Wednesday, June 06, 2012

What dress size am I?

Almost a month ago, I voyaged to Southland shopping centre to participate in a sizing survey being undertaken by Target using 3D body scanning technology. The scanner was travelling to various Australian capital city shopping centres as the retailer collected 10,000 datasets.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, I was really surprised by the utter confusion and suspicion people expressed about what 3D body-scanning was and how it worked. I thought it was pretty self-explanatory. A machine scans your body and records precise biometric data that you can then use to shop for clothes.

Due to me not realising how long it takes to get to Southland on public transport, I arrived there with only 20 minutes before the centre closed, so the blurriness of the phone pics I took reflects the unaccustomed aerobic activity of finding the damn thing in time, as well as my usual shaky hands that mean I seldom manage to take an in-focus photo.

Here's the setup. It wasn't in the actual Target store but in the mall itself. As you can see, people of all ages were queueing up to get scanned. You can see one lady holding the little form we had to fill out, in which we listed name, age, race/ethnicity (I wrote "Caucasian/Anglo" and felt like some creepy KKK member), email, phone and postcode. Presumably Target will cross-match those details with its biometric data to build a picture of how body shape varies demographically.

We also had to promise not to horse around in the machine, and acknowledge that Target was not responsible for any injuries we might incur in there. Yikes!

Here's the little booth. You stand on footprints on the floor and hold your arms slightly out from your body. A vertically mounted scanning bar whizzes in a circle around you once, then makes another pass in the opposite direction, presumably to check its measurements. It takes less than 30 seconds. Then you're done, and you get a printout with your stats on it.

But while you're standing there, trying to be very still, you have to look at an unnerving bullseye on the wall of the booth. This mingles unfortunately with people's anxieties over the intimate nature of 3D body scanning, which stem not just from the idea of having your vulnerable body assessed in such a robotic way, but also from most people's only prior experience with the technology – at airport security. The fact we had to decant our personal belongings into what looked like cat litter trays only added to this Homeland Security atmosphere.

Let's face it, if any other retailer had done this survey, it would have been instantly far less creepy. Look at all the staff with targets on their backs!!

The nerdy guy with the computer was responsible for running the system. I was immensely relieved that I did not receive a visualisation of my body in 3D; just the vital statistics.

I've gotta say I felt crushed, though, at the clothing size the scanner told me I should be wearing. Somehow, the fact my size had been assessed by a computer felt much more authoritative and conclusive than if someone had done it with a tape measure. I felt very fat and depressed.

I have an entire chapter of my book that examines the way culture teaches us to identify so strongly with clothing size – which is ridiculous, as it is a completely arbitrary and inconsistent system – and to feel such strong emotions of satisfaction and shame based on these numbers.

But I also wonder if other people bring that same level of scrutiny and judgment to our bodies that we do to ourselves. I was curious to see if people could 'tell' what dress size I wear simply by looking at me. So last weekend, I decided to ask some sales assistants.

Forever New is an Australian chain catering to young women, which offers feminine, sophisticated and slightly retro looks at fast-fashion prices. It is preposterous that I would ever fit into any of their clothes; I only go in there to look at the accessories. The young sales assistant there assessed me as a size 14, but said that the size I took would vary according to style; they have a lot of waisted dresses with full skirts, but also A-line shifts.

Sussan has an older, more maternal target market; while still offering fashionable styles and colours, their sizing is more generous and they do a lot of sleepwear. Appropriately, an older, more maternal sales assistant advised me that I would be a "medium to large". Again, she said this would vary on the style I chose, and she said that once I'd found something I liked, she could help me with sizes.

This is when I gave up my mystery-shopping experiment. I realised that because sales assistants are trained to make sales, they will always flatter the customer and try to find something in the store to sell them. It's much like the complicated dance of the bra fitter.

Even my friends, family and colleagues would feel bad about telling me, to my face, what size they thought I was, because clothing sizes are so psychologically fraught.

So I have decided on another experiment: an anonymous survey in which you can tell me what dress size you think I wear.

Click here to take the survey – it involves about a minute of your time.


Jill in a Box said...

This is very interesting. I have a friend who gives me lots of clothes - many of them are a US size 6. I can't tell you how smug I feel when they fit. Trouble is, a lot of the Aus size 12 clothes I have in my wardrobe no longer fit me due to weight gain which I like to blame on early menopause. I've had to accept that my body has changed, which means my wardrobe has to change along with it. I've been a size 10 and I've also been a size 14. I feel like a superhero when I am size 10, a failure when I am size 14, and just right when I'm size 12. You're right - my dress size really does affect the way I think about myself.

Unknown said...

Hi, I did your survey and can I just tell you that I love your style. There is a small problem with accurately guessing your size as I have no idea how tall you are. People always underestimate my size (I'm a14-16) because I'm relatively tall.

Mel said...

According to the scanner I am 163.07cm tall. if I'd known they'd be measuring height I might have stood up a bit straighter.

Jessamyn said...

Ditto with unknown - I overguessed your size slightly because I was comparing you mentally with my tall family members who have similar proportions.

I don't have much emotional attachment to sizes in themselves; in fact I find the constant dwindling of the numbers, a.k.a. vanity sizing, rather infuriating - I am if anything a little bigger than I was at age 16, so why am I taking a "smaller" size?

I think my blase attitude may be partly due to always having sewed, since pattern sizes are quite different from ready-to-wear. I think it's also partly because I have broad, bony hips that make my lower half two sizes larger than my upper, so even when I'm at a weight that makes people say, "oh, you can eat anything, you're so slim!" I'm still not remotely model-sized at the hip. In other words, it's really been emphasized to me all my life how unrelated those numbers are to attractiveness.