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

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