A Sizeable Issue of Global Proportions

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By Sharon Haywood, Co-Editor

Admittedly, I’m a huge fan of vintage clothes shopping but in Buenos Aires, my home for the last eight years, the selection is slim. So, when visiting my home country of Canada I get most of my ‘new’ funky fashions second-hand. On my last trip back though, a friend encouraged me to buy clothes online. I needed some basic tees and tanks and the prices were right, so it was easy to fill up my virtual cart. I stopped clicking when she said I needed to order everything in an extra-small (XS). I thought I was a medium (M), at least in Canada. She insisted that anything larger would be too big. When my purchases arrived the next day, I realized she was right. I received further confirmation when we visited the local mall and hit the change rooms in H&M and Old Navy. Rummaging through the sale table at American Eagle further muddied the unstandardized waters. My friend held up a cute pair of faded jeans.

“Try these on, they’re only 10 bucks!”

I checked the tag and put them back on the sale table. “They won’t fit. They’re a size 5/6 and I’m a 9/10.”

“Trust me, they’ll fit,” she said pushing the hip-huggers into my arms.

Again, she was right.

Vanity sizing, or labeling clothes smaller than they actually are, is nowhere near a new phenomenon. For years now, experienced female shoppers know to take two or three sizes of the same garment into the fitting room because the label on the tag cannot be trusted. Brands and designers alike continue to reinforce the myth that skinnier is better by ‘rewarding’ women for wearing a smaller size. The Economist reports a noticeable trend in “size inflation” over the last 30 years: “the average British size-14 pair of women’s trousers is more than four inches bigger at the waist today than they were in the 1970s … and over three inches wider at the hips. A size 14 today fits like a former size 18, and a size 10 fits like an old size 14.”

While the clothing sizes have gotten bigger in North America, Australia, and the UK, the reverse is true in Argentina. On the odd occasion I purchase clothes in Buenos Aires, I always reach for a large (L), often the biggest size available. Sometimes I can squeeze my size 9/10-ish body into a “one-size-fits-all” blouse or dress. As lingerie shops don’t always offer me the styles I want in my size—the largest, a size 4—I usually opt to do my panty purchases on my visits back home (in this case, I take the non-vintage route).

Confused? Check out my cheat sheet:

 

Toronto

(eg Old Navy, H&M, American Eagle)

Toronto

(Vintage Shops)

Buenos Aires

(Mainstream shops)

Tops/Tees

XS

M

L (sometimes)

Jeans/Pants

~5/6

~9/10

44 (US 14)

Underwear

M

——

4/XL

Bras

36 C

——-

100 cm (circumference below bust; largest size available)

 

Before moving to Buenos Aires, I hadn’t put much thought into the consequences of not having a national standardized system of sizing. But after residing for a few years in Argentina, I’ve realized that a lack of normalized size standards isn’t just an inconvenience for shoppers. In Argentina, it acts as a vehicle to discriminate.

My activism in Buenos Aires (under the umbrella of AnyBody Argentina, which I founded in 2010), aimed at reducing size discrimination in the fashion industry has led me down this black hole of sizes and standards. My team’s research in 2011 revealed that a whopping 70% of Argentine women cannot find clothes in their size thanks to the fashion industry’s preference to manufacture and sell smaller sizes. Despite good intentions, various “size laws” have been put in place in an attempt to ensure brands carry a full range of sizes; however, due to various reasons, such as corruption, additional costs, and unclear sizing standards outlined in the different laws, size law compliance is minimal at best. The result? Only the ultra-slim can be guaranteed fashionable garb in their size.

So, what does size standardization have to do with sizeism, at least in Argentina? Although it wouldn’t eradicate corrupt store inspectors or eliminate the added costs retailers would need to initially invest to stock a full range of sizes, it would provide clear-cut sizing guidelines so brands wouldn’t be able to manipulate the numbers. For instance, a brand couldn’t label a size 6 as a size 12 so as to appear to offer consumers a wide selection of sizes. Although the opposite is true in North America, Australia, and the UK where retailers tend to offer larger clothes marked with smaller sizes, size standardization still makes good sense.

I find it interesting that the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Australia enforce mandatory standards that demand each garment is sold with a fixed label, which includes information such as fiber content, washing instructions, and the manufacturing country. When it comes to current international sizing standards, such as those established by The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), they are purely voluntary and few countries actually abide by them. (One exception may be Japan, which adheres to its own national system, the Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS).) Why is a standardized size not considered important enough to make the cut? Has the fashion industry lost sight of the fact that size information on a garment is meant to assist the consumer in the shopping experience?

I can appreciate that brands like having the option of catering to a specialized market based on body type. For instance, women with bigger busts have an easier time finding tops that fit well at Banana Republic, whereas women with more pear-shaped figures fare better at The French Connection. Clothing lines follow the same trend in Argentina. However, the fact that brands use the exact same coding system but matched to their own unique measurements (a woman can wear a size 4, 8, or 12 depending on the brand) reflects a lack of respect for the consumer and her time, not to mention the costs retailers may incur from having to process returns or exchanges for ill-fitting clothing bought online.

There’s no reason why clothes shopping shouldn’t be as easy as buying shoes. Across the board adherence to the same sizing standards, be it north or south of the equator, would streamline the shopping experience, make the selling of imports and exports more seamless, save costs, allow easy enforcement of size laws, and quite significantly, reduce the opportunity for institutionalized size discrimination. Establishing a system that takes the mystery out of shopping isn’t going to cure us of body image issues or abolish sizeism, but any movement toward greater transparency is progress.

Related Content:

The Sizing Nightmare: What Do Labels Tell Us About Ourselves?

Sharon Haywood on the Body Wars of Argentina

Battling the Beauty Myth in Argentina

 

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Comments

  1. @Dust.Wind.Bin Thanks so much for the info! Will most definitely take a closer look at Target and American Apparel. I’m not surprised about AA though as they’ve be known to prefer serving smaller-sized women.

  2. @Sharon I encounter this a lot at Target, but also with whoever it is that makes the t-shirts that my favorite comics artists use for their screenprint shirts – I think the most recent ones I bought were from American Apparel maybe? I know that I bought a printed shirt done on a Bella ladies’ tee several years ago in either medium or large, and my latest Bella-based shirt was an XL to get the same fit.
    Target is the biggest offender I find, though, at least in my roster of stores…

  3. @RM In theory, I agree with you but unfortunately, vanity sizing is not an exclusive problem for women. British papers reported on “manity” sizing about a year ago reflecting the increased trend of selling the ‘perfect’ masculine bod. Here’s an article about it:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/8739365/Wrong-trousers-on-the-High-Street-as-men-fall-victim-to-vanity-sizing.html

  4. @dustwindbun These practices are so disrespectful of the consumer! I hadn’t heard of the reverse happening in North America. Labeling smaller sized clothes with larger sizes is a long-standing ‘trick’ Argentine retailers use to appear they offer a wide range of sizes. I’m curious – where do you purchase your clothes?

  5. I always find it surprising when people talk about vanity sizing and that North American sizes are all becoming bigger items labeled with smaller sizes. Can I come shop where you shop? I’m a US size 12, and for some reason, when I go buy basics like t-shirts, where I would buy a medium or large 5 years ago, today I have to buy an XXL, and it’s still a bit snug. And I know I’m not bigger at a 12 than I was 5 years ago – I’m basing that on the clothes I bought then, and the mediums and larges from then still fit…

    So, in the end, I guess what this all means is that clothes sizes have no logical relationship to each other, and no relationship of any kind to reality?

  6. I don’t understand why womens’ clothing manufacturers don’t use the same sizing as men: inches in chest, waist and length. That would make buying online so much easier!

  7. @Cynthia So where do women who are a true XS find fashionable clothes? Kids’ stores? Are manufacturers and brands really increasing their profits by playing this numbers game with the size tag? From where I’m sitting, they’re just alienating potential customers like yourself.

    @ LeslieLe I’m horrified! It sounds like North American brands are following the lead of sizeist labels in Argentina. As for saving money, don’t they realize that when they make clothes to truly fit their consumers, they’ll inevitably end up with a loyal clientele and more money in their pocket?

    @V65 On the surface it’s perplexing that the majority of Argentine women (and teens) are locked out of the fashion world. When my team has engaged with brands to dialogue about the issue, many have blatantly stated that they don’t want to be associated with “fatties”. Sizeism runs rampant in Argentina, so much so that brands are willing to sacrifice greater profits because of it.

  8. I’m confused – wouldn’t Argentinean clothing manufacturers and retailers sell a lot more clothes and therefore make more money if they provided clothes in larger sizes? It doesn’t make sense that most women are so badly underserved as described.

  9. I’m a size 18/20 and an XL or XXL in shirts. I have to disagree with your statement that Old Navy and the like have the vanity sizing issues. Perhaps in the smaller sizes, this is the case. But in my size? They’ve completely done away with carrying the larger sizes in the stores. And when I questioned a sales associate and then a manager about the changes, they said, “Oh, just try an 18! I’m SURE it will fit. They redid the sizing!” No. Oh, honey, NO. The 18 doesn’t fit like the old size 20. It fits more like the old size 16.

    I think a lot of what it comes down to is manufacturing costs. It’s cheaper for a clothing manufacturer to make 7 sizes of clothing than it is to make 12. Now, instead of a 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20– they make the 4-16 and just re-label. There have been many ocassions where I have held up three different sized shirts and have been UNABLE to tell the difference in size– other than the labels.

    And SHOE vanity sizing?? I’ve really never understood this. Just buy the size you need, folks. Who cares what size SHOE you wear? It’s not like you can do anything to change the size of your feet.

  10. Try being “sized out.” Yes, you heard me. SIZED OUT. Vanity sizing has made it impossible for many smaller framed people to shop because XS is too big. Like you said, XS in Toronto is more like a M in “vintage” sizing here. Well, try being someone who is a true small, maybe even extra small (I weigh less than 100 lb – averaging between 93-95 lb). This means that I can’t fit into the smallest size at some stores. Apparently, I’m not allowed to complain because “everyone has fit issues.” Well, you won’t say that to a bigger sized woman, would you?

    And don’t get me started on shoe vanity sizing. I used to be able to wear size 5. Now I’ve gone down to 4 1/2.

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