THE BLOG

Clothing Size: When the Numbers Don't Add Up

07/24/2014 11:30 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014

Size matters, or so the expression goes. But when it comes to clothing size, does it have to matter so much?

J. Crew's recent expansion of clothing size offerings -- down to 000 or XXXS -- has reignited the discussion about the messages that women (and men) internalize about ideal body size. That the clothing company's decision was reportedly made to address the demands of petite Asian customers as part of an overseas expansion, or that it simply marks another moment in a long history of designers adjusting their sizes to meet their marketplace, is drowned out by our tendency to define ourselves by numbers.

When we focus too much on waist circumference or dress size, the numbers don't add up to psychological wellbeing. Consider some examples of how size seems to matter for the worse: A college student goes into an unfamiliar store and finds a dress that she likes, but does not purchase it because the size that fits her is larger than the one she typically wears. A new mother is devastated that even after losing the majority of pregnancy weight, her old clothes no longer fit the same way they had before. A businessman is frustrated when the suit pants at a store he frequents have been redesigned to a slimmer cut, forcing him to go up a size. A middle-aged woman is elated when a beloved clothing brand's resizing means that she will now be able to purchase a smaller size, though she is aware that neither her weight nor body shape have changed.

If the ways in which clothing size matters to you are causing you distress or, simply put, don't make much sense, consider how you might adjust your mental arithmetic to better balance the equation:

Subtract self-criticism. Making disparaging comments about your size will only amplify the importance of the numbers. You might think instead about how your body has served you well lately -- the legs that climb those stairs to the office every day, the shoulders that support your bags on errands, the waist and neck to which your children cling in moments of joy and fear. Or, you might instead focus on how you feel in the clothing, regardless of the size on the label. Is it comfortable? Is the color, cut, or design flattering to your body shape or skin tone?

Multiply by your positive attributes. Striving to give the aspects of your appearance about which you feel positive at least equal (if not more) airtime compared to the negative features will work to your advantage. What can you find to admire about your physical self -- the curve of your hips, the strength of your legs, the arch of your shoulders, the sheen of your hair?

Divide your attention. Remember: There is more than one way (and certainly better ways) to define health than clothing size. Paying attention to other markers of health -- like your blood pressure or your endurance during a workout -- might help to detract from focusing too much on the number on your clothing tag.

Add more variables into the mix. The more ways that you can define yourself aside from size and appearance altogether, the more well-rounded and accurate your self-perception is likely to be. What do others admire in you? Maybe it's how patient you are with your child, how honest you are with your partner, how kind you are to strangers, how unflappable you are in times of crisis, or how witty you are in conversation. Don't forget that these qualities belong in the "you" equation too!

Arriving at a new formula that leaves you feeling mentally balanced about clothing size might require some difficult calculations. But next time you step into the dressing room, imagine that it is a time machine to the future. Ask yourself: "How will I feel about this size in three weeks? Three months? Three years?" If your answer is that the number on the clothing tag might matter less and less as time goes on (or, that you won't even remember the size of those pants, say 30 years from now), then challenge yourself to make it matter less today.