Washington State study and the fact that despite more women wearing a size 16 than size 6, their ability to find stylish clothing remains a challenge:
I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, 'I’m not interested in her.' Why? 'I don’t want her wearing my clothes.' Why? 'She won’t look the way that I want her to look.' They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt. 'No one wants to see curvy women' on the runway, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, said in 2009.
Frustrating—and frankly, pathetic. Based on Gunn's experience, it's no wonder that a size 16 average would cause a low-key panic among fashion professionals and sizeists alike.
But then you look at someone like Ashley Graham, an international model, recent Cosmopolitan cover girl, and proud 16. If you can't say she's a total stunner with a straight face, then you need your eyes (and brain) checked. Naturally, Graham has faced more than her fair share of haters, but in a May Huffington Post interview, she explained how she was able to come out on the other side happy, healthy, and hot.
"A lot of taking care of my body and my mind and my soul had to do with talking to myself and actually giving myself affirmations," Graham said at the time. "It got me out of my funk. I still had cellulite, I still had back fat, I still had jiggly arms, and I decided to love every part of it."
You can't tell what someone's dress size is just by looking at them. But you probably can tell how they feel about themselves—and that's a way more important metric.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.