How Might the Fit of Clothes Impact Women’s Body Satisfaction?

 How does it make you feel if you cannot fit into clothes in your usual size?

Interview data suggest that many of us monitor our weight by seeing how our clothes fit, and tighter clothes have been linked with body dissatisfaction.

What about when retailers do not stock clothes in your size?

New research suggests that availability of well-fitting clothes may impact on our body satisfaction.

Clothing fit and body image

UK and US women have reported that tightness of clothes is a motivator to lose weight. In many cases, clothes fit was more important than looking at themselves in mirrors or weighing themselves in prompting dieting. The fit of close-fitting garments (such as jeans) was used by many women to judge whether they had gained weight. This pattern was seen in women in a wide range of ages as seen in these quotes from participants in UK interviews (Grogan, 2021):

 “I don't look in the mirror to see how fat I am. And when I put on clothes that are tight around the waist. And the clothes that I've got that are nice but that I can't get into. That's what motivates me to get my weight down. It's clothes” (Betty, age 63 years).

 “That's the only thing that I would diet for, if I went out of my clothes size. I would have to diet, because I could never afford to replace all my clothes. If I was growing out of my clothes I would definitely try and cut down” (Sharron, age 46 years).

“I don't long to be under nine stone [126 lb] again, because I think that is an unrealistic weight for me, but I think just so that my clothes fit me nicely (Toni, age 27 years).

Recent work conducted by researchers based at Manchester Metropolitan University (Sarah Grogan, Kathryn Brownbridge, Jenny Cole, John Darby, Gillian McChesney, Paula Wren), and University of Manchester (Simeon Gill, Christopher J. Armitage, Celina Jones) has investigated how women feel about their bodies when they find it more difficult to get a good fit in clothes. We have been interested in particular at how the limited availability of well-fitting clothing for women who have larger body sizes may influence women’s body satisfaction.

The plus size clothes “problem”     

Clothing retailers tend to sell a limited range of sizes; many popular high street stores in the UK focus mainly on women’s sizes 6-18. Where retailers do sell larger sizes, they have limited stock in those sizes and they are often only available online. Luxury fashion garments tend to be restricted to particularly small sizes relative to the actual sizes of women in the UK (Aagarup, 2018), and US (McCall, 2018). Sizes above a UK 18 are often seen as “plus-size” garments, with some retailers stocking “plus-size” or “curve” ranges (e.g. Asos Curve; up to size 30) alongside their regular ranges and others specializing in plus-size clothes (e.g. Evans; sizes 14-32).

Lack of availability of larger sized clothing means that women with larger bodies may struggle to find clothes that fit well. This presents practical problems in terms of restricting women’s choice (Reardon & Grogan, 2011), and is likely to signal to women that their bodies are outside acceptable size norms leaving them dissatisfied. Eva Barlösius and Axel Phillips (2015) argue that the restriction of clothes choices for women whose bodies fall outside the industry-approved “normal-sized” body type is a form of structural weight stigmatization, and other researchers (e.g. Lewis et al., 2011) have suggested that lack of availability of clothes in larger sizes in mainstream retailers may be associated with feelings of stigmatization and body dissatisfaction.

Links between fit and body satisfaction

In interviews with 20 UK women about clothing and body image (Grogan et al., 2013), we found that all women reported monitoring their body size through clothes fit. Tighter clothes led to reduced body satisfaction, and this was the case even in women who were generally body-confident. Although women knew that size labelling was unreliable, they used clothes size as a marker for weight gain and were unhappy if clothes were too tight and did not fit as expected. For instance, one young woman (age 29 years) said “
If I go into say [high street store] and I try a pair of size 10 jeans and I can’t get them past my thighs that does make me feel awful”.

In a more recent study (Grogan et al. 2020), we predicted that number of retailers stocking women’s exact size would be associated with body satisfaction and might partly explain why women higher in body mass index (BMI) tend to have lower body satisfaction (e.g. Weinberger et al., 2016). 

Eighty-five UK-based women aged 18 to 81 years with BMI ranging from 18.69 to 56.13 took part in the study. All women had been whole-body scanned at fashion events and had received printed copies of their scans, and had been weighed and their height measured. We used their scan measurements to calculate exactly how many UK online clothing retailers sold clothes that would fit their specific body measurements according to the retailers stated body measurements online. Analysis was based on online size charts from UK retailers with both bricks-and-mortar and online presences. A participant was deemed to have suitable fit offered when her bust, waist, and hip circumference were within 3 cm of the bust, waist, and hip measurements on the retailer’s size chart. 

The number of UK retailers where participants could find appropriately sized clothing ranged from 0 to 39. High BMI was linked to lower body satisfaction (which supports most other work in this area, e.g. Weinberger et al., 2016). As BMI increased, number of available shops where women could buy well-fitting clothes decreased, supporting suggestions that there is greater availability of smaller sizes in UK retailers, e.g. Aagarup (2018). Further, higher BMI may mean a difference in expected shape, where bust, waist and hip measurements (the key sizing dimensions) do not map to the proportional expectations of the retailers. Most importantly, having body measurements that matched onto available clothes sizing in more shops was a key factor in mediating the relationship between BMI and body satisfaction. Women’s age had little impact on the associations, so these are not relationships that are confined, for instance, to younger women. Our findings suggest that having a body size and shape that fits more retailers’ quite limited specifications has an impact on women’s body satisfaction.


What now for clothing retailers?

So, the key message for clothing retailers? Ensure that you cater effectively for the full range of women’s bodies, including women with larger body sizes and those whose proportions do not match the narrow expectations of your shape offerings. As well as assisting your sales, you have the potential to improve the lives of women by ensuring no one feels out of step with acceptable norms on how women’s bodies should look.

Professor Sarah Grogan is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University. She is contactable on s.grogan@mmu.ac.uk.
Dr Jenny Cole is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Dr Simeon Gill is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Materials, University of Manchester.
Dr Kathryn Brownbridge is Senior Lecturer (Fashion Design) in Manchester Fashion Institute, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Dr John Darby is Senior Lecturer in the School of Computing Mathematics and Digital Technology, Manchester Metropolitan University.

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