Now that we’ve defined what petite means, let’s examine how many of us there are.
And to kick this post off, we’ll begin with a story:
My Story: Shopping for Fashion
My own fashion awakening happened when I was about twelve years old – peer pressure started to make me feel I had to change the way I dressed and be cool. This also happened to be at a time when I was extremely heavy.
The subsequent trip to the mall with my mom was my first exposure to selecting my own clothes with an eye to how it looked on me. First, as you may imagine, it was hard to find things that fit (and were child-appropriate) for an overweight, 5’1″ kid. I don’t remember having a lot of fun, but I do remember saying something negative about myself and the salesperson saying that the “clothes are wrong, not your body”.
And I’m sure there were myriad reasons I was experiencing frustration; in hindsight, I think one of them was that I was intent on shopping in the COOL stores, not that ugly, dowdy, petite women’s store. Walking past it, I remember asking my mom about the shop; I certainly fit into that height category, but not a single thing in there held any appeal to me!1
So, in a very casual way, I was aware that petite applied to women who were 5’4″ and shorter, and noted that certainly, since there was only one store in the mall that catered to petites, petites must be the minority.
FYI: that store still IS there and has at some point in the intervening years added a petite-plus section and now has this self-description on their petite-plus page:
Explore Laura Plus Petites for a chic and fashion-forward wardrobe. We believe in comfortable and easy-to-wear pieces to make every woman look and feel wonderful. Designed in sizes 14+ for women 5’4” and under.
This experience shaped my ideas of my own body, and specifically my height. I’ve never felt badly about being short, but I was always under the impression that it’s unusual to be 5’4″ or shorter because “there’s special stores to cater to those people”. It’s not normal; it’s not regular. It’s not the average and it’s not the standard.
National Height Averages and the Petite Woman
As it turns out, stats reveal a different story; in all the countries for which I could find information, the average (important to note that this is the average) height for adult females is 5’4″ or shorter. Incidentally, I encourage you to look up average adult female height for countries not listed here!
The National Center for Health Statistics says the average height for adult females is 63.6″ (5’4″ / 1.68 m). More specifically, you can download the pdf of those stats tables here, and a simple search of the words “average height female” return loads of results.
The data I’m referencing here from the pdf linked above has this to say about its collection:
Data are from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a complex, stratified, and multistage probability sample of the civilian noninstitutionalized U.S. population. Anthropometry measurements were obtained from 20,015 survey participants. The anthropometric measures included weight, height, recumbent length, circumferences, limb lengths, and skinfold thickness measurements.
As you may know, Stats Canada has just begun publishing their most recent data from the extensive survey done in 2016. I’m anxiously awaiting the newest info, but for now, we have archived data from 2005-2009 that gives the mean height of 162 cm (5’4″) for adult women aged 18-79.
The source for this info is from the a subsample of the 2008 Canadian Community Health Survey, 2007-2009 Canadian Health Measures Survey, and a subsample of the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey. You can read more about the current Canadian Health Measures Survey here, and about the Canadian Community Health Measures Survey here.
And, just for interest’s sake, here’s a July 2016 article from the CBC that cites data from Imperial College in London, saying that like many other countries’ populations, Canadians are getting taller, but not at the same rate as other nations.
The story isn’t much different in the UK.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2011-2012 the average woman was 161.8 cm (5’4″) tall.
Why this matters
There are plenty of fit points at which sizing standards will not serve you as an individual human.2 Creating ready-made clothes relies on picking some sort of data on which to base numbers.3 But it’s important to keep in mind that not only does averaging things out mean no one gets a perfect fit, these average numbers are a moving target that are subject to being skewed through insufficient or unrepresentative data collection (which we’ll get into in March).4
I was unhappy about not finding clothes to solve my un-coolness problem when I was twelve. Not being represented in clothing stores where people my age shopped made me feel like there was something wrong with me. That (culturally preferred) standard demonstrated by my options is, as has been revealed through data I’ve been encountering, demonstrative of a cultural standard (read: preference) that doesn’t really represent the average woman.
There are lots of reasons why this outdated system is flawed4 (we’ll address in March!), but for now it’s important to state that petite, as defined by the fashion industry for decades, is actually pretty close to the average woman’s height in many countries. What we find in regular, non-petite clothing stores skews taller than the average woman. Depending on the designer, the amount of skew will vary, but all this is to say regular size apparel designers operate on the assumption that as an adult woman, you’re taller than 5’4″.
Fun Fact of the Week
According to this 2017 CBC article, the country with the shortest average adult females is Guatemala at 149.4 cm (4’11”) and the country with the tallest average adult females is Latvia at 169.8 cm (5’7″).
What data can you find regarding the average adult female height of your country’s population? Can you find data that gives an estimate in real numbers as to the percentage of the adult female population who are 5’4″ and under?
Suggestion: Wondering where to start looking? Based on some advice5 I followed from Anthropometry, apparel sizing and design, you can start with resources provided by your government, academia (see if you can access resources at your local public or university library), and information from the apparel industry itself.
- National Center for Health Statistics; average height for adult males and females based on data from 2007-2010. accessed February 19, 2017
- NPD Group: “Canadian Retailers Losing Special-Size Market Share to the U.S.“; September 2013, accessed February 19, 2017.
- Stats Canada; “Mean height, weight, body mass index (BMI) and prevalence of obesity, by collection method and sex, household population aged 18 to 79, Canada, 2008, 2007 to 2009, and 2005“; accessed February 19, 2017.
- Canadian Health Measures Survey; accessed February 19, 2017.
- Canadian Community Health Measures Survey; accessed February 19, 2017.
- CBC: “Canadians still getting taller, but not as fast as others“; July 26, 2016, accessed February 19, 2017.
- SizeUK: Charts of Average Heights for Men and Women, including comparisons to SizeUSA; pdf accessed February 19, 2017.
- SizeUK; accessed February 19, 2017.
- SizeUSA; accessed February 19, 2017.
- Deepti Gupta, Norsaadah Zakaria. Anthropometry, Apparel Sizing and Design. Elsevier Science & Technology, 2014.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics; accessed February 19, 2017.
- Preface to Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007
- Susan Ashdown, biography from University of Cornell website; accessed February 19, 2017.
- “Creating Sizing Systems”, by A. Petrova, from Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007
- “Sizing Standardization”, by K. L. Labat, from Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England) Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007
1Incidentally, these 2013 stats from the NPD group demonstrate that there is still a gap in the market, particularly the Canadian one, for plus-sized teens from 13 – 17.
2Preface to Sizing in clothing: developing effective sizing systems for ready-to-wear clothing. S. P. Ashdown, Textile Institute (Manchester, England)
Woodhead Publishing in association with The Textile Institute, Apr 20, 2007.
From Susan Ashdown, a professor at Cornell University in the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design: “Since the time of the industrial revolution and the first widespread introduction of mass-produced clothing the apparel industry has struggled with the inherent contradictions of providing well-fitted clothing within the constraints of economical and practical sizing systems for the variety of people in a population. People vary along many dimensions, resulting in a multitude of sizes, proportions and postures to be accommodated.” Ashdown goes on to state, ” The complexity of sizing for clothing is unmatched by any other consumer product.” pg xvii
3ibid, in the chapter “Creating Sizing Systems”, by A. Petrova, pg 63. “The structure of a sizing system is based on the division of the population into groups with similar body measurements. The body dimensions that are used to classify the population in groups are called control dimensions…The primary control dimension separates the population into major size groups along the body measurement that is considered to be the most important control dimension for a specified type of garment.”
4 ibid, in the chapter “Sizing Standardization”, by K. L. Labat, pg 94-95. “Basing a sizing system on ‘good’ data is a necessity but the acquisition and interpretation of valid data can present problems. Most standard sizing systems available today are based on old data that do not represent current consumers. In many cases, the methods used to collect the data were flawed.”
5 In particular, I pulled these suggestions from the chapter “National size and shape surveys for apparel design” by J. Bougourd and P. Treleaven, pgs 146-149.