Well Being

Vanity Sizing: Why Clothing Sizes Don’t Make Sense (And Shouldn’t Hurt Your Body Image)

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vanity sizing

Buying clothing isn't always the most pleasant of experiences: If crowded stores, bright lights, and wonky dressing room mirrors that seem to magnify your thighs weren't bad enough, let's not forget the actual sizes, which seem to change from season to season and store to store. Have you ever wondered why, exactly, the size you wear at Anthropologie is totally different than the one you wear at Gap? Vanity sizing and fashion cycles are both to blame, but many women tend to feel that it's a reflection on their weight or size. We learned more to keep sizing from getting to your self-esteem.

A few months ago, I wrote about the sizing scale at Zara, which differs from that of most American stores. But they're not the only place where sizes seem skewed. In fact, customers have gotten so confused about which size they are that some malls have even installed machines that will scan your body and tell you which size to pick up at various shops. So why are sizes so radically different at different retailers?

For most of human history, women's clothing was custom-made, either at home or by a tailor or dressmaker. With the advent of large-scale factory textile machines came ready-to-wear clothing, and the need for standardized sizing. So in 1937, the Works Progress Administration conducted a large-scale study of women's body measurements (over 15,000 women were measured over two years), but the system generated was too confusing (over 27 different sizes!) so it failed to define industry standards. Thus, we were left with the crazy system we have today, in which sizes can differ greatly from brand to brand, pant to pant, and person to person. Most of the women I know have at least four different sizes in their closet. Personally, I have clothing that ranges from a women's size two to a juniors size 11.

Kristopher Whitman, the designer behind OAK NYC, told me that designers and clothing brands design with a particular customer in mind, and that's a big reason why sizes can vary so much:

Each brand will design for its customer. If the customer is an ‘average red-blooded American' from Minnesota, it would be unwise to cut with a high armhole and a narrow sleeve. Fluctuation of size standards between collections has always been prevalent.

Sizes have, however, changed pretty drastically from what our mothers and grandmothers wore. Manufacturers are undoubtedly creating vanity sizes–cutting increasingly large garments and tagging them with smaller and smaller numbers. According to Julia Felsenthal, writing for Slate:

In 1958, for example, a size 8 corresponded with a bust of 31 inches, a waist of 23.5 inches and a hip girth of 32.5 inches. In ASTM’s [an organization that helps industries standardize] 2008 standards, a size 8 had increased by five to six inches in each of those three measurements, becoming the rough equivalent of a size 14 or 16 in 1958. We can see size inflation happening over shorter time spans as well; a size 2 in the 2011 ASTM standard falls between a 1995 standard size 4 and 6. (This may also explain why smaller sizes are constantly invented. The 1958 standard listed 8 as its smallest size. The 1995 ASTM standard listed a size 2. In 2011, ASTM lists a standard for size 00.)

Initially, I wondered if our growing sizes were connected to the obesity epidemic in the United States; obesity rates among adults have more than doubled since 1980.  That's certainly part of the problem. In 2004, a study called SizeUSA measured American bodies (more than 10,000 people in 13 cities, both men and women) and found that people were both bigger and rounder than they were in the past.

Funnily enough, several of the industry insiders I talked to mentioned Marilyn Monroe, an example I cited in my original post about sizing. She's often held up as an example of a beautiful woman who was “actually” a size 12 (or 14, or 16, depending on who's telling the anecdote). In fact, a recent exhibition of her clothing told the truth: Marilyn was actually quite petite. Her waist was 22 inches, and curators struggled to find mannequins small enough to model her clothing! (By comparison, 22 inches isn't even on J.Crew's sizing chart; it's less than an XXS in that brand.)

But as Whitman pointed out, waist cuts in particular have changed considerably over the last few decades. He says,”The waistlines now are less nipped. And 50 years ago, women also wore girdles under their clothing.”

Still, the size you wear can have a big affect on your body image and self-esteem. Marcy Guevara, a plus-size style expert who regularly contributes to Marie Claire and other publications, told me, “It's amazing how my clients are psychologically affected by the number on their clothing! Some stores in specific regions (like LA) won't even carry larges because women would rather squeeze into the medium!  Vanity sizing has created an illusion for women and creates brand loyalty.” In other words, if you wear a size two at American Apparel and a six at Urban Outfitters, chances are you'll shop at American Apparel, where the number on the tag makes you feel better about your body.

And it goes both ways for brands. Laurel Kinney, a personal stylist in Austin, TX, told me that some of her clients just refuse to shop at certain stores:

“Generally these are the stores that don't adhere to vanity sizing (few and far between nowadays, but still)…Zara and H&M don't really follow the American sizing system, and those places are ones to avoid for people who really get comfort out of being a particular size.”

So what does all this mean? Are we just destined to roam the mall feeling bad because we've suddenly gone up a dress size at Express? Tanya Shaw, the entrepreneur behind the mall scanning system I mentioned earlier, saw a problem she wanted to fix: “As a former designer and custom patternmaker, I found that a size number could affect how women felt about themselves. I wanted to show people that the fit of their clothes is important, not the size.” So, she created Me-Ality, a free clothing fit system that measures your body and tells you exactly what clothes in what store will fit you.

Tanya Shaw explained how Me-Ality works, using low-frequency radio signals:

After entering some brief demographic information, shoppers step into the Me-Ality Size Matching Station. A scanning wand circles twice around the body to collect over 200,000 points of data.  Harmless radio waves reflect off the moisture in a shopper’s skin to create accurate measurements. These measurements are compared to clothing manufacturers’ sizing standards. After the scan, shoppers receive a curated shopping guide ranking their best fitting clothing.

Sounds great, right? A machine that tells you exactly what will fit you in all the stores in your local mall, cutting down on both dressing room time and the awkwardness of having to ask the attendant for a bigger size. Me-Ality is available to both men and women in over 70 malls across the country, so it's worth checking if there's one near you.

It doesn't look like clothing sizes are going to standardize anytime soon, although some retailers are trying to address the problem. For example, Levi's CurveID attempts to fit your jeans by shape rather than size. But even systems like that are limited; there's not only three female butt shapes, after all!

Even so, your body image shouldn't suffer when you're shopping. Kinney says it's all about style, not numbers: “You can look amazing in a size 14 and less so in a size 12, all that matters is that a garment fits your body and your personal style.” Whitman and Guevara agreed, stressing that women need to concentrate on how their clothing looks, fits, and feels on their body. Try things on, get garments tailored, and most importantly, learn what works for your body type and body shape, whatever that may be. Clothing should make you feel comfortable and confident, no matter where it's sold or how it's labeled. Don't assign value to the number on the tag of your jeans, because in reality it's just that: a number.

Photo: Shutterstock