Size is a matter of opinion

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I am a size 14. I have been a size 14 for years. I have no idea what size 14 means in terms of inches but in practice it means I am two sizes fatter than a model (size 10) and one size thinner than a specialist fat lady (size 16 and above). It's not something I feel fabulous about, but neither is it a source of self-hate sessions in the bath. It's something I've come to terms with.

And now, after a major shopping trip, I've discovered I'm actually an 8! All these years teetering on the edge of specialist fat lady, and now I'm too thin to be a model! I am struggling to rebuild my moral universe. Sort of.

My day starts with a nightmare hunt for a wedding outfit. A suit is out of the question (too exec), trousers impossible (aged aunt factor), I look terrible in separates so it has to be a below-the-knee dress. Which leaves me, eventually, at Next, in the polka dot zone. So off I trot to the changing rooms with, naturally, a size 14.

Annoyingly, I can't do the buttons up across my chest. The dress has obviously been mislabelled. So I have to get changed, give the assistant a plastic school card designed to ensure I won't steal anything, and find a stigmatising size 16. The size 16s are hidden at the back of the rack, in sad, don't-look-at-me brown. Frankly, brown isn't me, but the wedding is tomorrow, so it's do-or-die. Then I queue for another plastic school card, get changed, try on the dress. Which is pretty tight, but 16 is as big as they go. Depressed, remembering I've gone down to 20 lengths at the pool, hating Ben & Jerry's ice cream for launching over here, I buy the size 16.

Then to Agnes B, to cheer myself up with a divine, French, overpriced, chic, beautifully-cut trouser suit. But just walking in gives me bad vibes. The shop assistants look frighteningly thin. The clothes are doll-sized. This is a bad idea, but I can't lose face now I'm halfway across the lonely expanse of stripped-pine floor.

As I flick sweatily through the racks, I notice the jackets are sized 1, 2, 3. "What does this mean?" I beg the petite blonde assistant, who clearly doesn't approve of my Next bag. "8, 10, 12" she recites flatly, flicking a spec of dust from her tiny silk shoulder. I scuttle into the dressing room, ears cocked for the size police, who may already have surrounded the building with giant "Size 16?" megaphones and cellulite-sniffing dogs. "Come out quietly, Ms Picardie! We know you are harbouring a thin person's jacket in there!"

Miraculously, however, the jacket fits. I force the trousers over my hips. There is a horrible ripping sound. Luckily, the assistant is far away, attending to thinner customers. "Do you have a size 14 in the trousers?" I call out weakly from behind the curtain.The teeny brunette at the till smiles, wisely. She shakes her head. Words are not necessary. The message is clear: Fatties Go Home.

On the way to the bus stop, thinking mainly of New York Super Fudge Chunk, I slink into Nicole Farhi, attracted - despite everything - by a window full of silk shirts. Sadly, there isn't a size 14, the shirts are all "in between" sizes. I feel too depressed even to look for the 16/18. But the shop assistant urges me to try the 12/14; they are "quite generous". Is it that obvious that I'm on the verge of becoming a specialist fat lady? I trudge off to the changing room.

The shirt, it turns out, is enormous. I am drowning in silk. This must be a mistake. Some freak label. The patronising shop assistant has disappeared. So I rush back to the rack, so excited that I illegally keep the original shirt on. Dare I try the 8/10? Perhaps I can pretend it is for a friend. A much smaller friend.

I dare. And the 8/10 is a perfect fit! I must have lost weight. A lot. Those 20 lengths? Or a miracle? This thought distracts me from the fact that I am handing over pounds 67. Never mind; it's a small price to pay to feel like a model. A supermodel, in fact!

On, happily, to Gap, to check out their linen trousers. I try the 12. Huge, positively falling off. I'll have to buy a whole new wardrobe. Back on to the shop floor to look for a 10, I notice an awful lot of size 8s. I didn't realise the Gap girl was so petite. Size 6? Is this the store that likes to say yes to anorexia? Size 4? Then the horrible truth dawns. These aren't even US sizes (their 8 is our 10), but Gap sizes, which are, inexplicably, two sizes smaller than UK sizes. The reason the size 12 is too big is because it's a size 16. I feel very hungry. I leave. I buy a tub of Cherry Garcia and waddle on to the bus.

The sizing of women's clothing is, it seems, rather more art than science. A random sampling of designers' definitions of size 10 produced the following: Jigsaw, bust 33ins, waist 25ins, hips 35ins; Betty Jackson, bust 33ins, waist 26.5ins, hips 37ins; Jasper Conran, who has gradually been increasing his sizes "especially over the bust", bust 34ins, waist 26.5ins, hips 38ins.

Designers seem to favour one of two approaches. Flattery, as in the case of Gap, where a UK size 14 is miraculously transformed into a 10. Nicole Farhi simply makes everything vast. The second approach is based on snobbery, the idea that rich people are thin, which seems to be the case with Agnes B.

Size 14? Size 8? Pass me the Double Chocolate Brownie Surprise