When you try on a dress and wonder who they fit it on – that’s me.
I hunched behind the changing room curtain half naked, trying to squeeze into the seventh pair of skinny jeans.
They were always tight; too narrow even to push an ankle through. My breathing grew labored and I started to sweat. It was like a Zumba workout, wiggling and jiggling to the left and right, tugging and begging the denim to stretch over my thighs.
Every woman has eyeballed a gorgeous piece of clothing and daydreamed about how they’d wear it, only to try it on and watch that fantasy unravel. How could the fit be so off? Who did the designers try this on, anyway?
That would be me.
But here’s the secret. It doesn’t fit me either.
I tried on everything imaginable in my former life as a fitting model. Culottes, velvet everything, sleeves of incredible size, itchy sequins, pretty but useless coats, way too many off-the-shoulder tops, and wedgie-giving bodysuits, which were awkward AF to try on under public scrutiny.
But the skinny jeans were always the worst.
They were designed extra small, knowing the cheap fabric would stretch in time. Squeezing them on behind the thin guise of the change room curtain as expectant eyes waited outside felt incredibly vulnerable; it wasn’t exactly where I’d pictured myself ending up when I dreamed of working for glossy magazines as a young girl.
But I needed a job. The media industry I was trying to get into was proving more difficult to infiltrate as a beginner, and so I searched for alternative entry level positions to tie me over. Then I entertained an idea I’ll bet half the women in Western society have mulled over. I like clothes… How about fashion? I had zero qualifications, but there was one ad where that didn’t matter. The only requirements were these:
Bust: 68-88cm; 34-34.5in
Waist: 65-67cm; 25.5-26in
Hips: 90-92cm; 35-36in
Height: 166-170cm; 5’4-5’6
I am on the tall and busty side; my measurements seemed close enough.
My title was fitting model, but the job didn’t require any posing for photos or cat walking, anything you think of as the job of a model. I was a live mannequin, someone who could fit in a sample size as designers fastidiously pinned fabric and fussed over the final details.
The company was a large fast fashion brand for teenage girls to young women, with three fit models. Supposedly we were all sample size, but our body types couldn’t have been more different. How can that be? Right now, if you were to walk into a women’s clothing store and browse the available sizes, you could assume that there are only five body types in the world, and that every body within those sizes would be identical. Forget about anyone outside of those bounds, fashion seems to pretend they don’t exist.
On a typical day, the fitting models followed a timed schedule. We had samples to sort in between fittings, but mostly we were running between meeting rooms trying on a variety of clothing and describing the fit. The designers wanted to know when a sample was too small or big, the style too frumpy or young, and the material too cheap or itchy. Then they’d ask if I’d buy it or not; always a tricky question, because I had to answer for current trends that I thought were hideous but knew would sell.
I freely offered my opinion, but who knows how often they took it. The designers were under enormous pressure from their managers to copy bestselling styles at a fraction of the price but still maintain high sales. That sounds like a good business idea, but in practice they were stressed and time poor. When I said something was too tight, they responded, “Too much?”, as in, is it really that bad?
There was rarely time to change fabric if one was scratchy. or adjust the style if the fit was unflattering. The samples were sometimes already shipped to stores.
The fashion industry has a bad reputation for encouraging thin models. Models’ skinniness has not only affected them on occasion, but also millions of girls and women with negative feelings towards their body, that doesn’t look like the advertised “ideal”. I’d like to believe that there has been progress and such stories are rarer. But I’m not one to say, because I wasn’t that type of model.
Nevertheless, I felt the sting of that influence in my employment contract. There was a clause about the size of a fitting model, stating simply that she was expected to remain within the ‘size bracket’ during employment and that significant weight change could result in termination. It was dry legal speech, but to the point. It made complete sense from an employer’s perspective, and I never forgot it.
At the start of the new year, I was fitting a jacket and once again expressing its overall tightness. One of the designers looped her measuring tape around my waist and asked, “Have you gained weight?”
I had no idea if I had or hadn’t. “Well, it was just Christmas,” I joked.
For the rest of the week I worried about the clause in my contract. I wasn’t sure how readily the rule was enforced. To be safe, I avoided my manager and prayed no one else would notice.
Over the following months, I had moments when the designers would compliment my body, even expressing jealousy, and then wrap the tape measure around my hips when I couldn’t button the trousers. A couple of times when I said a fit was too tight, they called one of the other models and had her try on the same pair of shorts. If they fit her, then the shorts were approved. Why was I hired in the first place if I wasn’t quite the right size?
I don’t believe the designers meant to offend. On the contrary, I bonded with many of those women as we spent many hours together in my most compromising moments. But their questions about my weight mixed with the extra time looking at my body in the mirror changed me.
My manager never confronted me about my size, but after months of the back and forth feedback, I looked at myself in the mirror differently. At work, I seemed bloated, flabby, and big. At home, I thought I was my normal, slim, healthy size.
I don’t know how I managed it, but I grew up, survived my teenage years, and moved on to my twenties with a healthy body image. This is not because my body is flawless. I too have flappy arms despite hours at the gym. I will never have an Insta-perfect tummy, and yes, I too have thighs that very much touch.
For some reason, I don’t think about it as much, but I know it plagues many women. I’m not always confident with my body, but I usually have more anxious thoughts about my brain and the flurry of ideas whizzing around in there than my physical imperfections.
It came as a shock to me to have – for the first time ever – conflicting views about my body. I wasn’t sure if I was ‘too hippy’ or ‘too busty’. Or was I the exact same size I’d always been? Every weekend I’d forget about it, but then on Monday I was sucking in my gut even when I wasn’t fitting. I’d walk around the office hardly breathing, as if convincing everyone I was skinny enough for the job.
I thought being a fitting model would be safe. While thinness in fashion is often campaigned for, so the focus remains on the garment – not bouncing curves that distract the eye – I was working in the functional side of fashion. I was trying to help the average shopper fit into the garment, not sell it in a magazine.
But by the final months of my stint in the industry, I found myself longing to go back to seeing myself clearly. Thankfully, I have.
But just when I think the fashion industry is making progress, there’s another story about a model who was fired for supposedly being fat. While I was never told I was “fat” (just “outside the expected measurements”), I benefited from fashion’s singular view of body types. You wonder why things don’t fit? It’s because they were designed to fit one person, but even I couldn’t conform to that.
At least now my fitting model days are behind me, I can go home and slide into my jeans with ease and space to spare.
Comment: What are your frustrations about fashion sizing?