Right-Sizing Women

So, I was reading this the other day:

“The women of the US military will still be wearing trousers, but from now on they might actually fit. In a move which highlights the changing nature of traditional gender roles, the Pentagon is road testing its first ever range of combat uniforms designed specifically for female recruits.

Seven hundred outfits are currently being tested at Fort Belvoir in Virgina. They have shorter arms than the male versions and greater breathing room around the chest and hips. Designers have also repositioned the knee pads, to compensate for the fact that women generally have shorter legs than their male counterparts.

The most important feature, in practical terms, is said to be a redesigned crotch. The camouflaged uniforms no longer boast an old-fashioned zippered fly, but are made in way that allows female soldiers to urinate without the inconvenience of having to disrobe.”

This goes back to the whole idea of women being treated as the non-default setting of humankind. Men are the default, and women are related-yet-deviant creatures. And there are fewer of them than men anyway in the military, so, let’s just showve them into men’s uniforms. It is about time to have uniforms that properly fit women.

And thinking about proper sizing for women, Sam Ladner (the great non-academic sociologist. Yes, there is a life outside of academia for sociologists!) discussed this issue further, especially that women have a hard time finding clothes that fit them:

“Why are fashion retailers providing such poor sizing? According to the fashion historian quoted in the article, this is partly historical — sizing has never been fully standardized. But it isn’t just the numbers, it’s also the cut. Clothing is frequently cut for a single body type. If you’ve ever seen a catwalk, you’ll know that designers favour the straight-lined boyish look of models over the “apple” or “pear” or “hourglass” shape of average women.

(…)

Women are cramming themselves into inaccurate sizes, cut to fit only one type of body — and they’re feeling bad about it. It’s amazing that fashion retailers, who go as far as scenting the air in their stores, fail to cater to this most basic aspect of the clothing experience.

What does “size” means to women? It is conversation between her and the garment, one which all too often ends with a judgment of the woman. When a woman takes a piece of clothing to the fitting room, she is asking the garment, “Are you right for me?” The garment “speaks” first in through its listed size. But imagine when that size does not match how the garment fits. It is now telling the woman, “You are too big for me.” This is obviously a touchy subject for most women, as we are expected to maintain a small size. We are trained to take up less space, less food (among other things).

The size is a “normative” expectation, as sociologists would call it. A woman is “supposed to” fit into a certain size, and if she does not, “something’s wrong with you.” Retailers are making women feel there’s something wrong with them, not to mention frustrated, and are also wasting their time.”

The lack of properly fitting uniforms has to do with the fact that women are still seen as not belonging in the military, as not fit for it, and as intruding into an institution that does not want them and where they are seen as less competent and disruptive.

The issue of lack of proper sizing has indeed to do with the normative injunction that women should not throw their weight around, physically and metaphorically.

In both cases, it has to do with normalization, deviance and social control. So, it is a positive step for women to get properly fitting uniforms (although other European countries got that years ago).

But social control also works in double bind: women are supposed to fit one physical standard, marked by thinness and a specific non-curvy shape. But then, they are accused of being for the military because of physical weakness. You can’t win. And, of course, such views of femininity and its shortcomings is part of the classical polarized version of genders where women are the negative, mirror image of men and androgyny is still seen as deviant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *