One day after the Monday's Met Gala, Lili Reinhart, an American actress best known for her role as Betty Cooper in the hit tv show Riverdale, took to social media to call out celebrities who starved themselves for their carpet appearance and proudly talked about it. "To openly admit to starving yourself for the sake of the Met Gala when you know very well that millions of young men and women are looking up to you and listening to your every word," she added. "The ignorance is other-worldly disgusting," she wrote, according to Cosmopolitan.
While she didn't name anyone in particular, most people assumed that she was talking about Kim Kardashian, who boasted of losing 16 pounds (around 7 kgs) in three weeks to fit into a dress, an undeniably too-fast rate of weight loss. Of course, most of us know that crash dieting is an unhealthy practice for the body and the mind. Restricting food and overexercising can create a seismic shift in one's ability to have a positive relationship with food and their body.
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More than Kim Kardashian's rapid and dramatic weight loss, I'd like to talk bout the dress she wore. The dress in question is iconic, the skin-coloured, translucent one worn by Marilyn Munroe 60 years ago when she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr President" to John F. Kennedy. “I always thought she was extremely curvy. I imagined I might be smaller in some places where she was bigger and bigger in places where she was smaller. So when it didn’t fit me I wanted to cry because it can’t be altered at all,” said Kardashian, explaining why she chose to slim down so drastically. And while Kardashian's slimmed-down body did finally fit into the dress (it didn't go over her bum, though, which is why she kept her coat on), it does warrant a conversation in dress sizing and women's bodies and what has changed about them over the years.
Marilyn Munroe's dress size has been hotly debated for decades. For instance, the Marilyn Munroe Collection, the world's largest private collection of Monroe's personal property and archives, has an entire section devoted to her true size. Marilyn is often referred to as "plus-sized." However, if you notice by looking at her dress at the MetGala, she was anything but that.
So what is the true story about Marilyn Munroe's dress size, and what does this mean for us?
The Marilyn Munroe Collection says that her modelling records from 1954 claimed she was a size 12, weighing approximately 120 lbs at 5 ft 6 inches and that her proportions were 36-24-34 (bust-waist-hips). The Marilyn Munroe Collection verified these measurements by measuring seven pieces of clothing that Marilyn Munroe wore during her life. Most of her pants and belts measured 27 inches in full, and that didn't take into account the clothing, like sweaters, she tucked into them, making a 24-inch waist seem possible. And yet, a label on a lime-green Pucci blouse she was spotted wearing in 1961 claimed that she was a size 14. Clearly, a 1962 size 14 is not a 2022 size 14; women's bodies and dress sizes have changed considerably over the years.
A Times article titled Inside the Fight to Take Back the Fitting Room by Eliana Dockterm tells us that in the 1950s, a size 12 would be considered a modern-day size 6. Today, Asos, an online clothing retailer, cites a 24-inch waist as a UK size 4, and H&M, a popular high street brand, lists a 24-inch waist between an XXS & XS. However, do not be fooled into thinking even these clothing sizes are standardised. Dockterm tells us that even a size six pair of jeans can vary by 6 inches in the waistline.
If you're puzzled by this, so was I. This brings me to the larger question, of course, if women's bodies are bigger than what they used to be sixty years ago, why have sizes gotten so much smaller?
We have been operating under a modern misconception that sizes not only have been standardised but are capable of being standardised. According to an article in the Washington Post called The Absurdity of Women's Clothing Sizes in One Chart, clothing sizes for women used to be based on bust size. Problematic, as you can imagine.
The standards for women's sizes, which were created in the 1940s, changed in the 1950s (four years after Marilyn Munroe had her measurements recorded), updated again in the 1970s, and hopelessly ditched in 1983. According to Washington Post, there are a few reasons for this change.
One, the measurements used to obtain new "standards", in general, did not include all women. It primarily focused on white women in lower socioeconomic classes or extremely fit women serving in the air force. Secondly, as we all know, obesity in the United States was rising, and women's bodies were getting bigger. And finally, there was a more emotional shift happening behind the scenes. Although women were getting bigger, their desire to be perceived as small didn't change. Retailers spotted big dollars by realising they had to make customers feel good in their clothing.
Welcome to the phenomenon of vanity sizing. According to the Oxford Dictionary, the official definition of vanity sizing is "the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is the case, to encourage sales."
Do you feel duped? I do.
As you can imagine, there are dangers associated with Vanity Sizing. The article Vanity Sizing: How Do False Flattering Numbers Affect Women, published in Forbes, tells us that "numbers are contrived to be even more exceptionally important than they have been or should be, skewing reality for the sake of vanity and consumerism." Retailers are cashing in on the message to women that to be beautiful and worthy, you must be perceived as "small."
If you don't believe this to be true, imagine me putting two pairs of trousers in front of you – both the same size, only one is marked a size 10, the other a size 6. If you tried on the size ten first, and it fits perfectly– would you feel the slightest imperceptible shift in your self-worth? Alternatively, if you tried on the size six first, would you silently beam with pride and feel more likely to wear the trousers? It may be an interesting experiment to try on for size.
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Dr DiTommaso, a psychologist, has corroborated this negative association, saying on 10News, "not fitting into a certain size can also lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even relationship issues."
Lili Reinhard was warning us about this in her social media post. As much as we would like to say it doesn't matter, size does matter to many people. And those people watching a celebrity alter their body to fit an article of clothing, especially one that is mired in sizing controversy, is not only ironic, but it is also scary. In a world where women's worth is dictated by the numbers on the scale or the size of their clothing tag, the last thing we need is someone who is influential and on every news outlet (every day) advocating unhealthy measures for superficial purposes.
After all, standardised clothing sizes were created to make clothes that fit a woman's body. A woman shouldn't feel as if she has to alter her body to fit the clothes.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach