matters of size

I almost titled this "$ize matter$" but I didn't want to get any googlers over here with the wrong idea...

Anyway, this post on Whitknits got me thinking about women and size issues. The discussion is about how the term "Real Women" has come to mean women of larger size, and the implication that smaller and thinner women somehow aren't "real", or at least don't fit into the category of "Real Women." The issue specific to the knitting community is that of pattern sizing. Many patterns only go up to certain bust sizes (like 40" or less), thus forcing women who require larger sizes with few options but to alter the patterns themselves themselves or just be left out. On the other hand, there are some skinny knitters who don't like the message that being bigger makes you a "real" woman. It's a lose-lose situation, as far as I can see.

Issues of body image in American society are immensely complicated, and I'm no sociology expert by any means, so I won't attempt to explain it all here. I am a Gen X female, though; therefore I've been bombarded by and discussed these issues about as much as anyone else, so I guess I have a few things to say. First of all, this country has a badly skewed idea of what is "healthy." We have models and celebrities who are too skinny, a population that is increasingly overweight and obese, a frightening number of people with eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, compulsive eating behavior), fad diets that don't work, and a culture that does not embrace true health and beauty in any kind of sincere or coherent way. We idealize too-skinny models, then we demonize them for not looking "real." We tell our children that they are beautiful just the way they are, then see statistics that tell us that well, actually, our country's children are the fastest-growing sector of the obesity epidemic. And then we still feed them fries and pizza in their school cafeterias, allow big cola companies to sell their liquid sugar in school vending machines, then turn around and blame them for not taking more personal responsibility for their own caloric and nutritional intake...oops, getting a little carried away on my soapbox here. Sorry.

We just don't know what we want, culturally. We can't decide what we really think is beautiful because we haven't accepted ourselves, we feel self-conscious, and that, I believe, is precisely what makes us so critical of each other and defensive of ourselves all at the same time, with a bit of self-loathing thrown in. This is true of both men and women, but mostly women. Goodness knows I don't always like what I see in the mirror.

Of course, size does matter. If you know me personally, or if you've seen pictures of me (on this blog or wherever), you know that I am pretty small. I've always been healthy, too; my size is just the way I was made. Mostly, I have found that people are okay with me, though I have had many a conversation with women who seem to think that my life is somehow easier than theirs because I am skinny and they are not. (Like being skinny is what gets you straight A's? What gets you into grad school? What gets you a job? What gets you self-esteem? I'm telling you, it doesn't get you those things.) I've had men and women alike treat me as though I am weak (I'm actually a lot stronger than I look, not that it's saying a whole lot), or timid or fragile or a shrinking violet, and once again, if you know me personally or you've been reading this blog for more than five minutes you'll know that none of those things are true, either. Here's the truth: while these assumptions bug me occasionally, I don't get angry about it, because I know that people make judgments based on looks whether they mean to or not. I'm sure I've been guilty of it myself without even being aware.

(Now, of course, I'm pregnant, and that brings on a whole new onslaught of comments and assumptions. When I was pregnant with Daniel, I gained 42 pounds. The last three months of pregnancy, I constantly fielded insensitive comments like "Are you sure it's not twins?" and "Are you sure you're not due next week?" and "Wow, you're huge!" Why people think it's OK to tell a pregnant woman how big she is is beyond my understanding. But oh well. Pregnancy is a temporary state. I'll live.)

Once you bring things like race into the discussion, it gets infinitely more complicated, doesn't it? I'm a white woman married to a white man with a white child, so I won't pretend that I can speak directly to those issues with any kind of authority. I'm just going to acknowledge that they're there, and they're huge. (By the way, even though I have yet to receive my first issue of Interweave Knits despite paying my subscription a month ago, I say kudos to them for using an ethnically diverse set of models.)

My real point here is that the "Real Women" debate or discussion or whatever you want to call it, is indicative of much (ahem) larger and more complex problems our society currently faces, and these issues span current ideals of beauty and body image as well as public health. It's no use pretending these problems will go away. Looks matter, and we're a vain society. Still, I think a good start in the world of knitting will be to include as many sizes as possible in published patterns. Maybe some styles just work better on smaller figures, maybe some just work better on more ample body types...but I think that should ultimately be up to the knitter him/herself to decide. Don't you?


jen said…
I am SO SO SO SO SO SICK of having to do math and basically redesign patterns because they're not made for people with busts smaller than 34". I'm sick of having only one option for maternity clothes (old navy) because all the other affordable stores don't have anything smaller than a 6 or 8. I'm sick of it being implied that small women aren't "real" women. Thank you for understanding the issue, sometimes (mostly because I'm surrounded by people bigger than me - not hard when you're 5' tall and 100 pounds after a large meal) I think I'm the only one who feels this way.
Suze said…
I'm so with you on the maternity clothes thing. With this pregnancy, I had to get a few summer things because my belly expanded a lot sooner than the last time, and I ended up ordering some stuff on sale from the gap. Once I was in Target looking for the maternity clothes and they were all mixed in with the "women's" sizes. What was up with that? Needless to say, I didn't find anything.

My biggest problem with the whole size issue is that small women are often treated like little girls - physically, intellectually, emotionally - and that's disturbing on a whole new level, even when people aren't doing it on purpose.
Steph said…
Amen, amen to the whole "treating small women like girls" thing. I'm small too, and I used to put up with so much of this, until, as you rightly pointed out in the comment you left about me on that post, Suze, I went on a medication that made me gain 20 pounds. I had other issues then, but that patronizing diminuation I put up with before that faded. Now that I'm back to my old size, looking at the way I have come to carry myself, the conditioning I've done to my body (like weight lifting and being really strength-focused in my exercise) and the assertive vocal inflections I use, I realize how much of my self-presentation is a deliberately-cultivated guard against paternalistic treatment. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know. It just is.

My biggest concern is not trying to make more space for myself to be strong and assertive through diminuating/belittling/infantalizing other women. I hate when women get all dog-eat-dog on each other. And about 90 percent of the time these little power tussles are completely unconscious.
whitney said…
Great post. It's so sad that we so mixed up as a culture that we've created an environment where no one is really "ok". It's not healthy, at all (and then there's our diets, which are a whole other can of worms...)
Oma said…
I observe that women's magazines are filled with self-help articles: "How to lose weight," "how to make your husband happier," "Improve your sex like", "Make your house more beautiful/ cozier/ more efficient/ you name it." When we look at all these articles, we are conditioned to think, "Oh, I should be better," and our insecurity kicks in. The losing weight ones are really a kicker, because the same issue will have ads and recipes for calorie-laden foods, across from the dieting articles.

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