A while ago, in the debate that arose from talking about whether or not it’s ideal for a person to weigh themselves every day, a lot of people said – either via facebook or twitter – that they go by how their clothes fit to determine if they’re getting away from their original size.

Now, don’t get me wrong – that can be a good way to keep track. You know what your jeans feel like fresh out of the dryer. You know how that dress is supposed to look when you get into it. That’s one thing.

It’s a completely different thing when you walk into your favorite store and grab the size you think you are, only to sneak off into the changing room, try it on, and discover the truth: you’ve gone down a size.

You do the electric slide (I don’t – I never learned how to do it.). You do the tootsie roll. You might even hit your dougie. Either way, you head on over to the rack, grab the right size, try it on and become overjoyed. As you’re paying at the register, you think to yourself – “Dang, and I didn’t even work out or change my eating habits. Oh well, I ain’t mad at it.” – and off you go.

Did you really shrink, or did your clothing get larger?

No, really – it’s called “vanity sizing.” It’s where clothing manufacturers decide to call their “size 10” pants “size 8s,” to allow the customer to feel a little beter about themselves. It’s where the size 0/size 00, size 000 concept comes from, too – if you make your “size 2” pants “size 0s,” what do you call your “size 0s?” Well, you call them size double zeros, of course!

Clothing manufacturers know the personal and emotional relationship that women have with the number associated with our clothing, which is why they do it. Where are you more likely to shop? The store where you are a size 10, or the store where you’re a size 6?

But why do they do it? A few reasons.

Brands who cater more to the 30- and 40-something professional crowd are most likely to vanity size because their belief is that the ego of the 30- and 40-something is too fragile to embrace the reality of their expanding waistline. A woman could easily go through her life believing she’s still the same size 6 she was in college, only to find – well after the fact – that she has gained at least 20lbs along the way. It cushions her ego.

It creates brand loyalty. A woman who can claim that she’s still the same size 6 she was in college – and she knows this for a fact because she’s shopped the same store for 12 years – is loyal to that brand because of the way it makes her feel to still be able to make that claim. The first moment that a size-conscious woman steps into a new store and learns that she can’t wear the size she wears in her store? Oh, she’s out the door and right back at her old spot. Brand loyalty. That kind of experience might traumatize her into never ever leaving.

The third point is one I’ve touched on briefly before, but is a stone cold reality. The fact of the matter is…the deeper a store decides to go into vanity sizing, the more they can get away with carrying “plus sizes” without calling them “plus sizes.” Seriously – if a size 8 can get away with wearing a size 4 in a XYZ store, that means that a size 16 can wear at least a size 14 in the store. It allows the store to cover more market without “covering more market” and advertising for it. It allows them to reach out without having to embrace the stigma of catering to plus-sized women. (Think back to Old Navy’s decision to stop carrying “certain sizes” in the stores, relegating them to only being available online. Stigma.)

A woman with a 32-inch bust would have worn a Size 14 in Sears’s 1937 catalog. By 1967, she would have worn an 8, Ms. Zulli found.

Today, she would wear a zero. [source]

What a strange discrepancy in sizes though, right? To go from wearing a 14 in the early 1900s, to dropping down to a size zero? It’s similar to the “Marilyn Monroe Paradox” that people continually reference – the “Well, Marilyn used to wear a size 12!” argument – whenever they want to talk about the beauty of double digit sizes. The reality of it, though, is that a “size 12” meant something very different back then, with Monroe’s measurements being a 36″ bust, a 23″ waist and a 37″ set of hips at approximately 5’5″. While she was a curvaceous woman – a fourteen inch difference between her waist and hips? an hourglass figure? – she was certainly not the kind of size 12 we’d see today. Double digit

That being said, sizing is done arbitrarily, and the size on which your body falls is really defined at the discretion of the designer. If they want to make you feel good about yourself? They’ll let you feel like a size 6/8/10/14/16 instead of, well, “something much worse.” If, however, they’re a brand with a little pull? Guess what? You’re that much more likely to find yourself in a size you’re not accustomed to picking up.

Check out this chart that showcases different brands, and what measurements qualify for size 8 status:

Please pay close attention to the fact that the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic – while all are owned by the same company – have such wildly varying definitions of what a 38″ hip should be.

So, here’s the question. Are we too connected to that number on the tag? Is it merely a representation of our size, or a representation of the size offerings that that designer offers? I mean, think of the different designers – Lane Bryant, for example – who have done away with traditional sizes altogether, and uses a simple “size 1,” “size 2,” “size 3,” “size 4” system. Are we too emotionally tied to that number? I ask this because, if we use this as a passive-aggressive standard to measure whether or not we are maintaining our shape, are we, essentially, shooting ourselves in the foot if our designer-of-choice is using vanity sizing?

…or maybe these numbers shouldn’t mean as much to us as they do?