How to Make Sure Clothing Sizes Don’t Hurt Your Daughter’s Body Image or Self-Esteem

Are clothing sizes making you feel absolutely crazy? Me, too! Enough to trigger an eating disorder? I’m going to go out on a limb and say, indirectly, yes.

Who hasn’t contemplated starting a diet the moment you’ve left fitting room? Or even some time spent figuring out what to wear in your very own closet? Sounds strange, but tiny, little numbers printed on tags sewn into our clothing have the power to trigger some really big emotions in us—and our daughters!

And when we don’t like what we see, we tend to think dieting is the answer.

Dieting is the strongest risk factor for developing an eating disorder such as anorexia and bulimia; so if clothing size is a factor in a decision to start a diet, then it’s definitely making us more vulnerable to serious eating issues.

In this piece, learn why clothing sizes are so darn triggering and how to make sure your next shopping session doesn’t harm your daughter’s self-esteem!

Why Do Clothing Sizes Mess With Our Minds?

It makes sense that sizes stress us out!

First of all, we’ve been trained by culture to judge ourselves, our value, and even our health by the size of our body. So when see a number that’s larger than what think is acceptable, we feel like something is wrong with us.

Second, in case you haven’t noticed, American clothing sizes are all over the map. You can wear one size in one brand and two, three or even four sizes different in the next. The drama that is behind how women’s clothing are sized is complicated and forever in flux.

All this sizing instability is worse for growing girls: they’re bodies are changing constantly and in ways that might feel totally foreign to them (hello prepubescent fat, expanding hips, and boobs!). Our girls confronted with the nuttiness of sizing inconsistencies much more frequently than us moms who don’t necessarily need to figure out what their rapidly changing body is fitting into month after month.

Goodbye Seamstress, Hello Industrialization 

First off, I don’t often make use of the word ‘industrialization.’ Yet here I am wanting to share with you how it ramps up body shame in ourselves and the girls we love.

Tactically speaking, to mass-produce something it must be made in a limited form or option. The problem? People do not come in limited sizes. We come in unlimited sizes. So when it comes to mass-producing clothing, many millions of bodies are going to be left out.

Once upon a time, clothing wasn’t mass produced by machines. It was made by people. And people would take people’s measurements and make clothing that fit said individual in a delightfully perfect way. Those same people would take clothes in and out, take the hem up or down, and people’s bodies changed.

In other words, your clothing was made to fit your body. It wasn’t your body that needed to fit into the clothing.

While mass production has been revolutionary and benefited us many, many positive ways (thank you Josephine Cochran for inventing and patenting the dishwasher!), it’s also led to many things totally and radically messed up—one of which is a very limited view of the sizes and shapes the human body comes in.

You can read more about how all kinds of cultural and political movements contribute to body shame and perpetuate the thin ideal in fellow RD (and host of Food Psych) Christy Harrison’s book, Anti-Diet.

Body Sizes Are Diverse, Clothing Sizes Are Not

Understanding that bodies come in unlimited shapes and sizes is a beautiful thing. It’s so stunning and powerful, in fact, that it could have changed the quality of my inner life at age six. That was the year I realized I wore a size larger than ‘normal’ for my age and it haunted me for decades to come.

Being clear that bodies are unique and unproblematic quite possibly it may have changed the chit-chat of my mother’s inner narrative too. And her mother, and millions of other mothers and women trying to fit their child\’s entirely unique bodies into one of those very limited, mass produced clothing sizes.

Helping girls see that the limits of clothing manufacturers and marketers is the wrong and incorrect thing—not the size and shape of her body—can be powerful. When girls understand that people come in unlimited shapes and sizes and that the numbers on their clothing are, in many ways, meaningless, it can be assuring and empowering.

How to Make Sure Shopping Doesn’t Ding Your Daughter’s Body Image

Clothing shopping can be a landmine when it comes to confronting body image issues. To help our girls sidestep that feeling of not not fitting into the mold or measuring up, prepare yourself ahead of time with these supportive and mindful comments.

  1. Its Them Not You. Using language that focuses on the clothing’s limits not her body or its changes reminds your daughter that there’s nothing wrong with her. It’s not “you’re too _____ (fill in the blank) for that top/pants/dress” and instead “they cut this too narrow” or “this isn’t a design.” Remember: clothes are meant to work for our body—and if they don’t, that’s means there’s something wrong with the cut, texture, design, not us!
  2. Focus on Feeling. Asking how a piece of clothing makes her feel can open to door to hearing about any issues that are coming up for her. While that might be tough to hear her say something negative, like “this makes me look fat” or “I hate by belly” it is also the perfect opportunity to challenge those thoughts as well as help her learn to avoid the negative self-talk.
  3. Move Away From the Mirror. Consider trying clothing on without consulting a mirror. This will help your daughter make decisions whether she likes something or not based on how it feels on her opposed to how it makes her look. For example, when I buy sneakers, I test them by walking around the store (or running up and down the block, as my fave shop encourages!) not by checking out the image of my foot. Ask her “Is it comfortable? Can you move around in it? Is it warm or do you think it’ll keep you cool?” For bathing suits, “will it stay on in ocean, pool, lake while you’re doing your thing? Is it easy to get in and out of?” are good things to focus on instead of staring at —and judging herself—using a mirror
  4. Help Her Purge Her ClosetI. f it’s not working for you, it’s time to toss it! Being confronted with clothing that’s too tiny or tight, pulling, or just generally making it obvious that your body is changing can impact on your self-esteem. For kids who are growing, this can happen frequently. Mark the calendar and do a “does this fit” or “is this still working for you?” clean out with her once every four to six weeks, spreading it out longer as she ages.
  5. Make it Seamless. I usually grab an extra size or two up before we hit the fitting room so that I can quickly offer it to her without much fuss while she\’s trying things on. In fact, I try to take the size worry out of the equation at all by keeping the whole shopping process moving quickly so she doesn’t have to think about that aspect of it much at all.

More Sizes, Please!

An increasing number of clothing makers offer more diverse and inclusive sizing. You can find a list of options for you and your daughter at Vue.

If you’re looking for athletic wear, in particular, check out the attitude and options at my favorite, Grrrl.

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