Home Social Construct Vanity Sizing: Accidentally Masking Weight Gain?

Vanity Sizing: Accidentally Masking Weight Gain?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

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?

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Lee May 6, 2011 - 12:28 PM

See, this right here is why I prefer buying men’s pants, because their sizes are actual measurements! I like being able to add/drop an inch or two in the waist and length as necessary. Sure, it’d be nice if they fit my curves a little better, but at least the size is based on real, quantifiable numbers.

Lesley May 6, 2011 - 12:34 PM

As a former fashion designer, I will say the fit model has a lot to do with how the clothes fit your body. Which is why some people are loyal to certain brands. Chances are you and the fit model of that company are similar in shape. When a company changes fit models, you may notice that your favourite brand doesn’t quite fit anymore. As for “vanity sizing” I’m not sure that’s exactly what’s going on. I do believe it’s more about the fact that America is getting larger and larger by the day, so in order not to push the customer out of your store and send her to a plus size store, they are rearranging the core measurements of a standard size 8 to accomodate the growth (horizontal) of America. Basically, America is getting fatter and stores are just trying to keep up.

Great post.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 6, 2011 - 12:53 PM

In all fairness, that IS the definition of vanity sizing: instead of letting the individual accept that they’ve gone up a size, the manufacturer just enlarges their definition of a size X. This is, in fact, vanity sizing.

TheVoiceOfReason November 9, 2012 - 5:51 PM

I lurk on this blog and I wanted to chime in on this one. I was always tall for my age, had a large frame, and a little pudgy. Now I am a size 16 weighing in at 220lbs. I’m not pudgy anymore, but I clearly remember not being able to find clothes that I liked, and that fit me in high school. (not to mention shoes) Now I have a much bigger selection than I used to. That’s a good thing, however there is a serious lack of consistency among brands. This is truly frustrating when I know I am a size 16 but I cannot fit into it becuase it is waay too big. I have actually been told by Lane Bryant that I’m really not that fat hence the reason why I can’t fit into their smallest size. What was even more frustrating is that I was always waay too big for most dept. store brands. ??? I don’t know what is going on but I find that I am always too big for regular stores and too small for the plus crowd. There needs to be a standard industry sizing chart based on Imperial Measurements. That would save practical women like me alot of grief.

Niesy January 31, 2012 - 2:24 PM

I don’t think vanity sizing makes much of a difference. The point is for me to look good in my clothes, so I’m not emotionally tied to the size listed. If the garment looks great on, I see no need to be concerned with size. Most of us don’t monitor our weight based on the next pair of jeans we purchase, but how we look and what’s on the scale. So, if we normally wear size 8 jeans, but the sexy dress on the rack that fits is a 12, buy it! You’ll still look amazing.

Malpha May 6, 2011 - 1:31 PM

Vanity sizing is definitely out of control…on the other hand, things like this irritate me:

“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. ”

What was the minimum size in 1937? For example, there is no Size 0 in UK sizing. The minimum size is a 4. It’s ridiculous to say a 32” bust was a Size 14 in 1937…if the smallest size was a Size 10. It makes it seem as though women who are a size 0 are not actually that thin (especially since a picture of a woman with a 32” bust is not actually shown to give audiences a look at how thin that is), when it’s really that sizes have inflated so much they had to invent the size 0. The point is there, it’s just presented in a slanted way.

Jess July 23, 2016 - 8:45 AM

In the 1940’s, the smallest size was a 12. Since they have only been adding lower number sizes and not subtracting over the years, probably the smallest size in 1937 was a 12 or 14. However, in the ’40s there was an attempt to standardize women’s clothing sizes, so I’m not absolutely certain they didn’t have smaller than size 12 in 1937, but I tend to think they probably didn’t. In the ’50s I believe the smallest was size 10.

T.R. May 6, 2011 - 3:46 PM

I remember reading back in the early 2000 how they were “downsizing” our sizes and I thought now that’s just crazy. So I’ve been familiar with the vanity size issue for some time now. And yes I do think it leads to the “creeping” up of weight along with the inclusion of lycra and spandex in our clothing. From my own personal experience, with LB prior to them going to the 1, 2, 3….system, I thought I was doing fine with my “weight” because I was still in the 16-18 range at the “new” LB when they revamped about 10 years back. Then a few years ago I went to an LB outlet store and was highly upset when I had to go as high as a 24 to get into some pants. LOL two things I noticed, these clothes were from several years back and they didn’t have lycra/spandex like the new LB clothes so they didn’t “give” and they weren’t vanity sized.

So that was when I really had to start being very honest about my clothing and my weight. Even now I’m seeing where vanity sizing is affecting me and my weight. I’ve lost some decent weight over the past few months (roughly 50pds) and I have gotten into the smaller size I think I should be in at this point. I had to admit that I was bigger than I wanted to admit and that my clothes number was not a true reflection of that weight. It’s frustrating and has been a bit disheartening because I was very much one to use my clothes as an indicator my weight progress. I never used the scale. :O) However that has changed. I now use the scale, understanding it’s only ONE indicator and I try and find other weighs to chart my progress including looking at how my skin has gotten better, I no longer have that pain in my knees and how I’ve been pretty consistent with my life style change over the past few months and have seen significant weight lose. Longer than anytime I’ve ever tried to “loose weight” in the past and more weight than I’ve ever lost in trying.

So I say all that to say, yeah you can’t rely on that little tag. If it bothers you so much cut it out. :O)

Erika by the weigh got my t-shirt Wed. LOVE IT. And as for you, I know you didn’t do vanity sizing but being able to order an XL and have it fit with some room felt really good. :O) I’m still loosing so I see I’m going to be buying a newer smaller version soon and very soon. Thank you for the cute shirt.

CurlieGirlie May 6, 2011 - 3:50 PM

We need to stop judging ourselves based on what we see in clothing stores. I know, this is easier said than done, but if I really like the way I look in a pair of jeans, does it matter if they claim to be a size 10 or a size 4? The size going up or down doesn’t change the way that I look. And if I really had gone up or down a size, wouldn’t I have noticed my own clothes fitting differently?

Lol, this is why I ALWAYS try on clothes before I buy them. Ordering online may be convenient, but since I may be three different sizes in three different stores, I just prefer to know that the clothes will fit me before I buy them.

Danielle1 May 7, 2011 - 8:43 AM

interesting article- this is probably why the Sweet valley high twins are now size 4 🙂

Kjen May 9, 2011 - 9:05 AM

I think we are too emotionally attached to the number. It took me years to ignore the label and just get what fits the best because if I was that “perfect size 6” then what was the point of buying any clothes right? It took a lot of work for me to be able to be able to shop and think it was only an issue of “the clothes” not being the right size, rather than me shaming my body for not being able the right size.

And I’ve heard that Marilyn Monroe paradox for a number of years. I’ve actually heard her size used to justify body acceptance/fat acceptance as well as to defend ‘America’s need to diet’.
At this point, I wonder at the wisdom of idealizing celebrities shape, much less one from over 50 years ago. Celebrities always tend to be thinner then the general public anyway, and Ms. Monroe had an exceptional physique that was all her own. Why beat yourself up for not conforming to someone else’s standards?

Lynaya May 9, 2011 - 8:41 PM

This article is so on point! I had a goal size for my weight loss, so I’m happy to read this. It’s good to remember how much our sizes vary from one store to the next.

LBC May 11, 2011 - 12:19 PM

I find sizing hilarious, although I can see why it’s so frustrating to so many people.

I collect and sew from old patterns. As far as I’m concerned, I’m a size 16 (bust 34, waist 26 1/2. My hips run big, though–39 inches). That would be a 1930’s – mid-1950’s size 16. Sixteen doesn’t even sound that big to me. It was mid-range even 70 years ago; most old pattern catalogs used size 16 to give fabric yardage estimates.

I’m currently wearing Lees with “Size 8” on the tag, which is a cock-and-bull story if ever I heard one. They’re a little big on me since I started jogging again, especially in the waist since I have to buy to fit my proportionally-large thighs and hips. If that brand still has the same sizing they did five years ago, I guess I’d be a 6? With 39-inch hips? Give me a break.

I am not a small girl. I’m 5’7″ and, OK, trim, but neither small-boned nor particularly thin. The idea that I’d be a size 6 or a size small–most of my non-numerical clothes are now “small”, and they’re not tight–in anything seems totally absurd. “Small” is my friend who is 5’1″ and 110 tightly-toned pounds of muscular equestrienne.

Am I alone in thinking that vanity sizing is embarrassing, not reassuring? I know it’s lying to me, and I hate being played.

AnnT August 5, 2011 - 10:25 PM

If you’ve ever sewn clothes from a pattern, you see how vanity sizing has gotten out of hand. Many pattern websites and sewing books even tell you not to be size shocked because the measurements for patterns today are still antiquated from the 60s.
I’m a pear shaped 12 in ready-to-wear off the rack clothes, but I’ll be pressed to not be a size 18 in a Vogue pattern.

tammy August 25, 2011 - 9:11 PM

My closet contains sizes from size 14 to size 4. They ALL fit. I shop a LOT at Goodwill. My White House Black Market skirt is size 4. My Levi’s jean skirt is a 12 or 14 (can’t remember). They fit about the same. I am 5’2″ and 127. In high school I was 134 and wore a solid 12. I figure I wear about a true size 9/10 based on high school sizes, but I wear a 6-8 now when shopping for new clothes. While it is undeniably a bit of a thrill to slide a 6 or a 4 on when I was a 22-24 2 years ago, I have learned that as long as the clothes fit and flatter my figure, I don’t care what size they are! I have one pair of shorts and one pair of jeans that if they start getting snug, I start paying attention. Other than that, I weigh myself 1x a week or less and just eat healthy. Clothing size is just a number!

Stefanie August 25, 2011 - 10:12 PM

Very interesting article. I had never heard of vanity sizing; and for that, I will be sure to watch the scale AND take measurements; and enjoy how much more fabulous i look in my clothes regardless of the size number on the tag. Thanks for sharing

Tremilla October 24, 2011 - 1:11 PM

I was never too hung up on sizes until I went to a store and noticed that the jeans that fit me were a size 20! Now I kmew I put on some weight but a 20??? I was a little confused because at home some of the clothes I was wearing were 14s and 16s. I’m between sooo many sizes it’s not even funny. I actually squeezed into a 12 the other day. These days I’m less concerned about the size and more about the fit. I just want to be able to lose the weight and continue wearing the beautiful clothes (in various sizes) that I have in my closet.

Chrissy January 9, 2012 - 4:37 PM

And this is why it is so hard for me to go shopping for clothes! This is crazy. Thanks for the info.

angela January 9, 2012 - 5:04 PM

So if you can’t trust the vanity sizing in the stores, and you can’t trust the numbers on the scale (I’m new here, just read your post on that earlier today), then how do you keep track of your weight loss?

I have lost either 35 or 40 pounds (or some number in between those two, depending on my scale that day), with a good 40-60 more pounds to go. I have no clue what size I am in what brand of any clothing (and I *hate* shopping for clothes), except for right now I’m pretty much just sticking to a certain style Old Navy jeans. I know how the Sweetheart boot cut fit on my body when I wore it in a size 20, then 18, then 16, then 14, and I have a pair in size 12 on the this-size-should-fit-next standby shelf…

I feel my body getting stronger. I feel that my face looks a little thinner, and my boobs are definitely different, haha. I ‘know’ I’m losing the weight. But… I don’t know, what do you use to help reinforce your weight loss to yourself, tangible proof that you’re doing it, if you don’t use either the scale or your clothing size?

Erika Nicole Kendall January 9, 2012 - 5:52 PM
Karyn January 9, 2012 - 5:13 PM

I knew there was some vanity sizing going on because I have a size 10 pair of pants from at least 10 years ago, and they are 2 sizes smaller than the size 10 pair of pants I have now. I don’t like that they are giving us smoke and mirrors instead of the cold hard truth..

Jennifer October 9, 2012 - 11:26 PM

I’ve been privy to vanity sizing for quite some time but I’m happy to see such a comprehensive look at how designers vary. I’ve lost a considerable amount of weight (50lbs), but I realized my “size” in clothing hasn’t change much b/c I’ve b een shopping at various stores. The way I keep tabs on my progress is through taking my measurements and monitoring how I feel after physical activity.

Kathleen August 15, 2013 - 11:45 AM

That’s why the only weight indicator that I use is the tape measure. I use the scale as a guide of where I am but only every 2 weeks to a month. I try things on but I don’t really look at the sizes anymore. If I’m swimming in a piece of clothing I go down a size but every body shape is different and so even when you are a size small…a size small on a 5 foot pear shaped female will look different than a size small 5’9 female. I do agree that some size smalls do seem larger now than they used to.

Windi September 15, 2016 - 11:14 AM

I know this is an old post, but I found it very helpful. This explains why I wear size 8 Michael Kors skinny jeans and size 4 White House Black Market ones. Honestly, when I first tried the MK ones, I just figured I have been getting fat and started working out again, so it proves your point that vanity sizing isn’t helping anyone. I should keep the tape measure handy going forward to make sure I don’t get out of line too much.

Kurt Wetzel June 19, 2017 - 11:12 AM

Vanity sizing is out of control and it goes for men pants/shorts too.. After reading several articles its worse for women.
Its so out of control don’t even worry about what the label says is suppose to be the size. Buy pants, shorts, and skirts that fit you properly or how you want them to fit. Use your measurement and go up or down from there. Another thing nobody knows what size you wear so fit is much more important.
I have shorts from Champion size 38 men golf shorts, Wrangler Jeans Relaxed Fit size 38, George Dress pants size 38 Walmart brand, and Hagar Dress pants size 38 with hidden elastic waist.
The Champion shorts fit loose for size 38 and I must wear with a belt or they fall down a tad too much. Sized a whole size larger the extreme end of vanity sizing.
The Wrangler Relaxed fit 38 jeans fit perfectly. A little loose but not tight. A belt helps with them but not needed.
The George 38 Dress Pants fit a little loose at size 38. A belt is needed for them.
The Hagar Dress Pants size 38 barley buttons up. A belt is not needed. Since they have expandable waist I can wear them comfortably. Otherwise I couldn’t wear them.
As for weight go by how you look in the mirror naked. You know if you are the proper weight or have some fat to loose.

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