A Frank Conversation About Clothing Size and Body-Image

Jan 8, 2010

Since the New Year, everyone has been talking about losing weight.  It seems like everyone I know is on a diet. 

This week, I went to dinner with five gorgeous, successful, intelligent, fascinating women and all they did was talk about diets, detox cleanses and the merits of low-carb versus the Zone.  It was almost enough to make me skip the bacon wrapped dates.  Almost.  

Even more illuminating than the conversation about dieting, was that every woman, without exception, mentioned clothes when talking about weight.  The conversation sounded something like this:

“When I’m down a to my goal weight, I’ll be able to buy this LaRok dress that I’ve been eyeing.”  (Goal weight has to be my most hated phrase of the moment.)

“Right after I finished law school, I bought a Milly dress that I love but I haven’t worn it since I gained the weight.”  (Please keep in mind that this lady is a size 4/6 and graduated from law school six years ago.  I also love how she refers to it as “the weight,” speaking in a low tone and emphasizing the “the.”  It’s the same voice you might use to talk about Lord Voldemort or Jon Gosselin were he in the room.)

“I’m trying on wedding gowns next month and if I have to buy my dress in a size 10, I will cry in Neiman’s.”  (I asked her to keep in mind that wedding dresses run notoriously small and that the samples are almost always size 10.  She glared at me with laser red retinas.  Proving once again, that weddings are definitely the third rail.)

It was after this dinner party at which everyone ordered things on the side, ate very little, and made me leave without dessert, that I realized it was time for a serious discussion about clothing size and body image.  So take a deep cleansing breath, and listen closely while I tell you a little story ’bout a girl named Belle, poor beauty queen, obsessed with the scale…(sung to the tune of The Beverly Hillbillies theme.).

From age 15 to age 25, I wore a size two pant.  Then one day, I got a real job and all the diet, stress and inactivity issues that come with it.  Before long, my time at the gym grew slim and my pants grew tight. But instead of buying a bigger size, I wedged myself into two pairs of Spanx every day to make those trousers button.

I did this for almost two years.  And every day by six o’clock, I was miserable, counting the moments until I would be free of my spandex cocoon. 

Like most women, I learned how to hate my body from my Mom.  Who, incidentally, will cut me out of the will when she reads this.  So, here’s hoping she stops now.

My Mother is a lovely woman.  I adore her with every fiber of my being. But for as long as I have been alive, she has been on a diet.

For almost three decades (and probably before that), she has been forcing herself into the size four pants that are just a little too tight all the while saying, “Well, when I lose five/ten pounds and I can wear my clothes…”  Her entire life has been spent in search of “…” and whatever magical door she thinks will open when those size four pants fit.  It is her obsession.

Thus, for most of my life, my sense of self-worth was deeply entrenched in being a size two and 123lbs.  Then last year, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend my life staring into my closet thinking about how none of these beautiful clothes fit me, hoping that I could squeeze myself into something presentable.  On that day, I decided to take back my body and ordered a bigger size.  

As Stacy London says, “You should dress the body you have, not the body you want,” and she’s right. Wearing clothes that fit will change your life.  I swear it.  Because when you wear clothes that are too tight you never feel comfortable or pretty.  You’re constantly being pinched and poked; it’s awful.  

Wearing the wrong size is a form of self-torture, a constant reminder of your body image issues and the things that you don’t love about yourself.  But if you buy the right size, clothes can accentuate the positives and camouflage the negatives.  

When I go into a store, I don’t see the number on the tag as my nemesis.  I grab the two and the four when I head to the dressing room.  Sometimes, I have to ask for a six. And every now and again, an eight.  But the number doesn’t mean anything to me.  Because I’m not concerned with the number, I’m concerned with the fit.  

The key to finding clothes that flatter your figure is to focus on fitting the biggest part of your body.  For example, I have a 25″ waist and 38″ hips (It’s all in the saddle bags, baby!).  So when I buy pants, I have to make sure that the booty and the thighs look good–slender, lifted, and just a little curvy.  I also have to make sure that the pants don’t bubble, bunch or get those whisker wrinkles when I sit, kneel or bend over. And even after I find a pair that fit properly, I still have to take them to the tailor and let my seamstress take somewhere between three and eight inches out of the waist band.  It’s awesome.  But when they’re done, I have pants that look like they were made just for me.

I am passionate about helping women dress their figures properly, because no matter how hard I try, I cannot save my Mother.  I’ve been working for seven years to get her into a pair of pants that fit, but unless the tag says size four she’s not interested.  Her stubbornness and her body image issues run too deep to see past that magic number.  

She has so much of her self-image wrapped up in that single digit that buying a bigger size feels like a momentous failure from which she will never recover.  That’s why she has a closet full of pants that she never wears, reminding her every day that she isn’t the size that she thinks she should be.  And the whole situation is pretty silly considering that women’s clothing sizes are completely subjective.

It took most of my twenties to figure out that the number on the tag is completely meaningless.  Sizes vary from brand to brand and country to country, and as Americans gets heavier, designers keep altering the sizes to make us feel better about ourselves.  That’s why I’m a couture six, a designer four, and a retail size 0/2/4/6/maybe 8.  Not exactly scientific accuracy, but for some women, it’s all that matters.

The number on the tag shouldn’t determine our self-worth a) because the number is completely subjective and b) because defining a person using a number is something we only do in the prison system. Which is a fitting description of what it feels like to wear two pairs of Spanx through a twelve-hour work day. 

I am no longer the tiny, taught twenty-something beauty queen of yesteryear, and I’m okay with that.  I eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. I can run without getting winded, and my doctor says I’m healthy.  My mood and my life are no longer dictated by whether my pants fit or the number on the tag of the pants that do.  I look good in my clothes and I feel better about my body than I ever have, even though my six-pack abs went the way of the dinosaurs.

I don’t want to preach some path to salvation.  I just want the ladies out there to know, that buying the bigger size will not cause you physical pain.  The number on the inside tag is not a scarlet letter broadcasting your sin to the world; it is invisible to everyone but you.  And when the booty looks good, no one cares about the number on the tag.




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  1. KCT says:

    Wait, you’re saying that you don’t care at all what you weigh? Yeah right. If you woke up tomorrow a size ten you’d run screaming from your house and you know it.

  2. Belle says:

    You’re missing the point. Of course, I care about what I weigh but weight and clothing size are not the same thing.

    I spent years wrapped up in the notion of being a size 2, but size 2 isn’t real. A size two in one store is a size six in another. At least 130 pounds is 130 pounds no matter where you are. Unless you want to start weighing yourself in kilos then it’s 60kg. Talk about a quick weight loss solution.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is numbers shouldn’t matter. How I feel in the pants, how they look on me and whether I am healthy is what matters. So if the size ten pants look the best then those are what I will be buying.

  3. Jordyn says:

    Belle, that was beautifully said. You are a woman who is clearly in a great relationship with her body. You inspire me to be nicer to mine:)

  4. DCGal says:

    Thanks, Belle! I hope your friends and readers take inspiration from your wise, healthy attitude. A rigid adherence to a meaningless numerical system keeps women from feeling good about themselves and spending time on important things – like eating!

  5. Enviro Lawyer says:

    Too true, Belle – esp. the different size depending on the maker and cut! The Gosselin comment made me laugh out loud!

  6. MPG says:

    A truly inspiring post! I can totally relate to the anxieties that you develop once you start working. Always an active athlete, I never had body image issues until I graduated college and the sports stopped. But 2.5 years later, I’m making a conscious effort to be healthy at the office, work out a few times a week and cut my body a little slack.

  7. JG says:

    I’m a frequent reader but have never commented before. Today, though, I just wanted to say: thank you for writing this. Because we should all cut our bodies a little slack.

  8. AJ says:

    Its all relative though because as you are describing your skinny little self I am thinking Damn! I would love to be that little. Where I am from your retail size 0/2/4/6 is TINY. And what you were before would be too tiny.

    Well put though and I do indentify as a 43 yo size 6 I am on a diet almost every day thinking if I could only get the 10 lbs off that I added when I "grew up" meaning bought a house, had kids and actually filled my refrigerator with real food. I am coming to the point that I am starting to think maybe these extra lbs were how I am meant to be and that I was actually too thin before. I can tell you that I am MUCH more healthier now than I was in my 20’s.

  9. Trang says:

    You go girl! We need more positive commentary about our bodies. I, too was once a size 2-4 in another life time, but a couple of real jobs later, a husband, 1 baby, and age creeping in– I am a size 6/8 on a good day:)

    Don’t get me wrong–who doesn’t miss being able to throw on your clothes and knowing its always going to fit? It would help eas the worries about the fine lines and the grey hair that just started popping up/

    But hey life experiences makes you a better person, and in 2010, I am making a concerted effort to like me by working out more and thinking "healthy and happy."

  10. Belle says:


    That was kind of what I realized myself. I put on a solid twenty pounds, but a lot of that was laziness. I started eating better, walking more, being kinder to my body and was still ten pounds up. So after a year of squeezing myself into the Spanx, I just thought, "Maybe I am meant to be this size?"

    Once I let go of the idea that I had to be size 2, I felt much better. I just realized that I didn’t need to obsess about a number when I felt good and healthy.

  11. Rose says:

    In my first months in DC, I took up running. After 4 months I was in better shape than ever before, but also a larger size than before–that was a hard realization! Being fit and having clothes that fit trump a number any day!

  12. J says:

    My weight has yo-yo’d for years. Hardcore. I tend to hover around the same 10 lbs. (135-145lbs on a 5’3" frame). Anytime I’ve lost weight, I haven’t noticed, even when my clothes are hanging off of me. I always thought I was still overweight. That’s how bad my body image is. But I’m learning…The number on the clothing tag still bothers me, but I dress in what size fits. And no one even notices when I do gain weight because I know how to dress my body.

  13. ChelseyDC says:

    I am a size 12/14 but on my 6’0" frame I can’t imagine being much smaller. I have a very womanly body – healthy, soft, curvy – and I love it! I eat relatively well, I walk regularly, and I work out when I can fit it into my busy schedule. I am proportional, but I just happen to have larger proportions than most (41"-31"-41.5")
    I love my body and I am so happy that more and more women are discussing the issue of body image. It’s all about feeling confident, sexy, and healthy in your own skin!
    I found this photo very inspiring in Glamour a few months ago: https://www.glamour.com/health-fitness/blogs/vitamin-g/2009/08/on-the-cl-the-picture-you-cant.html – this photo sparked great discussion about what a "real woman" looks like.

  14. Unintended Reaction says:

    I’m sorry, but I find it very difficult to take this advice from someone who is THIN. It would mean a lot more coming from someone who is a little overweight, to be honest. In fact, after reading this, I feel worse about my weight and my body b/c apparently, I’m CONSIDERABLY overweight. If girls who are 2s or 4s are complaining … then what does that say about me?

  15. grrl says:

    i’m sorry, but you’re a 2 or a 4, so no one can really sympathize with you. let me guess, you’re a white upper middle class female right? and you love recyling and sarah silverman. awesome.

  16. Belle says:


    I can imagine that it would be hard to take advice from someone who is smaller than you. For example, I have terrible acne and it is very hard to take advice from Miss M who has only the rare blemish. So, I do see how that would be tough.

    However, the thing to keep in mind is this, ALL women have body image issues no matter what size they are. Just as k Alyssa Milano:

    1. Women are innately self-conscious. This is not a choice; it’s a genderwide condition. On a bad day, I look in the mirror and see my ten-pound-heavier alter ego. Her name is Bertha. On a really bad day, Bertha sees her two-hundred-pound-heavier alter ego. Her name is Brian Dennehy.

    Also, this wasn’t a discussion about pounds necessarily, but a number on a tag. The last thing that I want is for anyone to feel more uncomfortable about their body after reading this. I think it’s all about keeping issues of size and weight in perspective. Is this too much weight for my body type, for my lifestyle, for my own contentment? Or is it just because I look at the negative zero, never eaten a carb in life underwear model and think, "If that’s thin then I am 900lbs."

    Please don’t think that because skinny girls have body image issues that women with curvy figures should feel even worse about themselves. You need to feel good about the size you are meant to be. I spent my whole life trying to weigh 115 and be size 2; but really I think I’m meant to be 135 and size 4/6. I have tiny bones and good metabolism, but that doesn’t mean I should be killing myself to look like I did when I was 19. I’m happier heavier.

  17. Belle says:


    Yes, I’m white but I don’t think that has anything to do with the discussion. On a government salary, I could hardly be considered upper middle class. I almost never recycle and I don’t even know who Sarah Silverman is.

    I understand if this is tough for some women to hear coming from me, but the lesson is the same whether I am saying it or someone of larger size is. So if you can’t listen to me, maybe you should spend a few hours reading this week’s V magazine.


  18. belle, great post. one of my girlfriend’s is a size 0 – 2 and she has the worst time finding clothes. so it is a misconception that smaller is easier. you hit the nail on the head. stop looking at the size on the tag and pay attention to what you look like in the mirror when you try things on. fit is the bottom line. you should submit this article to someone. so many women need to hear this.

  19. Sarah says:

    Belle, what a great post. My friends sometimes do the same thing, and it kills me to listen. Every body (person and size) has a bad day.I think the best piece of advice I got is this: "Own Your Body" – accept what you’ve got right now, and love it. It’s the only one you get, lt may be flawed, but it’s yours.

  20. SJS says:

    I am a frequent reader and have never posted but I think some people are reading this article and entirely missing the point. Belle used her sizes in a frank and honest discussion about her own struggles and realizations. They weren’t meant for anyone to compare themselves to so if you’re comparing them to yourself, you’re wrong.
    Women of all sizes have body image issues. The point is to have a REALISTIC body image of yourself, whatever that means. If you are living an active lifestyle and eating moderately (the point here is to be HEALTHY), then you should have a good idea of what your weight should be based on your body type. A body image that takes two hours in the gym 5 days a week to maintain is not a realistic goal.
    I think Belle is trying to express that a healthy body image does not always mean the same size in every store and so to obsess about making sure you fit into whatever you think the "right" size for your body is stupid. Sizes are cut differently with every brand so the better idea is to just find clothes that fit no matter what the size.
    A similar struggle that I have witnessed is an obsession with the number on the scale. I never use a scale. Ever. I know how I’m doing by how I’ve been eating, how active I am, and by how the clothes I own fit me. It’s silly to focus on what the scale says on a day to day basis. Sodium intake or that time of month could easily influence this number one way or the other. If you exercise regularly, you may end up gaining weight as muscle weighs more that fat. Although hopping on a scale every once in a while may not be a bad idea to make sure you’re staying fit, you still need to have a realistic body image.
    This image will most likely have to be re-evaluated every couple of years. I am 8 months pregnant and I have no idea if I’ll be able to return to the weight I was before the baby. I also know that metabolism slows every 5-10 years and it may be necessary to set a new goal and redefine the way we look at ourselves when we reach these milestones.
    In closing, Belle, keep up the excellent work. Maintaining a healthy body image is a struggle no matter what age or weight. And to those who can only revert to assassinating Belle’s character instead of offering constructive criticism, grow up and read with an open mind.

  21. Erica says:

    It is comforting to know that other women get aggravated when their friends start the body bashing sessions. I can’t stand it, even though I have my own share of insecurities.

    I just finished chemotherapy a few weeks ago, and from inactivity due to fatigue, a selective appetite from nausea, and the steroids I was prescribed to help my body recover from treatments, I have put on a good fifteen pounds over the last few months. On top of that, I have to inject medicine in my stomach twice daily to clear up a blood clot caused by the chemo itself, which has caused my stomach to look like black and blue leopard print (and some additional swelling from the bruising). It sometimes disgusts me to look in the mirror after stepping out of the shower or when changing clothes because the bruising is so much of a mess covering my stomach.

    I am in remission as of December 21st, 2009.

    Every morning when I get dressed, I have to constantly remind myself that although I am much less satisfied with the way my body looks, I am indescribably healthier than I was fifteen pounds ago. It truly brings Belle’s message to life that it is about how you are treating yourself and your body and not about an "ideal" number on the tag or the scale.

    Without completely getting on my soapbox…find time every day to appreciate your body in some way. I took health for granted fifteen pounds ago, and if it took gaining "the" weight and the nasty bruises to realize how special my healthy body is and all the great things it does for me, then so be it. Don’t wait to lose your health before you begin appreciate it.

  22. Lou says:

    Erica, way to put it all truly in perspective. Congratulations on your remission and I hope your health continues to improve.

    I am 5′ 6" and currently 155. In my family, I am the "short, fat" one. I realize I am really neither of these things, but having grown up in an environment where I was constantly called "chubby" and "pumpkin", I really struggle with body image issues too. It IS hard hearing Belle talk about going UP to a size 4, but when I step back, take a breath, I understand where she is coming from. I think the other commenters snarky comments were over the top and petty. Sorry girls, it’s not her fault she’s smaller, and it doesn’t lessen her anxiety about her size any more than the anxiety you (or I) feel over ours.

    I’m really trying to take off the 10lbs I’ve gained over the last 4 or 5 months, and I think I will. That still puts me at a healthy 145 and I’m cool with that. I’m a 44 year old mother of 4 and grandmother of 1 and I think that size is just perfect for me.

    Great post, Belle.

  23. HC says:

    Excellent post, Belle, thanks for putting this out there. I couldn’t complain to anyone when I faced the minor trauma of caving to reality and trading some size 4 pants in for 6 — everyone larger would take offense that I was complaining about still being relatively thin, or I would have to shamefully admit to the size 0-2 club that I was past the point of no return. Even though I rationally realized how arbitrary it was, it was still scary to jump up to a number I had in my head for so long as the mark of "failure."

    And to anyone who thinks a relatively thin person’s discussion about size is invalid just because your size is larger — step back and realize that you’re taking it as an attack where none was intended, and by objecting on those grounds, you’re putting down others based on their bodies. Thin women are "real," too, and face plenty of their own body image issues. You also don’t know the backstory behind or the maintenance required for every body you see, so don’t be so quick to judge.

  24. Mary says:

    I find it interesting that so many of the reader replies come with their "numbers." I think we’re missing the point here, I also think this post would have benefited from Belle not including her numbers. Like it or not, when we hear "size 4 or 6" we are automatically going to continue to think in a numerical way about weight, even if the point is: "I’m happy with size 4 or 6."

  25. Belle says:


    Whether I like it or not, the clothes I buy will always have a number on the tag. The question is: does the number become a definition of who we are or what it really is, an intangible indicator of which pair of black trousers I should grab from the rack?

    I don’t think we will ever completely transcend our size, weight or body issues. But, if we can think about how we feel and whether we’re healthy before we panic about going up a size then we will all be better off.

  26. Lyn says:

    I wish I could forward this post anonymously to one of my co-workers. She’s 26 and obsessed with her size and weight. She’s 5’9 and 120 lbs and she wears a 2. She is a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding, and the day she ordered her bridesmaid dress, she called me in a fury. The person who took her order plugged my co-worker’s measurements into a chart and told her that she was measuring as a size 6. My co-worker was completely aghast – she said that she has never worn a size 6, and she never will wear a size 6. She basically went on a tirade until the woman taking her order would agree to order a size 4 in the bridesmaid dress, not a size 6. While she was still unhappy with the 4, she could at least accept it. At the end of her story, I was at a loss for words – what do you even say to this?

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