A shopper views Madrid store display.

MADRID, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)–The Spanish government has just finished measuring the bodies of more than 10,000 women to help create new guidelines for the clothing industry.

The Feb. 7 study concluded that Spanish women come in three basic shapes–hourglass, pear and barrel–which consumer advocates say should serve as a more accurate base for sizing.

In part, the effort is about reducing the amount of trial-and-error time in the fitting room. Current sizes are based on pre-1975 models, when women’s bodies were significantly different, and clothes often vary by two to three sizes from store to store.

"From the perspective of the consumer, it’s an inconvenience," said Angeles Heras, director general of the Madrid-based National Institute of Consumer Affairs, which conducted the five-month study for Spain’s Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs.

But it’s also an effort to promote healthier body images: receiving honest and reliable information about their clothing size can help women to more readily accept their bodies as they are, goes the logic.

Manufacturers around the world often fudge sizes to make consumers feel better but they are also misleading their customers and supporting distorted perceptions of what constitutes a healthy and beautiful body, Heras said in an interview last November, while the study was being conducted. "It’s clear that fashion greatly influences the health of women," she said. "There are many psychological disorders that stem from wanting to be thin. . .We want to promote models of healthy beauty."

Rethinking Sizes

The $2.5 million study advocates using a three-digit sizing system that takes into consideration the perimeter of a woman’s bust, waist and hips, in relation to height. Clothes are currently limited to one simple size because "anatomy had always established scientific categories according to the male gender," the National Institute of Consumer Affairs said in a press release.

The study found 86 percent of women in Spain had a conventional body mass index. This means that whatever their description–underweight, normal or overweight–they do not require medical consultation or treatment. About 12 percent–particularly among women over 50–suffer some form of obesity. About 1 percent–particularly among young people–is moderately or severely thin.

More than 90 percent of the clothing industry–including such popular Spanish retailers as Zara and Mango–have volunteered to standardize their sizes according to the study’s findings within five years.

The women–recruited randomly from around the country to represent 10 age groups–were measured inside booths that use laser beam technology to obtain their three-dimensional body shape. That information was supplemented by manual measurements.

More than 40 percent of the subjects said they sometimes or always had problems with clothing sizes. Among them, 43 percent said they found sizes too small for their bodies and 22 percent found them too large. Another 8 percent said their size was too common, which made it difficult to find in the store.

Aiming for Realism

Even though Heras said many women prefer to fit into a smaller size, she thinks standardized sizes will give women a more realistic and accurate picture of their true size.

"What we are aiming for is to know what we are" regardless of the size "because beauty can be real and can adapt to real women," she said.

The 2007 agreement also requires signatories to replace their conspicuously thin mannequins with those that are at least a European size 38 (or U.S. 8). They have also agreed to change the way they treat size 46 (or U.S. 16). Previously regarded as a "special size" for larger women, it will now be regarded as a normal size and be part of their routine inventory.

Alicia Hormigo, a 50-year-old teacher from Madrid, approves of the changes ahead whether they affect the sizes that stores carry or the shapes of their mannequins. "Women have to have curves and when they are older, they cannot be thin," she said.

Sandra Criado Mosteles, 29, a window dresser at clothing stores in Madrid said the mannequins she works with are so thin that even the smallest sizes have to be taken in with pins to make them fit. "It’s a bit deceiving," she said.

Mosteles also welcomes the government’s push to standardize sizes. "I would like to know the (real) sizes so that I could go into stores and go exactly to the size," she said. "When you are going to buy, it is much easier."

Measuring the After Effects

Another woman, an immigrant and mother from South America, said she rarely feels like shopping for pants because sizes are distorted and because she has difficulty finding pants that fit her curvy hips.

"If they don’t fit you well, then you become nervous that you are fat," she said while riding on the city’s metro. "You go home and want to start a diet."

While sizing inconsistency is rampant around the world, Spanish officials say the country is the first to embark on such a rigorous and comprehensive scientific study aimed at remedying the problem.

No European law obligates sizes to conform to certain measurements, Heras said.

Spain began leading the way against fashion’s ultra-thin pressures a couple of years ago, when the Madrid regional government decided to exclude models with a body mass index of under 18 from its 2006 international fashion week.

Italy followed suit by banning underweight models from its Milan fashion show.

New York City’s fashion week, which ended earlier this month, has yet to ban underweight models. This year fashion reporters pointed out that the current male models were noticeably skinnier than in previous years.

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East. She did the reporting for this story during a recent visit to Spain.

For more information:

Spain’s Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs (in Spanish):

Spain’s National Institute of Consumer Affairs (in Spanish):

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