A little over a year ago, I wrote this piece in response to Patagonia’s blog on why they don’t carry plus sizes. They took their piece down a few months after mine was published, but it’s still available thanks to web archiving, here. In short, a lot of their logic didn’t check out with how clothing was designed, committed to, and manufactured. You’d think the decision to pull the page down would almost serve as an acknowledgment that it didn’t cast them in the best light.
But occasionally, I get a comment from strangers on the internet who work in ocean science (I can find you Linkedin when you leave your email) who wants to tell me how apparel production really works.
So I’m going to go through this piece by piece. But first, I want to give credit to anti-racism activist Rachel Cargle for building this model of absolutely annihilating trolls line by line in her Saturday School posts.
Hey… Don’t hate on the XXS.
First of all, this is awkward. These are in my closet:
I don’t hate XXS women. I’ve lived as one, and I appreciate that clothes for me exist. I know it’s not a high velocity size and I want that consideration to be equally given to the larger end of the size run.
But also, this is a conversation about fact-based evidence that counters Patagonia’s arguments against running plus sizes. Regardless of whether you hate Patagonia or love what they’ve done for the textile industry while buying lots of their products, the contradictions exist. (And for the record, I fall into the latter camp). I simply pointed out that Patagonia’s argument that they didn’t have the volume for plus sizes was inconsistent with their decision to stock an XXS, which moves at a much slower velocity. I pointed out that their reads for plus sizes (like an XXL) were always going to move slowly because they’re built for a size 6 body and scaled out and didn’t take into consideration how the shape of women’s bodies are very different at that end of the size run. I pointed out that Patagonia’s desire to keep plus sizes off the clearance rack in order to protect their profits (and thus charitable giving), was inconsistent with the XXS and XS sizes that are invariably the last ones left on their clearance rack. All of those statements are objective.
Patagonia is well- known for their vanity sizing – – a xs in Patagonia fits someone who is a small-medium in other brands… In the 1960s, a size 8 was smaller than a 00 today!
Vanity sizing is kind of a red herring. I know, a bunch of articles have been written that we’re just expanding sizes because feelings but those studies were completed by consumer psychologists and didn’t consider some of the practical realities of making clothing over the last half decade.
In 1960, the US had no food stamps, no WIC, the population was 89% White, and we didn’t really give a fuck about the 11% who weren’t. Sizing should be different because our bodies are different. The only narrative we hear about American bodies over time is that we’re getting less exercise and less nutritious meals, and while that’s true, it’s overly simplistic. The demographics of America have changed significantly since then, and there’s a lot of research about health and weight across racial groups to show that “healthy” weights aren’t one size fits all. Black women don’t run into obesity-related illnesses until a much larger waist circumference compared to men and White women (source). Asian populations see those illnesses pop up at lower BMIs (source). Hispanic women are considered “obese” at significantly higher rates than White women yet still manage to have a higher life expectancy (source, source). I’m not a doctor, but I can at least tell that our size increase is somewhat influenced by the changing demographics and that American sizing needs to accommodate a larger variety of sizes. We’re not only bigger than we’ve ever been, on average, but we likely extend into smaller sizes than ever given the growth of Asian populations in the US.
So how have bodies been measured and adjusted over time? An attempt to standardize sizing for mass produced clothing started in 1939, when the Department of Agriculture recruited 15,000 women to measure. They compensated women for their time, so the majority of participants that showed up were poor women who overindexed in food insecurity during the Great Depression. And while they included women of color for measurements, their data was later dropped from the dataset. So the government tried again in the 50s and launched the Commercial Standard 215-58 in 1958. However, the sampling group still wasn’t fully representative. Instead of measuring starving White women, they measured adequately fed White women. So the next time someone tells you about the sizes women wore in the 1960s, call their asses out for being racist. The government refreshed the data in 1971, and for the first time included some data from women of color, but they considered it a “voluntary product standard” instead of a new commercial standard, meaning brands had more flexibility in their sizing charts and less consistency across sizes. In 1983, they just said “fuck it,” abolished the size recommendations, and let every brand have a free-for-all with an occasional ASTM standards published by a 3rd party non-profit.
Now, a company called Alvanon was founded in 2001 to finish what the US government started. They’ve scanned hundreds of thousands of bodies all around the world with body scanners instead of old school measuring tape. However, while the government wanted to make strictly standardizes measurements, Alvanon helps tailor a company’s fit to their target demographics. They’ve got standardized forms for every major country, along with a “global” fit spec to best accommodate brands trying to sell in multiple markets. In the US, you can choose between curvy and straight based on the race, socioeconomic status, and age of your clientele. Or you can get a custom form and measurements done if you think your customer isn’t shaped like the average American, like a climbing brand where you think your customer might have more developed lats than the average person on the street.
That kind of customization also influences how brands strategize their sizing. If you’re a brand, you want your sizing to fall in a bell curve like this:
That way, you can make your fit spec and fit model a size medium, an exact match for your highest velocity sizes. That fit spec gets graded up and down to create the other sizes. Most customers will fit within one size grade, everyone else fits within two (assuming the size run goes from XS to XL). The further you grade, the funkier the fit gets. So brands make their medium a good fit for their most common customer. This is why a brand with more sales in Europe or Asia will fit even smaller than Alvanon standards. Same for brands that cater to younger women, or brands that market themselves to a well off, White customer base that statistically tends to be thinner. (Note how the narrative for inconsistent sizing places the blame on brands with a more generous fit. There’s not as much frustration with brands like Zara, Ralph Lauren, H&M, or Ann Taylor for measuring below the US fit spec).
But the US population doesn’t fit perfectly in a bell curve. Instead, it’s skewed to the right, where the median woman’s weight is less than the average and there’s a longer tail on the larger side of the scale. Medium, in my experience, is still the most popular size, but the sales for L are a close second. Sales for L/XL dwarf sales for XS/S. We’ve also never evaluated shifting the fit spec to a large because it would create a poor fit for an XS, and fashion prioritizes the thin woman’s experience. Some plus size-specific brands dip down into straight sizing – as low as a 10 – to help round out their bell curve around their most popular sizes (usually a 1X). As I’ve mentioned before, some brands don’t have the velocity to address the right side of the bell curve because they don’t have the volume to pay for a different fit spec and associated factory minimums. But that’s not the case for Patagonia.
In the 1960s, a size 8 was smaller than a 00 today!
The thing I hate most about this narrative is that it paints the illusion that there are women who would be a 1960’s size 4 or 2 that have been abandoned by the fashion industry and no longer have options for clothing. This is not the case, and skinny women can stop using it to feign oppression. The first size charts went down to a 23.5” waist and today’s size charts go down to a 23.875” waist. The smallest size used to be an 8, but as we’ve added more sizes, we’ve been slotting them in on the front side of the size chart. Is it strange to adjust the entire size run vs. adding more sizes on the larger end? Yes. Is it because it’s more appealing to our fatphobic psyches? Probably. But at the end of the day, all this statement really says is “the smallest size in 1960 is the same size it is today and goes by a different name.”
…a xs in Patagonia fits someone who is a small-medium in other brands. Their size chart is incorrect.
No brand would ever make their size chart incorrect, especially with online shopping. Star ratings are so influential to conversion and customers don’t buy things that fall below 4 stars. They don’t buy things where other customer reviews make them feel like the sizing is nonsensical. They hate the online returns process and only order products that we feel confident will work for us.
But I also have the data to refute this. Stores capture their customer fit perceptions during their review process. Patagonia’s aren’t accurate at the moment (they don’t total 100%), so I pulled them from REI. Apparently most women think they’re pretty spot on, and the ones that don’t actually think they skew small. If you’re going to drop speculative bullshit in my comments, you better believe I’m going to check your work.
This means that everyone who is actually a size small or xsmall couldn’t shop at Patagonia before they introduced the XXS.
The kids’ section exists, you know? And no, they’re not producing things in the top tier echelon of weight and packability, but you can still build out a solid kit with base layers, 3 layer hard shell, nylon pants, and heavyweight down jacket. Where kids’ options don’t suffice, adult sizes can be worn a little big, belted, or altered when necessary. Alterations can be expensive, but if you’re able to save with kids sizes somewhat regularly, it can easily net out. I personally owned a pair of Marmot softshells that were 1-2 sizes large for me for about 2 years before I realized that they were too large. They were supposed to be a mid-rise pair of pants and the nipped in waist hugged my hips. I only noticed because the curves through the hips and thighs sat at a weird spot on my body and looked odd in pictures, but functionally, they were fine. Small women also have the option of shopping brands founded for the European and Asian markets. Montbell, for example, was founded in Japan and drops down to a 22 inch waist/29 inch bust/32 inch hip, which is essentially a full size smaller than the traditional US 00/XXS.
Small women do need advocacy, but not from Patagonia. The bigger need is in technical footwear like mountaineering boots and ski boots. For mountaineering and ski touring boots, smaller kids options don’t exist. And in alpine boots, kids options are made extremely short in the cuff since feet grow on kids before they grow in height, so manufacturers are optimizing kids boots for girls around 9-10 years old and younger, who stand at a max of just over 4 feet. The average woman who stops growing at a size 5 or 6 shoe size is about a foot taller and needs some extra height in the cuff to fit her properly. I’ve been a vocal advocate for small women’s needs related to footwear for over a year. Here’s some receipts from the beginning of 2020.
The smaller ladies out there need size inclusivity just as much as the larger ones.
No they don’t. As I’ve demonstrated, the traditional fashion market has catered to small women. There are very few that are smaller than traditional women’s sizes. Only 5% of women in the US weigh less than 110lbs (most brands transition from girls’ to women’s sizes between 95 and 110lbs) compared to over half of women rolling into plus sizes. The 5% of us on the smaller side have much cheaper options for fit solutions than larger women. Plus size women’s selection is growing, but still pretty shitty. She has zero options for 3L hardshell or softshell pieces – top or bottom (but note that Patagonia has some of these options for children). She has zero ski pants that aren’t heavily insulated. She has less than a handful of options for harnesses, wet suits, and mountain bike shorts. The only way you can talk yourself into believing that statement is by supporting fatphobia and thin privilege and a serious heaping of mental gymnastics.
No need to pit women against each other.
This phrase was made to recognize that women hold equal value in our society even when they’re making different choices. Stay-at-home moms vs working moms. Women who show skin vs women who dress modestly. It’s not “pitting women against each other” to call out when another woman is wrong. I’’s not “pitting women against each other” to call out when they’re perpetuating discrimination. I’m not pitting myself against other women. I’m pitting myself against the inaccuracies of your comment, as well as the fatphobia and racism that they were designed to perpetuate.