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Why being called 'tiny' isn't all it's sized up to be

"You look tiny in that – tiny," a salesperson effused to my friend Nancy recently as she tried on a dress with a tight empire waist. "Really, you should buy it. You look so small!"

Nancy is very fit; I haven't callipered her lately, but any body mass index would rank her "Fantastic." Yet she felt funny about the unsolicited gushing: "Why is 'tiny' the ultimate compliment? What about sexy, or great?"

"You look tiny" is strange praise. Perhaps it's the body-hating subtext: "You're barely there – and that's what we like about you."

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With the advent of zero-zero sizing – Banana Republic launched this non-size (one size smaller than zero) in 2006 – and the ongoing ubiquity of dangerously skinny models, one has to wonder how far tiny-is-best will go: Is the female physical ideal invisibility?

On the makeover show What Not to Wear, participants are repeatedly counselled to opt for blazers and blouses cut close to the tiniest part of the body. No show is complete without co-host Clinton Kelly gasping "OmigawdTINY" at his latest creation.

Vanity sizing assumes that we all wish to be tinier than we actually are: Last year, an Esquire blog post featured a writer with a measuring tape musing that his 36-inch waist is actually 39.5 inches at Dockers and 41 inches at Old Navy. Women know this trick of flattery well, having experienced the disorienting sensation of being a Gap 8 only to discover that, in another store, a 12 requires Spanx.

If the word "tiny" comes with squeals and hand clapping, as if viewing a baby, its flip side is "big," which comes with a gag and a shudder, as if viewing a corpse. Of course, one's reaction to size is culturally infused, and there are quarters in which padding is coveted, a sign of hotness or prosperity. But it's probably a safe bet that few salespeople in North America have ever earned a commission by exclaiming, "Oh, that makes you look so big! Huge!" Our muddled attitudes toward the body have made "big" a semantic taboo when it's hardly a social one, in light of rising obesity rates (the average Canadian woman is 5-foot-3 and 153 pounds).

A recent attempt to playfully invoke the word "big" proved disastrous for beleaguered chain American Apparel. To announce some new larger sizes, the company hosted a model search under the heading "The Next Big Thing." The contest ads sought women "bigger, better and more booty-ful than the rest" to be selected by a voting public made up of "fans of full-size fannies."

"I found it really insulting," a 24-year-old U.S. college student named Nancy Upton told The Today Show.

"I couldn't understand why you had to use cutesy or fake words to describe a plus-sized woman."

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So she entered, submitting a series of pictures shot by a friend that showed Upton (size 12) in various poses, such as bathing in ranch dressing or wet in a pool stuffing chicken in her mouth. The photos were troubling and hilarious – and oddly erotic; sex and food, after all, are linked appetites. The striking Upton won the most online votes, but not the prize, as a company letter explained to her that they were looking for a brand ambassador who would "truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out." This letter leaked online and Upton became a sympathetic Internet sensation, after which American Apparel back-pedalled by offering to fly her to L.A. to tour its factories.

But Upton had made her point: The connotation of "big" is lazy, free of willpower, vaguely repulsive.

AA's clumsy efforts to "celebrate" size used such cartoonish language that the only response was reciprocal parody.

The politics of sizing start early. A mother with a premature baby will shoulder endless comments about her child's size, the word "tiny" stabbing at maternal failure. For a strapping young boy, "big" equals virility and health – unless it's followed by "and husky."

I was always the tallest kid in my class, and I can't remember the moment when I stopped interpreting "You're so big" as praise for being strong and began to dread the words: Was that "so" big or "too" big?

While there was never any question that my 6-foot-4- tall brother had reached the gold standard for conventional hunkiness, a similar frame plopped down on a girl seemed to exile me to Brobdingnag.

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Does size have to be identity? The phrase "I'm a six" or "I'm a 10" should be tossed out in favour of something a little more tender: "I'm wearing an eight these days" or "I feel good in a 10." Slowly, we could rehabilitate the word "big," edging out the patronizing euphemism "plus." Perhaps it's time for stores to introduce a "grandes" section right next to the "petites" – an act of marketing intelligence, not largesse.

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