Illustrated by Jihyang Lim


Size Matters: Why Fashion’s Vanity Sizing Is Messing With Our Heads

Our obsession with size has to end now

As a frequent shopper with an affinity for collecting clothes—whether I’m hunting for thrifty finds or saving up for the statement pieces I really can’t afford (or, gasp, picking up a few seasonal staples at a fast fashion retailer here and there)—I’ve found that the fashion industry’s concept of sizing, across the boards, is totally fucked.

Over the past two years, as I entered my mid- to late- twenties, I’ve put on some weight. Whatever; such is life, but what I find to be the most frustrating part of it is how in one store, I can wear a size small, yet somewhere else, I can barely squeeze into a large. The more this happened, the more I noticed myself getting bent out of shape when something didn’t fit, which led to more and more fitting room meltdowns. I stopped shopping at places where I only fit into larger sizes, simply because I refused to own something that was a size I didn’t feel comfortable in, even if it looked good on me. What I had to finally ask myself was why I gave a shit about the number on the tag of my top? If it made me look and feel good, why couldn’t I just be happy with it?

I’ve long struggled with body image issues, but when I took my frustrations to my Facebook page—simply venting after a shopping day filled with grunting in the fitting room—I was shocked to see how many responses I received in solidarity with how I was feeling. A large number of people responded with their own stories, naming a brand or store in particular where the sizing was absurdly off (with fast fashion retailers at the top of the list, unsurprisingly) or by sharing their own personal stories of their struggles with body image, and how these inconsistencies affected them. It was clear to me that this was a bigger issue.

There’s no denying that our culture is obsessed with size; the media constantly bombards us with the direct or indirect messaging that smaller and thinner is “better” and “more beautiful.” While the list of examples over the past few decades could go on and on, the most recent would have to be this problematic ad for Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs that caused the internet to rightfully explode earlier this week.

But how do major fashion chains enter into this equation? (Beyond, you know, promulgating images of only one body type: tall and thin.) Well, say hello to vanity sizing. Vanity sizing—the inflation of sizes, so that larger cut pieces are a labeled as a smaller number size in order to appease the customer into thinking they are smaller—is a major culprit of body image issue, and one, not to put too fine a point on it, that totally fucks with our heads.

Simply put, American women have gotten bigger over the years, and the original sizing system that was put into effect in 1958 was updated again and again until it was finally ditched by the government in 1983, leaving manufacturers to define sizing themselves. So what did these clothing manufacturers do? They began sizing downward in order to please and flatter the consumer.

When it comes to the original sizing system, this chart via The Washington Post proves just how much sizes have inflated over the years from 1958 to 2011—and it's pretty astounding. For example, today’s size 8 is equivalent to 1958’s size 16, and a size 8 dress in 1958’s measurements was so small that it doesn’t have an equivalent today. That's why people love to talk about how Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, even though it's an irrelevant number in today's sizing world. (She was quite small, if curvy; our culture's obsession with smaller women has been going on for a long time.) 

Image via The Washington Post

Obviously, this system of sizes shrinking over time is problematic, particularly as it all leads back to an unhealthy focus on numbers. “Vanity sizing plays to our insecurities and manipulates us into buying clothing that we may not even like because the tag says a size smaller than you typically wear,” says Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist and author of The Anti-Diet Plan. “When we equate sizing with self-worth, vanity sizing essentially allows us to buy a superficial dose of confidence. We think: I fit into a size 4, I AM good enough! But this is almost always short-lived because true self-esteem doesn’t come from a piece of fabric with a number on it.”

Additionally, based on how some brands choose to size their clothes (which, as Vox points out in this super informative video on the sizing system, is based on its target demographic) and how cheaply so much of it is produced leads to sizes being literally all over the place, even within one brand.

This is not only frustrating but can also, for some, be devastating. “Inconsistent sizing plays mind games with us,” says Conason. “It makes us feel like we don’t know our own body—something that many people struggling with body confidence and disordered eating already feel plagued by. Whenever we try on clothing in a size that we expect to fit and it doesn’t, we wonder if our body has changed—have we gained or lost weight? For many struggling with body image issues, this can send them into a major tailspin. It can trigger feelings of depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal and can also exacerbate disordered eating symptoms.”

As an old friend of mine told me as I was writing this story, vanity sizing was a major player in her eating disorder during her high school years. Her obsession with what size she wore, and what it really equated to, caused her to spin out of control. “I spiraled into a really hard cycle of anorexia, and everything became too big on me. Knowing that vanity sizing was too big and that I was a real zero was satisfying—and this went on for years.” She explained to me that at her lowest point during an anorexia relapse, she felt worthless at a size 2. “In my mind, if I wasn’t a size 0, I wasn’t leaving the house,” she tells me.

What it all boils back down to is the fact that we live in a society where we’ve been long seasoned to believe that size matters. This would be nothing more than simple frustration if it weren’t for the media preaching that thin equals beautiful and beautiful equals thin.  No one would panic about going up a size or two at one store if they didn’t fear that a larger size equated to being inadequate or not beautiful enough. 

However, as much as media can portray the sizes of too-thin models on billboards and actresses after months of preparing for a movie role as “normal” and “beautiful,” for the majority of us, it’s simply just not realistic. “The problem really is that our society is obsessed with one size only: thin,” says Dr. Cristina Castagnini, psychologist and certified eating disorder specialist. “Only 5 percent of the population naturally has this ‘ideal’ body size, so the 95 percent of the population who don’t are left to feel inadequate and pressured to have that ‘ideal’ body from the cultural norms perpetuated in our society by the barrage of media and advertisements.”

So, how do we solve this problem?

Well, stores are probably never all going to jump on some worldwide consistent sizing chart. Especially with the rise of fast fashion, garments that are made quickly, cheaply, and resulting in sizing inconsistencies across the boards.

Some brands are making an effort to take away the number aspect of sizing altogether. For example, Rational Dress Society, both an ethical brand and project that sells jumpsuits, offers their product in a whopping 248 different sizes, taking specific measurements and body types into consideration. Rather, its sizes are named something completely random—from “delta” and “alpha” to “buffy” and “tango”—which, while it may seem out of the norm, helps create a sense of body positivity. “In naming each of our sizes, we aim to eliminate the anxiety and judgment that is frequently tied to sizing,” says Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, co-founder of Rational Dress Society. “Numbers and body measurements bear increasingly little relationship to each other in the fashion industry.”

While, yes, this model may not work for all fashion brand models, especially those that offer a large number of SKUs, the adaptation of this model could seriously change the way people feel about clothes shopping, easing the anxiety that comes along with it.

But, at the end of the day, it’s not the sizing system itself that’s the issue here—it’s the fact that we care so much. When I first delved into research for this story, I wanted to focus on the “WTF” factor of how unreasonably inconsistent sizing is in today’s most popular stores, and how frustrating this can be. However, the more research I did and the more people I talked to—both my peers and psychologists—I realized just how much of an effect the idea of fitting into or maintaining a specific numbered size has on so many of us—and just how badly this mentality of being thin equating to being beautiful needs to be changed.

What we need to do to solve this frustration, this anxiety, and these deep-rooted body image issues that lead to dangers such as eating disorders, is to fight back against these unrealistic beauty ideals. “Gaining awareness about how the media perpetuates an unrealistic ‘ideal’ body image that is unattainable is a great first step,” says Castagnini. “Having a critical eye to the advertisements out there and learning all that goes into making these models appear the way they do can really help dispel the illusion that what they see as ‘ideal’ and attainable if they just try hard enough really is not.”

Next, we need to spread the message of body positivity and self-love and incorporate it into how we live our lives, every day. Knowing, and truly believing, that size does not equal self-worth is something I need to work on myself. Being able to say “fuck this” to the idea that you're only good enough if you're a size 0 or 2 and to know that every size and every single one of our unique bodies is good enough and that perfection is an illusion—and a dangerous one at that. Being able to get help from outside sources if and when we need it. Maybe then we can collectively feel that it's not our size that matters, it's just us who matter. And we can't be reduced to a mere number anyway.