Weights And Measures

21/08/2012 10:16 BST | Updated 20/10/2012 10:12 BST

It was a Monday morning in late August and the department store was quiet. I was wandering around the women's fashion floor, idly wondering how to present a better version of myself. I wasn't really thinking about much when I saw them: the shamefaced-looking customer, and the unintentionally officious sales assistant marching her across the floor. The customer was holding a navy dress on a hanger, and it was shaking slightly in her hand as she was bustled across the shop.

'Oh no,' the sales assistant said, turning to appraise the woman scuttling in her wake. 'No. We have it in a sixteen, but for you we'd be looking at an eighteen, minimum. But more likely a size twenty, pet...'

I shuddered for her as she grew red-faced and flustered. Bad enough, that moment when you realise you need a bigger size, without having it unceremoniously publicised. In her place, I'd have let the assistant stride on ahead and would have run away in shame, hoping this might help me lose a few size-shifting pounds. But she persisted, this red-faced shopper in her Northern Ireland summer uniform of waterproof coat, cropped trousers and lightweight trainers, in her quest for something smart.

It was that kind of morning in my local shopping town. Everywhere, people were getting each other's measure. Mums were marching their children into the shoe shop to be measured up for school. Teenagers were sighing crossly as salesmen and parents brandished uniform lists from local schools, whereas they knew what was cool and wanted that. Rebellion was being trodden underfoot and given a coat of scuff-proof liquid polish. Tiny new pupils for reception classes were jumping up and down excitedly with their shiny new pencil cases and their first school uniforms, while their older sisters were casting their eyes down balefully at the length of their school skirts and planning dreadful deeds with scissors, thread and safety pins...

Half-watching, half-amused, I felt dread strike like a funeral bell. Not dread of teaching, exactly, but dread of having to be the teacher again, doing the telling off, the marking, the serious 'disappointed' lectures and pretending not to find rebellion funny. I could feel the weight of responsibility hovering above my shoulders, Damoclean, like the hugest dumbbells that men groan over in the gym, then lift with triumphant grunts. Unenthusiastically scanning the rails for clothes that suggested 'serious grown-up with a sense of humour and a bit of individuality', I wondered if it's really any different for adults, trying to fit the measure we've had taken, than it is for children getting ready for the new school year.

Sizing up, taking someone's measure: the phrases inevitably conjure up the work of undertakers in my darkened mind. We take advice on size, shape, dress code and design: we costume ourselves according to expectation and to tribe. The weight of our words, and our authority, is set alongside our looks. That shopper was humiliated when, on asking for the dress she wanted in a size sixteen, was told she'd need a size or two larger, while a week or two ago, I laughed out loud but was secretly pleased when a sales assistant handed me a smaller size than I required: both of us victims of the view that when it comes to women's dress sizes, small is beautiful and those really wanting to be 'something' must be zero. The teenage girl who doesn't want the regulation shoes for school is certain that her friends will be impressed if she treads a path of rebellion in something cooler, while those intent on an A* in GCSE Geek Chic believe the only glasses worth wearing are the ones with non-magnifying, plastic lenses...

We're all searching for an image of who we are in others' eyes. Clothes, shoes, hairstyles, make-up, language: the lessons of self-image have been taught without examiners' reports or answer books. We message one another in a semaphore of signals that none of us ever completely understand: coded messages of weight, sizes, measurements, patterns, logos and labelled shopping bags. We size up one another's words just like we size up one another's looks. An accent, an expression or a turn of phrase: these things slip us into the comfort of common ground, and when we write, and read, and talk and listen and use our words as a means of saying who we are, it's just like what we do when we're presenting how we look. None of us wants to be thought silly, out of date or out of shape. No-one wants to be exposed as foolish or out of place. We all want to be accepted, liked, admired; our company sought.

We're measuring ourselves and one another daily, but the size guide is ever-changing, the measuring tape is blank and the uniform list of what we should be like is lost.