The Sizing Nightmare: What do Labels Tell Us about Ourselves?

By dalvenjah on FlickrBy Valerie Martin

A recent article at the New York Times has the web buzzing with rants about the inconsistency of women’s clothing sizes, which, as any woman who has ever bought clothes in the U.S. knows, is nothing new. Five years ago, Newsweek did an article on vanity sizing (manufacturers’ practice of putting a smaller number on a label to encourage more sales), and since then, the phenomenon has become even more commonplace.

The Times provides a stark example:

Take a woman with a 27-inch waist. In Marc Jacobs’s high-end line, she is between an 8 and a 10. At Chico’s, she is a triple 0. And that does not consider whether the garment fits in the hips and bust. (Let’s not get into length; there is a reason most neighborhood dry cleaners also offer tailoring.)

Jill at Feministe adds that, “There’s a class aspect to this as well. Higher-end brands, I’ve noticed, are sized much smaller than middle-market and mall-store clothes. The cuts, too, are different — mall-store brands like Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and J Crew are not only wildly over-sized as a general rule… but also cut wider in the waist.”

Although I agree with Jill’s point for the most part, I have certainly seen exceptions: for example, I have one pair of Target pants that’s two sizes up from anything else in my closet, and I can barely squeeze into them. Not to mention that I have a lot of pants from Target, which illustrates how rampant the un-standardized sizing problem can be even within the four walls of a single retailer.

Several entrepreneurs have used this issue as an opportunity to provide their own solutions. The latest, a body scanner called MyBestFit created by Tanya Shaw, allows shoppers to step into the kiosk, get a free 20-second full-body scan, and receive a print-out of the sizes that would be the best fit at participating retailers such as Old Navy and Talbot’s. Although many shoppers might see the scanner as a welcome time-saving device to find their best sizes, I can’t shake the T.S.A Big Brother feeling to take it very seriously – and furthermore, Shaw comments on how women often attach their self esteem to the number on the tag and I don’t see how her scanner changes that.

The Times mentions that, due to a lack of agreement between apparel manufacturers and retailers about finding a solution, some brands are taking matters into their own hands, like Levi’s. The company launched its Curve ID brand last year, which offers three different fits in each size and has already sold over one million pairs of jeans. Of course, Levi’s is far from the first to offer a curvy jean: The Gap has been selling its Curvy fit for at least a couple of years, in addition to its other styles such as “Always Skinny” (don’t even get me started.)

Still, Levi’s VP of women’s global marketing hit it on the head when she said, “When we try on 10 pairs of jeans to buy one, the reason you feel bad is because you think something’s wrong with you.”

I can’t help but think of a passage from Portia de Rossi’s new (and already acclaimed) memoir, Unbearable Lightness about her near-fatal battle with anorexia. Toward the beginning, she recalls her intense insecurity after being offered her breakout role on “Ally McBeal” and realizing she didn’t have the first clue about how to be a famous person. She begged a more fashion-forward friend to take her shopping to buy some outfits that were less grunge and more glam – or at least something besides t-shirts and holey jeans – because she didn’t know what U.S. size to try. Rather than picking something to try on based on rough appearance, Portia asked her friend,

“What size should I be?”

“What do you mean?” She looked at me with an inviting smile on her face, like we were about to play a game. She had no idea that her answer to my question was going to change my life.
“What size are models?”

“Well, a sample size is usually a six.” Kali knew a lot of things like this.

“Then I’m a six.” As it turned out, I actually was a 6. Mostly. The Capri pants that were a size 6 were too tight, but I bought them anyway as incentive to lose a few pounds. It didn’t occur to me to go up to the next, more comfortable size because as far as I was concerned a size 8 didn’t exist.”

This is a woman who thought that something was inherently, ineffably, and irreversibly wrong with her — and this was just the very beginning of her struggle. How many other millions of women face this body-bashing, self-berating test every time they try something on and the number on the tag doesn’t match the number in their heads that tells them whether or not they have value that day? How many times do we have to do this dance, even though we recognize that the numbers on the tag are arbitrary and not at all consistent – when we know that a brand has preyed on our insecurity by lowering the number on the tag, and yet we buy the pants anyway because they make us feel better about ourselves?

Sure, it would be nice if we didn’t have to try on four different sizes of everything we wanted to buy if clothing brands decided to be more consistent – that’s 15 minutes fewer in fitting room hell. But even if that day were to come, I suspect that women would feel the same shame and devaluation if the number of the size that fits didn’t match the number they feel they needed to be. At least with the current system, we can blame it on the retailer – “their sizing is just super tiny” or “it’s just a weird cut, I’m a smaller size in the other style.”  That’s not to say that brands should keep confusing the hell out of us to make us feel better – it’s just that the inconsistency is only part of the problem, and standardization is only part of the solution. I may be talking about two different things altogether, but they’re irrevocably intertwined nonetheless.

So then, what is the solution to this part of the problem: the shame when the number is too high, and the rush when it is smaller than expected? Personally, I would love to see a world in which size tags didn’t even have to exist — but obviously that’s not a realistic solution. I do like to cut mine out after I buy something when it’s possible, and then I ask myself, is that courageous or cowardly? Am I rejecting the label, or so afraid of the emotion and fear attached to it that I can’t bear to look at it? I like to think it’s the former, but I won’t deny I have done that fitting room dance many times myself.

We’d love to hear from readers about ways you are rejecting size labels or neutralizing the emotions attached to the numbers – and about whether you think it would help both parts of the problem if sizes were standardized. Also, have you ever been guilty of buying an item of clothing expressly because the number on the tag made you feel good? (I’m looking sheepishly at a pair of Old Navy jeans in my closet right now that are not even very cute.) I am convinced that there is no easy solution to this piece of the sizing problem, because the real solution lies in learning to love and value ourselves for who we really are – which, for most of us, is a lifelong journey.

Read the full New York Times article

Read the full post at Feministe

Related Content:

A Sizeable Issue of Global Proportions

15 thoughts on “The Sizing Nightmare: What do Labels Tell Us about Ourselves?

  1. Honestly, I’ve rarely had a problem with the whole label-making-you-feel-bad thing. I think it’s mostly because half of my clothes are hand-me-downs from my mom, bought anywhere from the early 80s to the mid-90s. the sizes are so radically different on each piece of clothing that I’ve disregarded them entirely.

    My only real experience with this kind of thing was in middle school. girls would ask their friends’ jeans sizes, just for random reasons, and I was always embarassed to say I was a 00 because of the glare every single one of those girls would give me afterwards. I was a tiny middle-schooler and didn’t grow much until high school, whereas most of the other girls had already started growing. It wasn’t the size on the label that made me feel bad, but the reactions I frequently got to buying or revealing that size.

  2. Definitely great post. I run into this problem with my younger sister a lot. Although she’s two years younger, we weigh about the same but she’s taller. We’re always fighting over clothes (especially jeans). I need to get mine tailored because I am short, but when I do get them tailored, they become too short for her. Then the whole fight on who gets “the perfect pair of jeans” start. When I say perfect, I don’t mean the number, I mean the fit. It’s true that I do get a bit upset when the number of the jeans are a bit bigger than I expected, but I’ve come to just accept it. Honestly, no one else but yourself is going to see the number on the waistline. As long as something fits well on my body type, I just store away the number in the back of my head. I may be a 7 in one brand but I can also be a 0 in another. It’s just so inconsistent that I don’t think I should be labeled by a number. I focus more on fit than number now, and that’s how I got over my number trauma.

  3. in response to your question, yes, the sizing on the inside of an item of clothing is incredibly important (to me). I’ve been shopping at big department stores lately; I bough a sleeveless, silk-like top because of the way the fabric gently touched my curves without squeezing them, because of the color (orange–it looks good with my skin tone), but ALSO because it was listed as a size XS. I remember feeling very good about my body that day, staring into the mirrors in the changing room (in Target changing rooms you get two [or is it three?] full length mirrors that allow you to check yourself from front, back, and both profiles). I had put on a little weight the year before, but I could see that I was looking some of it, and hey! here I was now in a shirt (a loose shirt, no less) with an XS label.

    The other day I breezed into Kmart after an exercise class, and saw a few cute summer skirts–both items from the Selina Gomez line. They were cheap and seemed good for everyday wear, so I bough one of them in a pretty color (I bought the same skirt in a different color a a few days later). What size was it? XL. I rationalize it by thinking to myself that the Selina Gomez line has been produced for teenagers …

    In any case, these two experiences demonstrate how arbitrary clothing sizes can be.

  4. I’m glad to see everyone so fired up about this issue!

    @Diane- Thanks for linking to that post — interesting and different take on why the sizes are so inconsistent.

    @Nicole- I sure hope you pass your body confidence on to your daughter, too! That’s awesome. If you could bottle it up and sell it, you’d be a millionaire. 😉

    @jas- It is ridiculous — some kinda size-ism, I guess. Perhaps they are mistakenly equating size with class, like the Feministe post says, and not offering larger sizes at higher end stores. Pretty lame.

    @njoyous1 – Yep, it seems like it could only be a positive thing — for the customers, that is. Must not be worth the hassle (and possibly loss in sales?) for the brands. And Lord help us with OSFA O__o

    @Erin – What a perfect way to put it — “trying to hit a moving target.” Ugh!

    @Shannon – Thanks so much for sharing a different perspective. I am a firm believer that the body acceptance movement should include ALL healthy sizes, and that means small, too! It sucks that ANY woman could get judged or misunderstood because of her size, and we need to remember that it happens at both ends of the spectrum. Guess for now you’ll just have to go shopping at those snooty high-end, small-sized stores, eh? 😉

    @Jayne – congrats on feeling better in your skin, and I hope your body confidence continues to improve from here on. I know that fear of shopping well, too, and all I can say is try not to give those silly little tags any power over you. If you walk into a store feeling good about yourself, muster all the strength you have to march out of there feeling the same and looking great in your new, well-fitting clothes — no matter what size they claim to be. Glad you stumbled across the site and we hope you keep coming back!

  5. I agree (as most would, I think) that standardizing the sizes needs to take priority. I’ve been in a constant battle since I was about 12 years old with my weight and – since I’ve finally gotten to a good, healthy place – my self-image. I know logically that I am healthy and in shape – I’m a size 10 (usually anyways), and I know that I practice good health habits, but even when I see that I’ve lost a few pounds and I feel good, I go to by a new pair of jeans or something and the size 10s don’t fit. It’s devastating, because I’ve built myself up that this time, maybe this time, I can get to the next size down. Which just makes me even angrier because I know logically that the number doesn’t matter as long as I’m healthy.

    I’ve been doing a lot better lately with accepting my curves and improving my self-image. But I’m still afraid to go shopping for some (desperately needed) new clothes because i don’t want to lose the ground I’ve gained in the arena. I’ll be 20 this summer, and it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve felt good about me, and I don’t want the stores to reverse it.

    (Sorry if this got a little rant-y or anything — it’s an issue that’s been on my mind for years).

    Great post – I Stumbled on your site and absolutely love it! Keep up the great work!

  6. I have the opposite drama. Since I’m naturally very small (I’m an Australian size 6 [or rather, sometimes am if I’m lucky, and I used to be, but I guess now for most companies I would be the non-existent size 4]) so that makes me a US size 0.

    I have a pair of Aus size 6 jeans I bought at Target when I was 16 years old, just before I went to France on exchange, that fitted me like a glove. They’re now too small for me, courtesy of me gaining 6 kilos (13 pounds) as I got older.

    Now I go to Target, and the size 6s are all too big – 13 pounds later; they should be too small.

    I even have a pair of size 7 Bardot jeans in my cupboard from when I was 18, and now (at 21) Bardot size 6s don’t fit.

    It makes it really hard because obviously, women larger than me deserve great stuff to wear and to feel good about their bodies, but it’s so hard to find clothes to fit me now when it wasn’t so hard when I was a teenager. It makes shopping really depressing, because it makes me feel abnormally small even though my doctor says I’m perfectly healthy and I used to be able to find clothes to fit when I was smaller; couple that with the “real women have curves” movement and how people openly slate very thin women as “having the body of a prepubescent boy” and telling them to “eat a burger” it all culminates into me having pretty low self esteem.

  7. I think the sizes should be standardized. I’ve been buying much larger numbers than I like lately, but I’d rather know the honest number and either accept it or change it. Otherwise it’s like trying to hit a moving target.

  8. …i’ve never understood why women’s clothing didn’t just have a true measurement on it~ men’s pants are sized by waist/length (30/32). what’s wrong with that?
    i have no idea what formula was used when they came up with women’s sizes to begin with (i’m pretty sure it was more standardized sizing 40yrs ago?), but it’s never made any sense to me.
    i don’t like the S/M/L either (i won’t even comment on OSFA)~ chest sizing on shirts (men’s too!) makes more sense, as well.
    …then i wouldn’t have to waste time looking at each manufacturer’s stupid sizing charts all the time.
    i vote for simple reality in sizing~ it might help all of us.

  9. maybe because i’m fat and ok with it, the numbers themselves don’t bother me. it’s the inconsistency between brands that does. and why are the clothes in more “upscale” stores smaller? does being fat mean i don’t deserve to wear nice clothes? how come i wear a 16 at old navy, an 18 at the gap, and nothing at banana republic fits me- they’re all the same company. what’s the logic here?

  10. And I just realized my post is way too pragmatic. I should say instead that I know quite a few people for which this holds true. After my sister had her first child when she was trying to lose the baby weight she would not wear anything larger than an 8 (she’s normally a 0/2) and I remember being perplexed by that. I’m actually not really sure how I avoided the tie between my body image and the number/letter in my clothing, but I hope I can figure it out so I can pass it on to my daughter. I do see it in a lot of women and I guess I don’t really understand it and I would like to understand it better. For me the inconsistency in sizing is just a frustration that adds time to my life and I’d appreciate a sizing more consistent with men’s pants and dress shirt sizing – the actual measurements. Maybe technology will help us get over this…

  11. I remember hearing a story about a salesperson in Nordstrom or Needless Markup or one of those places who had a lady insist she was a six in some overpriced clothing and the salesperson went and cut out a six from another dress and pasted it in the size 8 dress she brought to her. I think that brings about how ridiculous it is to care about these things. Other than inconvenience, I’ve never been bothered by the number in the back of my clothes. As a mom with two small kids, it would be SOOO nice to be able to buy something and just know it will fit without having to try it on. In fact, I went shopping with the kids yesterday and ended up buying one pair of shorts in both a 10 and 12 because I’m not sure which will fit and figured it would be easier to just return one pair than to drag the kids into the dressing room. And I actually kinda wonder the opposite sometimes. I’m generally a 10 in most pants/clothes (31 in jeans) and I am a SMALL in gap body underwear. What I want to know is … what do smaller people wear? And honestly, I wasted a bit of money on too big underwear until I figured that one out. I’m actually a little annoyed with it – like I shouldn’t be a small – I’m a true Medium and it’s annoying they should make me a small in anything as it’s inconsistent and confusing. My ego is in no way tied to this but my pocketbook certainly is! lol Speaking of 31 jeans, why do so many premium denim brands stop at 31/32? hmmm…

  12. I once read an interesting blog post about this. (Couldn’t remember the blog, but thanks to Google, here’s the link! This woman argues that clothing manufacturers create their sizes so that a medium (I think medium is usually defined as 8 or 10) will fit their average customer, and then scale up and down from there within their demographic. So it makes sense that the clothes at a high-end store, where the customers are likely to be smaller, won’t match up with clothes of the same label size at a middle-of-the-road or low end store, where the customers are likely to be larger. The blog also explains that the numbers on the label *used* to mean something that correlated pretty exactly to body size, so there was no guesswork involved when you picked up a size 6 – you knew exactly how big the different measurements of that garment were.

    Both of these things combined sort of explain why, when you sew clothes from a pattern, the measurements for a particular size are wildly different than what you would expect out of a store – the sewing patterns are staying more true to the original meaning of the size numbers.

    But all that aside, given that clothing manufacturers have moved so far from the “original” meaning of sizes, I’d much rather see measurements given for my clothes rather than vague sizes, and maybe a description of how they are supposed to fit. But then again, I am incredibly comfortable with the size and shape that I am, so moving from one set of number descriptors to another doesn’t frighten me.

  13. Thanks for your feedback, Amanda! You make great points about the constant label shock experience in the current U.S. system and the idea that vanity sizing feeds into the obsession with thinness. I can definitely see how a more standardized system would at least reduce those components of the problem.

  14. Great post! I believe a more standardized system would help resolve both issues you mentioned. If there was one system with little variation, you wouldn’t have to go through the same “label shock” trauma every time. I live in Spain, and there seems to be a bit more consistency with the labeling. I feel like vanity sizing is a condescending and cynical practice, appealing to our cultural obsessions regarding thinness.

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