The Little Tag

In a previous life, I worked for a uniform company that mostly made suits for hotel concierge, hospital desk staff, bank tellers, and the like. As a member of the sales team, a frequent part of my job was to do an on-site fitting, where we brought the fit line (every item those employees could choose, in every size) and helped employees find their fit. This was important for a few reasons:

  1. Some workplaces weren’t keen on wearing a uniform, so we had to show them they were regular business clothes that could look nice.
  2. We could get feedback for our design team and let them know how the clothing fit real people with diverse bodies, or how zippers broke or buttons popped after three or four people had tried on a certain dress.
  3. Because most manufacturers like your favorite denim company have adopted vanity sizing or arbitrary Small/Medium/Large type labels, few of us really know what size we are in tailored clothing, and we didn’t want hundreds of people returning ill-fitting clothes (on our dime) every week.

That last reason was the most important of the three, and also the one that made my experience the most memorable.

If you are an adult woman reading this, I will bet good money you are concerned about what that little tag says in the new pants you try on. More and more men have come to share these body and self-image issues, so my male audience isn’t necessarily shielded from the grim experience. What happened when I went to these fittings was that almost every woman and about half the men underestimated their size. Sometimes, by a lot. And the reactions to finding the clothes too small varied from quiet frustration to loud and incredulous complaints to tears, even. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression… Now, these are adults, many of them in their 40s and 50s. It’s pretty tough to watch a defeated 50-something woman try on her fourth pant size, face reddened by a combination of embarrassment, shame, and exhaustion.

I ended up doing probably 25-30 of these fittings, with anywhere from 20-100 attendees. It’s pretty stunning to see how a little tag with a number on it can break down a human psychologically.

So how did we get here?

Once upon a time, clothes were made by tailors, seamstresses, servants, your mom, your grandmother, your sister, your uncle… You were measured, fabric was selected, and a practical, long-suffering suit or dress was custom-made for you to wear (and patch, and darn) until it eked forth its last, dusty breath. You had just a few pieces, and getting something new was a big deal. But in the late 19th century, as technology like power looms and sewing machines emerged, so did a whole new industry of ready-to-wear apparel.

Prior to this, did people obsess over 5-10 pounds gained at Christmas? Did we compare our bodies with others’ anything like we do now? So it seemed to me, gently persuading a woman my mother’s age to try a skirt size that made her eyes well up with tears, that technology which brought us convenience, abundance, and cheaper goods (though, arguably, a lot of waste) also brought us insecurity, dissatisfaction, and lower self esteem.

Technology, with its tremendous potential for good, can bring unintended ills as well if it’s developed without human welfare in mind. Douglas Rushkoff covers a lot of the ills of industrialization (and other fascinating stuff) in his excellent book Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. James Burke’s wonderful late ’70s TV series Connections shows how technology builds on itself, and how it changes human lives in its wake, with industrialization leading us to (and I’m totally misquoting from memory) live in the same homes, drive the same cars, wear the same clothes, and dream the same dreams.

With our innovations and the wonderful ways they give us back some of our time, clean our water, heal our diseases, connect us across long distances, and make life safer, we also must contend with the ways certain technologies create mindless spending, overconsumption, anxiety, distrust, pollution, obesity, oppression, and apathy.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. Much like a standardized numerical size is just data from industrializing clothing, what other technological development can you think of that has had unintended consequences for us socially, emotionally, or spiritually?

2. If you are a Christian, how does your faith interact with technology? How does it inform your interpretation and use of it in different parts of your life?

3. What technologies are you most grateful for in your life? Which make the most positive impacts for you and your loved ones?

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