Two sizes too small: body image and the fashion world

As the chill of October comes to a close and the suburban streets light up from the orange glow of jack-o-lanterns, it can only mean one thing: Halloween is here. With this yearly holiday comes the tradition of dressing up. From Wonder Woman to the Walking Dead, the choices are unlimited—unless your waistline exceeds 32 inches.

According to Statistics Canada, the average waist circumference of a Canadian woman between the ages of 18 and 79 is approximately 34 inches. For males, the number is higher, sitting at around 37 inches. When comparing these numbers with sizing charts on numerous costume websites, the largest sizes available without switching into the plus-size section are only suitable for women with waists of 32 to 34 inches. For males, the largest size is 40 inches wide, showing how the average Canadian’s waistline is often considered too large.

As the conversation around body diversity has grown in the last few years, changes within the industry are occurring, however slowly. Some stores are starting to include larger sizes in their regular sizing charts, but the majority of stores stop including sizes in their chart past size 16.

Kurt Perron, manager of the Amazing Party and Costume Store located in the west end of Toronto, talked about the store’s vast plus-size options.

The store sells costumes ranging in size from toddler to triple XL. He estimated that around 15 to 20 per cent of the costumes they sell are plus-size, with that number growing every year.

“Years ago, you could only be a witch. They didn’t have [plus-sized costumes] 10 years ago. Now you can be Wonder Women, you can be anything you want now, no matter what your size is,” Perron said.

He commented that most of the population fits into plus-size costumes, acknowledging the growing demand for larger sizes within the retail industry.

When asked about whether or not he believes it is the job of retailers to ensure that all body types are properly represented within their stores, Perron adamantly agreed that it is.

Despite the progress for Halloween and retail stores who sell a variety of costumes in different sizes, the media has an even bigger part to play in dressing up for Halloween.

Mythili Rajiva, a women and gender studies professor from the University of Ottawa, spoke about the impact of the media in perpetuating unhealthy beauty standards, along with the effect it has on body image.

“For both men and women, obviously there are many different types of bodies,” Rajiva said. “If we are concerned with realistic representations within popular media and popular culture which are supposed to be representations that speak to us as a population, then the constant exposure to images of unrealistic body types . . . perpetuates not only negative body images for the population, but a very single minded standard for both men and women.”

Rajiva added that society puts abnormal amounts of stress on young girls and women to conform to beauty norms. By doing this, she said she believes we are ultimately maintaining a system of gender inequality.

“We continue to believe that our primary value in society is through our looks rather than what we do and rather than what we achieve,” Rajiva said. “This benefits a system of gender inequality where instead of women focusing on changing the world or being successful or being confident and they are constantly focused on this issue.”

During Halloween, some people may feel like these pressures to be perfect and appear sexy are heightened, while others look at it as an opportunity to express their sexuality more freely.

Rachel Benderkerbel, a first-year media and communications major at Carleton, said that although Halloween costumes often advertise negative body images, she would still dress up for Halloween.

“It’s not like Halloween is the only time when your body type isn’t represented,” Benderkerbel said.

Benderkerbel said that even though the media can pressure women to dress sexy for Halloween, that this can actually be an opportunity to bring empowerment to women.

“I think it can be empowering and almost a self-love thing for women to dress sexy for Halloween,”Benderkerbel said.

But not everyone feels empowered by dressing up for Halloween.

A first-year Carleton psychology student, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, said in an email that her body type is negatively portrayed in the media, as well as by her peers.

“People view [my body] as sick or having an eating disorder, and not just as someone who is smaller. As someone who is not curvy one bit, seeing all these busty models makes me feel as if [Halloween] costumes don’t look as good on me,” she said.

Megan Weckwerth, a former model for Ottawa’s Models International Management (MIM) and Angie’s Models and Talent International (AMTI), said that models also feel pressured to lose weight around Halloween.

“If you’re in the modeling industry and you’re targeting the Halloween market, you know those costumes are going to be sexy and show a lot of skin, so a model might feel the pressure to be more lean or skinnier or look more flat for a photo because they know it’s going to be out there,” she said.

Weckwerth commented on how she also felt pressured by her peers to dress sexy this Halloween.

“This Halloween I wanted to be number one dad, I wanted that to be my costume, but my friend was a sexy devil, and she was like ‘come on, dress up a little bit!’ So yeah, I dressed up a bit, I was an angel in a dress instead of number one dad,” Weckwerth said. “But that was more of a social pressure with friends.”

Even though the media, retail industries, and pressure from social groups can influence someone’s body image, Rajiva said that these issues stem from deeper social inequalities.

“When we think about the representation of what is beautiful for women, for example, we have to tie
that into questions of race, sexuality, and class,” she said.

According to Rajiva, the ideal beauty norm in North American society is white or light skinned, blonde, able-bodied, with larger breasts, as well as being thin and athletic.

“These ideals perpetuate racial inequalities and gender inequalities because very few women fit into this formula,” Rajiva said.

To promote healthy beauty standards and incite change in the media, fashion industry, and society, Rajiva said that being aware of body shaming in the media, and practicing positive body image is a good place to start.

“I think certainly girls and women have to make choices themselves to stop participating in this, and one of the ways in which they can choose to stop participating is not necessarily anything radical, like not wearing makeup or doing any of those things—that’s a lot to ask for,” she said. “It’s simply to stop body shaming other women and other girls. And to stop focusing on comparing themselves to other women either to their detriment or to the other person’s detriment,”

In an example she gives to her students, Rajiva talks about how to handle seeing someone on the bus they think is more attractive than them.

She said instead of looking at them with jealousy, just say “good for them” and continue on
with your day.

According to Rajiva, this allows her students to think better of themselves as well as working to help end the cycle of woman-against-woman competition. She said simple changes in mental perceptions like these can drastically affect the way this issue is dealt with, and will bring us another step closer to living in a more inclusive society that celebrates every body type, no matter the shape or size.