BLOOMFIELD, Ia. — Miles off the interstate, tucked into the corner of a picturesque town square, a small building houses a real-life Brigadoon.
It’s a place so mythical for plus-sized women that it feels like a mirage.
Inside are the trappings of other formal wear stores: Overwhelming amounts of fluffy white princess dresses, kitschy love-themed signs, and all the shoes and belts and bags and jewelry one could want for the perfect “Say Yes to the Dress” moment.
But fight the tulle and find the tag and you’ll see why Hitched Bridal and Formal Wear stands out like a diamond in the rough.
There — hanging among the other dresses, and not separated into their own big-girl ghetto — are samples in sizes larger than 6 or 8. In fact, there are samples up to size 42.
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I found my way to Hitched a few weeks after I penned a column about my struggles with anorexia and how all those thoughts that my natural body wasn’t good enough came rushing back to me when my tailor suggested that I had two months to lose weight to make my wedding dress fit.
I threw a very personal stone into the public pond, and the story rippled farther than I ever could have imagined.
Friends who previously kept their body-image issues secret shared their stories; family members gained a new understanding of how anorexia has affected my life since high school; and nearly all my professional connections have started each meeting with a soliloquy on eating disorders in their own lives.
Whether people experienced as severe a case of anorexia as I did, nearly every woman I spoke with felt what I’m calling “size shame.” It’s the idea that your self-worth is directly connected to a number on a tiny white tag, and that the smaller that number is, the more beautiful you must be.
But here’s the fashion industry’s dirty little secret: Sizes are basically made up.
“Women have to get over that sizing label,” said Lynn Boorady, a fashion and textile professor at Buffalo State University and sizing expert. “It means literally nothing, and I cannot emphasize that enough.”
Anyone who has had to crowbar herself into a pair of pants or ended up with a blouse as large as a sail knows that a size 2 is a size 4 somewhere else and a size 8 at the next place.
Depending on the designer, the brand name or even the worker sewing the garment together, there’s no telling where a woman falls on the sizing scale.
Women’s sizing is all arbitrary
Over the years, the fashion industry has studied sizing in an attempt to bring control to the chaos.
But in a first-of-its-kind study commissioned in the 1940s by the Works Progress Administration, statisticians and anthropologists found there were too many permutations of the female body to create a standard size system. (Duh.)
“Nomenclature adopted” from their data set would be “arbitrary,” the analysts wrote, and would not represent “the numerical values of some anthropometrical measurements.”
SizeUSA, a sizing effort that evaluated similar data in the early 2000s, debunked the long-held idea that all women have an hourglass figure (snort) but could not come to any other definitive conclusions.
Looking at the SizeUSA data set for women with a 28-inch waist, Boorady, who was involved with the project, found a 12-inch spread in the hips. If you were to create one pattern for a 28-inch waist, you would no doubt leave out most women, Boorady said.
“I have everything from a size 6 to a size 16 in my closet,” she said. “As a matter of fact, I have an extra-large maternity top in my closet. And all these clothes fit in a way that I like.”
So, if the fashion industry gave up on standardized sizing a long time ago, why do so many bridal shops seem to only carry size 6 sample dresses for brides to try on?
Making a better shopping experience
That question bounced around in Nicole Louderback’s mind for years after her fraught experience finding a wedding dress to fit her size 12 frame when she got married in 2005.
Visiting a big-box store in Des Moines, Louderback said she found almost nothing in her size and got no direction on what she would be able to take home in time for her wedding that month.
At one point, the salesperson took a dress still on its hanger, hung it over her neck and told her to imagine herself in this dress. The experience was humiliating to say the least, Louderback said.
“A memorable moment turned into this horrible memory that I will never forget,” she said. But the timing was so tight that she had to buy a dress then and there.
Similar to me, that consultant didn’t know that Louderback had struggled with her weight much of her life. As a child, Louderback was so tall and thin that she had to buy slim jeans to make sure they wouldn’t slip off her hips.
But she gained weight in middle school, causing her to lose confidence and wrestle with “not feeling pretty.”
Despite building herself up in adulthood, that one moment brought back all those feelings that she wasn’t good enough, Louderback said.
The idea to open a store for all was born during the car ride back to Oskaloosa that day. The dream stayed dormant, coming out only as late-night Google searches, until her sister had a similarly demoralizing experience dress shopping six years later.
After that, Louderback, a medical transcriptionist, started crunching numbers and looking for spaces to open the store she wished she had.
Now she serves brides from most of the surrounding states and has carved out a niche for herself as the place that plus-sized brides go for a good selection.
“It is the most proud, gratifying and overjoyed emotional feeling seeing these brides feel so beautiful standing there in front of me,” she said. I “hand-selected each and every gown, all out of a vision to help brides have a better experience shopping for her wedding gown than I did.”
Unfortunately, Louderback’s vision and her store are the exception. With the average woman falling somewhere between a size 16 or a size 18, why are these other stores stocking only sizes 6 and 8 to try on?
I pressed Louderback and Boorady for their thoughts.
The only reasons they could come up with were that larger sizes can sometimes cost more, and keeping straight what size sample dress you have in what style is a lot easier if you only offer one size.
Friends, those excuses are simply not good enough.
Take back your life from a number on a tag
The bridal industry needs a shock.
We must demand that stores and designers cater to us, and we have to do that with our wallets and our voices.
When my sister started looking for bridesmaid dresses for my wedding, she would only schedule appointments at stores that guaranteed a stock of sample sizes in 16 and above.
“That’s fantastic, but we need more people to do that,” Boorady said. “And we need people who are a size 2 to call for the same thing in order for anything like that to make a difference.”
In addition to taking our purchasing power to stores that are inclusive, we have to reframe how we consume and regurgitate the messages society gives us.
Looking through the lens of magazines and commercials, the world seems set up for a size 6. The look may have changed — Twiggy to Jane Fonda jazzercize to heroin chic (an altogether disgusting concept) — but the message is always the same: Thin is good, anything else is not.
A 2006 Yale University study of people’s perceptions around weight showed almost half of the survey’s respondents said they would rather lose a year of their life than be fat. A year of their life!
Between 15 and 30 percent of the respondents in that survey also said they would rather get divorced, become infertile or be an alcoholic than be obese.
Have I mentioned that the average American woman is a size 16?!
What I learned from throwing my personal stone into the public pond was that so many of us are going through body image issues, yet we are burying our self-consciousness and suffering in silence.
Nearly every part of the dress-purchasing process was fraught for me. I haven’t tried on something in a store in a decade, but there is no way to pick out a few wedding dresses, go home, gird my self-esteem against the ones that weren’t going to fit and, eventually, return them.
I wish I would have talked about my struggles with those I love, and I want readers to know I am here to talk about it with you.
The other thing we need to do is take back the power of those little white tags on the back of our clothing.
Over the years, women held the number as a closely guarded secret, like our weight or our pay or the date of our last confession. We’ve imbued those tags with the ability to suck the fun out of life’s important moments and to deflate our confidence faster than a needle to a balloon.
No longer. I’m taking that number back.
I am a size 10 (though a size 12 at J. Crew and a size 8 at Kohls, because none of it really matters).
I eat pasta on Sundays; I enjoy gummy candy as often as I can; I never turn down a glass of white wine; and I have never felt better in my life.
That number doesn’t define me. As it turns out, it doesn’t really define anything.
Courtney Crowder is the Iowa Columnist for the Des Moines Register, where this column originally appeared. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
Catch her on the TODAY Show
Courtney Crowder is scheduled to appear on the TODAY Show Wednesday, Jan. 30. She will talk about her column that detailed her frustration with being told by a tailor that she should lose weight for her wedding, and its effect on her past struggles with anorexia.