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Subzero: The Confusion Over Vanity Sizing

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I am not a small person. The older I get, the more I accept the unchangeable fact of my 5’10" frame and its unwavering 155 pounds. My body is a pear-shaped legacy from my mother’s side of the family. And while I’m an inch or two and a few pounds shy of being described as Amazonian, I haven’t slipped into a single-digit dress size since I was fifteen.

So, imagine my initial delight when, while shopping for a dress to wear to a wedding, I was swimming in size tens. I traded in the tens for eights that were still too big. It didn’t seem possible that I was a size six, but I pulled some size-six dresses off the rack and prepared for zipper battles. Instead, I fit neatly in the dresses, just the way I’d normally fit into a ten. I braved a look at myself in the mirror under those horrid fluorescent lights; surely if I’d dropped two dress sizes, I would notice it in the leanness of my thighs and the flatness of my belly. But I looked exactly as I always have.

Part of me wanted to do a little squealing and clapping, but my dominant skepticism put down such naive and girlish notions. Something was afoot—I could feel it.

The Origins
Vanity sizing is when individual retailers make their own determinations about what combination of measurements determines a specific size. Some argue that this practice happens because American women are more obsessed with size than ever. And the fashion industry, obligingly and with creative fluidity, has invented a lawless nonsystem in which a size eight becomes a size two, or only sizes zero through three are offered, or other such tactics.

The Civil War necessitated the swift tailoring of uniforms for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thereby establishing a standard of sizes for men, which has since informed all systems of measurement for the male physique. But while men have the Civil War to thank for establishing standardized sizing charts, women had to wait seventy years until they were at the mercy of the mail-order business, which took off in the 1940s. It wasn’t until the demand for ready-to-wear garments and the convenience of mail-ordering them increased that anyone thought to standardize women’s sizes based on average measurements. Even then, that effort came out of the gate ripe with subjectivity. It wasn’t long before clothiers were calling their own shots as to what size went with what combination of bust-waist-hips measurements.

That was the last time anyone attempted to create size standards for women’s clothing; suffice to say, women have changed a lot in size and shape since the 1940s, as have our attitudes about our size and shape. Hence, vanity sizing has become an institution of sorts.

Waists Get Thicker, Sizes Get Smaller
Whether you chalk it up to evolution or Krispy Kreme, it’s a statistical fact that people are getting larger. Yet as we thicken, the archetypes of beauty have moved in the opposite direction from the norms of the population. For example, the lovely and curvaceous Marilyn Monroe, an icon of fashion and glamour, wore a size twelve, which happened to be in the range of normal sizes for women of that time period, who were, on average, 5’2" and 129 pounds. But today’s woman is, on average, 5’4" and 142 pounds, and our venerated celebrity and fashion role models are far, far thinner. For example, Kate Moss reportedly has a body mass index (BMI) of sixteen, while the average American woman’s BMI is twenty-eight. The chasm between the expectations set by the beauty icons we see every day in magazines and on TV and the reality of the typical woman is getting wider all the time.

It’s no wonder clothing retailers are looking for ways to make us all feel slimmer. I was skeptical in the dressing room as I was fitting into size eights, but I imagine many women’s delight at finding they’d “dropped” a dress size or two would eclipse any skepticism in the matter—and given our national obsession with body image, I don’t blame them. Delight or skepticism notwithstanding, we are all more amenable to buying a dress that’s telling us, by way of an allegedly unassailable number, that we are slender and lovely.

The Industry’s Defense
A blog entry on says, “Few companies are motivated to conform to a sizing standard because vanity sizing is a source of competitive advantage whereby companies can cater their sizing scales to flatter those who they view to be their ‘core customers’ and influence more frequent purchases.” Basically, the industry says that it gives its customers what they want. That’s the reason a size six at H&M is a lot different from a size six at Talbots.

According to the respective sizing charts on their Web sites, H&M’s sizes for women range from two to sixteen, Gap’s range from one to twenty-two, and then there’s Chico’s, offering sizes zero to 3.5. So, are there differences among H&M’s size two, Gap’s size one, and Chico’s size zero? The answer is yes, and it’s a matter of whole inches: Chico’s size zero is based on a bust size of 34.5 inches; Gap’s size one is based on a bust size of 31.5 inches; and H&M’s size two is based on a bust size of thirty inches. Clearly, each retailer’s sizing caters to women in different life stages but with similar preconceptions. H&M is for the young fashionista with a tidy figure and a limited budget, Chico’s focuses on older women with more resources and a more mature physique, and the Gap splits the difference. An H&M and a Chico’s customer are very different creatures, each with her own wardrobe predilections. Each retailer’s methods of sizing speak to those predilections.

Chico’s retail Web site states, “Our focus on comfort is the reason for our unique sizing. Our sizing starts at a Size 0 or Extra Small and ends with a Size 3 or Large … Chico’s clothing is made to wear how you like it to fit. If you like a little room, go for a bigger size.” This is another way of saying that Chico’s knows the average forty-five-year-old woman doesn’t like to think of herself as a size sixteen, so they accommodate this notion by telling her she is a size three. On the other hand, H&M and Gap gratify the same perception in their sizing, only this time, a lady who might wear a size eight elsewhere would slip easily into a four, or even a two, at those respective stores and congratulate herself on being exceptionally svelte.

One Size Fits None
You would think that the upshot of all of this creative arithmetic would be that number sizing would somehow become obsolete. No such luck. Rather, some argue, the practice of vanity sizing feeds women’s unhealthy body image. Others contend that telling a size-sixteen woman that she’s a size six will only encourage unhealthful behavior. In their bid to bolster revenue by deluding women into thinking they are sizes smaller than they realistically are, clothing retailers are fueling the fire of our collective fixation on the size and shape of our bodies.

This is all to say nothing of the confusion the lack of standardized sizes creates. No longer can you pick your size from the rack and go try it on. More often than not, choosing what to take into the dressing room is an elaborate process of estimation as you hold things up and wonder, Is my butt really that big? Then you pile three or four different sizes over your arm and head to the unforgiving dressing room in hopes that you’ll find the size that fits you. It’s a wonder that we persist in shopping at all.

Some online resources, such as and, can help you determine what size you are for different retailers. These sites come in handy if you do a lot of shopping online, and, especially in the case of, can really take the guesswork out of buying a new pair of jeans. Another weapon against vanity sizing is simply a shift of mindset. Yes, I was excited about the prospect that I was a size six instead of a ten. But perhaps the wiser tack to take is to not give a darn what number comes on our dresses. Find what fits well, find what you love to wear, and wear it with confidence. That’s the secret of true beauty.



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