What does “petite” really mean? If I had a nickel for every time I talked about petite clothing and someone said “don’t you just mean smaller sizes?”, I’d be rich.
No, petite does not mean small. It’s an industry term that refers to clothing made for women who are shorter than average height, regardless of their size.
Or, to put it another way, petite refers to aspect ratio, not size.
It’s all about proportion
Photographers and designers are familiar with the term aspect ratio. In its simplest definition, aspect ratio is a way to express the dimensions of a given image or object as a ratio of height to width.
Here’s an example with from the world of digital photography:
Both of these photos are identical in width. But the 2:3 photo looks thinner because it is also taller.
How height plays tricks on the mind
People aren’t boxes, of course. Women don’t have rectangular bodies; we have many different dimensions. But let’s take just a few to illustrate this point:
All three of these female silhouettes are exactly the same width. In fact, they’ve been scaled to resemble a woman who has a 33″ bust, a 27″ waist and 36″ hips — approximately a US size 4 according to most size charts. And yet, look at how the eye fools us into thinking that the petite woman is bigger and wider than the tall woman.
The other thing to note is that the curve at the waist is at a sharper angle on a petite woman than on a tall woman with the same dimensions. Because the vertical dimension of the torso is shorter, this is simple math. This is why shorter women often appear curvier than taller women of the same size.
This should obviously show why size charts that merely contain bust, waist and hip measurements are so inadequate. Without taking height into account, all the vertical measurements — inseam, rise, sleeve length — will be wrong on the models on the either end of the height spectrum, even within the same clothing size.
But don’t all dimensions shrink proportionally?
Anyone who’s ever edited an image in Photoshop knows that you can “lock” the aspect ratio of the file you’re manipulating, so that the length and width will increase and decrease at the same rate. Don’t human bodies work like that?
Well, yes and no. Clothing manufacturers seem to think so; most of them scale their smallest sizes to target a shorter customer, and their largest sizes assume longer vertical proportions. Healthy weight recommendations and guidelines like BMI (body mass index) also make assumptions that taller women will weigh more than shorter women.
But that’s only true to an extent. Take the above example: For the 5’1″ woman to have the same aspect ratio as the 5’11” woman, she would need to have a waist circumference measurement of only 23 inches — which is thin to the point of unhealthy for most body types, even at our height.
The truth is, women come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s just as true for petite women as it is for tall ones. Assuming that plus sized women must also be tall is just as faulty as assuming that thin women are also short. A locked aspect ratio may be a good photo editing tool, but it’s not very practical for making clothes to fit human bodies.
So is petite just another way of saying fat, then?
If you’re reading this for the first time, I can understand why you might think that. Petite women come in ALL shapes and sizes, just like our taller counterparts; we range from double-zero to plus size, and even beyond. Because of the visual illusion of aspect ratio, however, we will appear to be wider at any given size than our taller counterparts. In a society that ruthlessly judges women on their weight, that gives us an extra hurdle to battle, as compared to taller women.
It is true that any curves a women does have will be more readily apparent on a shorter frame. Kim Kardashian, at 5’3″, is a good example of this: Her proportions seem curvier in comparison to, say, the 5’9″ singer Adele, or even her sister Khloe, who is 5’10”:
We’ve also been inundated with images of tall, leggy models showing clothes on runways or in catalogues. Even petite clothes tend to be modelled on tall women. We’re not accustomed to seeing actual petite women in the media, and petite celebrities often use visual tricks on TV and in the movies to make themselves look taller. Therefore, the (very, very few) retailers that actually DO model clothing on petite models actually may seem visually off-kilter.
And because so many clothes are made for taller women, we do run the risk of looking frumpy, dumpy or just plain bad when we dress in ill-fitting clothes. However, when we wear clothes made to fit and flatter our bodies, we will look every bit as good as our taller counterparts.