We’ve Been Lied To — The Average Australian Woman Is Actually Plus-Sized

If, like me, you’ve been considered “plus-size” for most of your life then my story will be a tale as old as time. Growing up in diet-obsessed nineties and noughties Australia I spent my youth fondling necklaces while my friends shopped for low-rise jeans. I wore the same pair of pants in three different school plays because they were the only wardrobe item that fit. And I even had to have my school blazer tailor-made because the uniform shop didn’t go beyond a size 16.
The thing about growing up fat is that you feel so isolated by the shame of it all. I spent most of my school years developing into the class clown with a razor-sharp tongue to distract from the body which I deemed to be at least 11 times larger than those of all my classmates. But what I wish I could go back and tell my younger self is that, despite feeling like an extreme outsider, I wasn’t alone. In fact, the ‘average’ Australian woman is plus-sized.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2017-18 National Health Survey (NHS), more than two-thirds (67%) of Australians aged 18 and over were overweight or obese (don’t get me started on how I feel about the ‘o’ words). And it’s not just Australia — check out the R29 67% project, referencing the 67% of women in America who are defined as plus-size yet who are consistently absent in the media. Not to mention the endless headlines around the Western world proclaiming we are in the midst of an ‘obesity epidemic’.

Up until 2008, our clothing standards were based on the measurements of a group of self-elected white women more than 80 years ago.

Holly Richards
But those of us who live in larger bodies are accustomed to living outside society’s realms of ‘normality’ — especially when it comes to buying clothes. It’s not exactly breaking news that plus-size people find it difficult to buy clothing that fits and feels good. According to business analyst IBISWorld, a measly 6.3% of Australian clothing retailers sell plus-sizes (that’s size 16+). It’s commonly reported the average Australian woman wears a size 14-16 and has for many years provided a benchmark for the largest size considered ‘normal’. However, given we know the majority of adult Aussies (67%, remember) are considered ‘overweight’, it doesn’t make sense that the average woman is considered a size 14-16. So, I did some investigating.
As a former journalist turned founder of AmpleFolk, something didn’t sit right with me. My company sells quality products designed especially for plus-size people, starting with 2.2 metre-long towels and we are also currently working on a patent-pending, radically adjustable sports bra. I’ve also completed an MBA at the University of New South Wales, so analysing data to make evidence-based business decisions is my jam (don’t judge me). Whenever I, an Australian women’s size 28/30, post on TikTok about things not fitting me (for example, a hotel robe), I receive a barrage of hateful comments. The most polite of them continuously inform me that the average woman is a size 14-16, and ask, 'Why would they accommodate an outlier like you?’. But, I knew from my research creating AmpleFolk that the majority of Australian women are considered ‘overweight’ so something just wasn’t adding up. Maybe I wasn’t such an outlier after all.
I returned to the aforementioned ABS NHS and discovered the average waist circumference of Australian women in 2017/18 was reported to be 88cm (there was a more recent ABS health survey in 2021 that didn’t include waist circumference due to COVID-19 restrictions). I compared that measurement with the size charts of 20 of Australia’s most popular clothing brands to determine which size would best fit someone with an 88cm waist. The results were clear: the average Australian woman wears a size 16-18, making her officially ‘plus-size’. According to the size charts, someone with a waist measurement of 88cm would fall between a size 16 and 18 at 45% of the brands while 20% would wear a size 18 and 30% a size 16. And that’s using outdated data and assuming sizing is standard across all garments, which, anyone who has ever worn clothes knows, is not the case.
So then it begs the question, how did we get it so wrong for so long?
Countless news articles state that the ABS reports the average Australian woman wears a size 14-16, however, it’s unclear where this assumption came from as there is no mention of the average clothing size for men and women in ABS surveys — only waist circumference.
Most of us, regardless of our body size, have had the experience of being one size at one retailer while being an entirely different size at another. Heck, we’re often different sizes at the same retailer, depending on the garment. This is because there are no official standards in Australia when it comes to adult clothing. In 2008, the Australian Standard Size Coding Scheme for women’s clothing was shut down, making way for retailers to develop their own sizing scales. I spoke with former Australian Standard Size Coding Scheme board member Kate Kennedy about why the scheme was scrapped.
“At the time, the Technicians Association of Australia [which is no longer a functioning group] was requesting for the standards to be updated through a new size survey,” she explains. “And as the existing standard for women’s clothing was so out of date, we thought it was best to withdraw it.”
According to briefing notes Kate supplied to the Council of Textiles and Fashion Industries of Australia (now the Australian Fashion Council) in 2007 regarding the withdrawal of the standards, the Australian Standard Size Coding Scheme was based on body measurements that weren't even representative of the Australian population. The standards were formed using measurements taken largely from a US Department of Commerce Standard developed from a 1939 post-depression survey of 11,500 white Southern American women. Yes, you read that right. Up until 2008, our clothing standards were based on the measurements of a group of self-elected white women more than 80 years ago. In her PhD, Kate quotes fashion designer Becca McCharen-Tran who said:  “Fashion favours thin, white, young, able-bodied, cisgender”.
Kate is an expert in fashion, with a PhD from RMIT University. The former fashion lecturer is now a member of The Standards Australia Committee CS-092 Sizing Systems for Clothing, which monitors the international ISO TC 133, developing standardisation of sizing systems for clothes based on size designation, body size measurement methods for clothing and for digital garment fitting. She says the notion of ‘average’ is irrelevant to improving clothing fit for every body because “it says who you should be rather than who you are”. 

For years, we’ve been told most women in our country are at least two sizes smaller than they actually are. This is gaslighting.

Holly Richards
“I came to the realisation that there were too many flaws, in both technical accuracy and cultural interpretation, to rely on someone publishing a perfect set of size standards,” she writes in her PhD.
Kate points out that women’s bodies are anthropometrically diverse and, in fact, if we’re looking at the true definition of normal (typical, usual or ordinary; what you would expect), then in fact, variance is the norm. Finding out the ‘average’ woman’s measurements is therefore not helpful in creating clothing that fits most people. Even if we were to work out the true average body based on concrete data, clothing designed especially for that body would only fit that body.
The average does not equal the majority. Not only is looking at catering to a few deviations on either side of 'the average' far too limited to serve most bodies, but what we have long considered the average is actually incorrect. To recap — based on the ABS data, the average Australian woman is a size 16-18, making 67% (the clear majority) of us plus-sized, but just 6.3% of retailers actually sell plus-sizes. Make it make sense! At the risk of nullifying my entire thesis at the opening of this article — that the average Australian woman is plus-size — perhaps I should replace the word ‘average’ with ‘the majority’.
The impact of the non sequitur of 67% of Australian women being plus-size but just 6.3% of retailers selling plus-sizes is not just the limited clothing options for the overwhelming majority of us but it also does damage to all people’s mental health and body image. We are advised to lose weight in order to fit into an 'average' and 'healthy' range, even though, as we’ve just discovered, the basis of averages in size and shape is shaky at best. For years, we’ve been told most women in our country are at least two sizes smaller than they actually are. This is gaslighting and weight stigma (at its best) and it has horrific knock-on effects on our mental health.
More than one million Australians are living with an eating disorder, many of which are at least in part caused by weight stigma. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration defines weight stigma as “the discrimination towards people based on their body weight and size”. UNSW’s Dr Jasmine Fardouly recently told Refinery29 about the repercussions of negative body image.
"Being unhappy with your body is a risk factor for many mental health disorders,” she said. “It’s an important predictor of eating disorders and depression and is also linked to some anxiety disorders.”
While there’s no doubt there has been a recent uplift in plus-size clothing retailers and existing brands stocking beyond a size 16 (albeit largely available online only), there is very obviously still a long way to go before the fashion industry caters to the majority of Australian women. Last year, Australian Fashion Week made history with its first curve runway show. Alas, aside from that one show; of the 70 labels to be featured at AAFW, less than 5% offer over a size 14. It seems we indeed have a long way to go.
So, if all the headlines about the rising 'obesity epidemic' are to be believed and we’re all getting bigger, why aren’t our clothes?
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