Essay: So many countries, so many standards (a case of clothes size)

While traveling around the world, either on mission or on holiday, I encountered many different peoples with diverse cultures and value systems.  Sometimes I was amazed to learn that the values of others were so different from mine.  When in foreign countries, I also discovered that standards familiar to me were often not applied the same way as at home.

One such example is the standard used to indicate the size of clothes sold in shops in different countries.  True, it is far from being a life-or-death issue, but it has often left me bewildered.  Even in neighboring countries within Europe, such as France, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, standards vary slightly.

Long ago, when I first started working in Geneva, Switzerland, I wore M-sized clothes, according to the Japanese standard, though some, depending on the design and the cut, were L-sized.  However, when I bought new clothes in Geneva, I discovered that I could get into size “S”, and even “XS”, depending on the type.  With aging, compounded by lack of exercise, and perhaps also due to the overeating of cheese and chocolate, however, I steadily put on extra padding all around my body.  By the time I completed 10 years of service in the international civil service, I was buying L-sized clothes in Japan, which soon had to be “upgraded” to size “LL”.

Around that time, I returned to Japan on home leave and met up with an old friend who was as slim as ever.  Seeing the jacket I had bought in Geneva, she commented how nice its design was.  She wanted to see it more closely, so I took it off and handed it to her.  While examining the workmanship in the stitching of the jacket, she was utterly shocked.  It was because the label inside indicated size “S”.  She then said that Geneva must be a formidable place as I could wear even S-sized clothes.  Honestly speaking, I felt much better buying S-sized clothes in Geneva than getting LL-sized ones in Japan.  They consoled me by making me feel that I was still not so heavy.

I also experienced the opposite situation after getting transferred to Colombo, Sri Lanka.  One Saturday, I went to a department store to buy a bathing costume.  Since I then needed size “LL”, based on the Japanese standard, I thought I could buy the same size there.  So I looked for that size, but all I saw in front of me were the sizes “S”, “M”, and “L”.  I therefore took an L-sized one in my hand, but it looked awfully small.

As I was looking around to see if there were LL-sized ones elsewhere, a young, slim, male shopkeeper approached and asked me, “Madame, are you looking for a swimsuit for yourself?”  As my response was affirmative, he said, “In that case, I have them over here.”  Bringing me a bathing costume from another rack, he said, “This is the right size for you, Madame.”  However, as soon as I received it and saw its size, I got really upset.  “How rude he is!” I thought.  What he had handed me was size “XXL”!  I immediately protested by saying that it was way too big.  However, he asserted confidently that it was the correct size for me.  “Madame, please try it on,” he pleaded with me.

While still feeling upset at him, I reluctantly tried it on and was extremely surprised to see it fit as if it had been custom-made for me.  I had to admit that young as he was, he, as the shop keeper, had a trained eye to properly judge what size his clients required according to the standard set in his country.

Very reluctantly, I bought an “XXL”-sized swimsuit there and went home.  I had no choice but to convince myself that Sri Lankans, being generally slim, had to have their own standard for size that was very different from the ones I was familiar with.

A few years later, I was transferred back to Geneva, where I suffered a strained back.  Despite all kinds of treatments, the pain and numbness emanating from around the coccyx down to the back of the thigh remained.  Nothing seemed to be able to help relieve the pain or the discomfort.  I therefore asked my doctor if there was anything that could possibly be done to help alleviate the pain.  He then said in a serious voice that I was too heavy for my height and needed to lose a lot of weight.  He added that the only way to relieve the pain was by strengthening the muscles in the area concerned by walking and swimming regularly.  His message was clear and to the point.

I immediately set a goal, kept up with daily exercise and succeeded in losing 13 kg over one year.  It was not long before I realized that the pain I had been suffering from was almost gone, as had been suggested by the doctor.  I was also happy to be able to put on M-sized clothes once again, according to the Japanese standard, but wondered what size I would require this time if I were in Sri Lanka.

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