The birthday dress … and being invisible.

For the last two weeks I’ve been in PhD intensives. If the aim of my lecturers was to crush my perception of my contribution to the world, and reinforce how little I actually know, it worked. Basically my advice to anyone who wishes they had a PhD is just to recreate the experience for themselves at home – you will need a plunger, bench, computer and fluorescent light. Essentially the PhD requires you to sit at the bench (at a suitably uncomfortable height) under the light, reading the computer from 9 am in the morning until 2am the next day, and repeat for fourteen days straight. The only other permissible activities are to use and clean the plunger/French press. Voila! A PhD experience.

So, as you can see, this is not particularly interesting material to write on. I thought instead I would draw from my experiences shopping in L.A. Now as a disclaimer, I do know that the internet is a useful resource for the practical realities of life in another country and can be used for comparing Fahrenheit/Celsius, Lbs/grams and, most pertinently, clothes size differences – but in this article let’s just pretend. Because it’s funnier.

The conversations started with my neighbour Sara (you should check out her blog Dinosaur in the Kitchen) about underpants. Essentially, what  happened is that most of mine were left in Australia, hidden in various places in the laundry system. (for all my male readers, pardon me. I am under the impression that all humans wear underpants so please do not email me with bible verses, I am not trying to be overtly sexual and you may stop reading if the word ‘underpants’ offends you). Now here is the important part. Sara suggested that I buy large ones.

Now, I have childhood memories of my grandmothers’ underpants on the clothes line and staring up at them and thinking “can anyone’s bum be that big?”

I should add here that my grandmother, as a silent protest at having successfully placed herself in a nursing home, then gave herself the challenge of eating a full box of Arnott’s shortbread biscuits every day of her life. This meant her weight ballooned quite suddenly and surprisingly, at which we were all very concerned until Dad found evidence of these shortbread protests in the back of the nursing home cupboard. Her underpants were size 22, and they were large. I mean large. So it was a shock to be told that perhaps I should be looking at the big end of the spectrum when considering purchasing any clothes. And it raised questions that had been latent for many years – since high school in fact. Questions asked by women everywhere, and increasingly men too… like “what is the right size to be?”, “am I too big?” and “how can I look more like the images of good-looking people I see on television?”. It was a bit of a shock. I hadn’t thought like that in years.

A visit to Target only confirmed my fears. After spotting a rack of jeans that had the price tag of $27, I felt somewhat dizzy. I think this is what my Australian friends warned me about, the incredible American shopping experience – and it went straight to my head. Before running towards the jeans I realised I hadn’t worked out a crucial issue: what size was I?

So I asked the African-American lady folding teeshirts next to these incredibly-priced-can-you-believe-that jeans. “Excuse me” I asked,

“MmmmmHmmm” she said, not even looking at me. I jiggled around a little – I figured my question would require her to look up from her work.

“Um.. I’m from Australia”, I began

“MmmmmHmmm” she answered in response, with neither a positive or negative intonation. I danced around a little to try to get her to lift her eyes from the t-shirts. I suddenly thought she may not know what Australia means.

“I’ve come from a long way away, and we also have Target in my nation”, I said, “and I’ve just seen some of your clothes which look fantastic and are very well priced” (get to the point! I thought to myself) “but we have different sizing systems and I’m not sure where to start in trying on jeans. In Australia I would be a size 10, but I’d like to know what you think I would be here”. By this time I had moved myself as far under her gaze as I could without doing limbo over the t-shirt rack.

“I’d try a 10” she said, glancing up briefly through her glasses.

“you sure?” I said?

“Mmmmmhmmm” she answered.

I was a bit disappointed, I had expected a change in size – surely this wasn’t right? I went over and dejectedly pulled a ’10’ from the rack. I sized it up with my hands… “Jeepers!” I thought… “I must have grown since I’ve been here”. I decided not to try it on in the end, unsure as to what the number meant and whether I could conceptualize myself in this category. Everything I knew had changed.

The next week Tim encouraged me to visit Anthropologie and buy myself a dress as a present from him for my birthday. I was quite excited – not so much for the sizing as because I was finally in this American chain I’d stalked on the internet for so long. As there were sales and few sizes left, I pulled an 8 from the rack and thought I’d start with that. The sales lady came and looked at me, and suggested I should perhaps be looking for smaller. “I’ll bring you another option” she said and left, while I looked at myself in the mirror – how fantastic… dropping sizes left right and centre with no dieting, no exercise… I loved it.

“Here you go” she said as she handed me a different maxi dress “it’s half price, and I thought you should try it”. I tried it on, and it fit, which was quite exciting given that it was $39. I looked at the tag size: zero.

Suddenly, I had a moment of panic – was I invisible? How could I possibly be a zero?!

I’ve been reflecting on these shopping incidents, and the many teenagers silently battling with self-esteem, figuring out their body shapes and their perceptions of themselves. Self-perception is sometimes the hardest one of all…  when overwhelmingly images in magazines are thin and we make our clothes sizes numerical, it’s not hard to make little more desirable. As a person who suffered with an eating disorder but is now well and truly over it, I guess it’s not so much a commentary on asking society to change, but in asking society to voice these thoughts so that it can unlock some of the people who are hidden behind the numbers we give them… Perhaps if all else fails we should encourage people with body issues to travel internationally. That way, you lose a good 8 sizes without doing a thing, and you realise how arbitrary the numbering is.

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