Vanity Sizing Leaves Too Much Wiggle Room For Body Image Issues

by Renata Certo-Ware

(This article originally appeared on Glammonitor on August 13, 2015)

At its best, the fashion industry is a space for self-expression, creativity and, yes, confidence. A well-made suit, a perfectly tailored dress, or a killer pair of covetable heels can make us walk just a little bit taller, hold our heads a little bit higher.

But, with its partiality for ultra-thin models in magazine spreads, advertising and on runways, and subtle and overt promotion of what is more or less a single body type—skinny—fashion can be a breeding ground for body image issues that lead to body dysmorphia, disordered thinking, and eating disorders. Those who don’t fit into that very narrow (pun intended) physical standard are often left feeling less than adequate, and the few who do aren’t exempt from pressures to stay thin to keep up with the competition.

“As a model, you have to maintain a certain size,” says Jemesii, a retired model who struggled with anorexia nervosa for over a decade. “I had to stay within those measurements—my size was printed on my comp card. If you were given clothing to wear at a shoot based on that size, and you didn’t fit into it, it was shameful.”

No one is immune: even those who have no direct affiliation with, or interest in, the industry are unavoidably affected by it. Everyone wears clothes (hey, it’s the law) and at some point, we all must go through the process of shopping for them and trying them on. And thanks to “vanity sizing,” the now-common practice of labeling clothing with a smaller numerical or alphabetical size than it actually represents, the act of shopping for clothes can feel like a cross between a game of chance and psychological warfare.

The back of my new @sachinandbabi top 😍

A photo posted by Renata Certo-Ware (@untouchableblog) on

Above: Me, trying on clothes in a dressing room. 

That vanity sizing exists while a standardized sizing system does not is a well-documented and oft-lamented part of the retail experience. And it doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon. Every brand seems to have its own version of what each size means—a “small” at Gap may be a “medium” at J Crew, or a “31” at Rag & Bone may fit like Old Navy’s Size 4. Not surprisingly, language and software have developed to translate that for consumers. Most multi-brand websites include fit notes like “Fits true to size” (if that notion even exists) or “Runs small—order a size up.”

Saks Fifth Avenue has developed a “Fit Predictor,” on its website that uses an algorithm comparing your sizes in brands it deems similar to offer up a suggestion for which size to order on each product page. Shoppers can complete a full-body scan to determine their actual size with Me-Ality, a machine found in malls across the country, while social shopping network Fitbay released an app to let users upload photos of themselves and insight into how clothing from different brands fits, in an effort to democratize the struggle.

The verbiage around size is, in itself, problematic. Rarely does one say “I wear size X”; instead it’s “I am a size X.” As a society, we quite literally identify as our size. There’s a lot riding on the numbers on the tags of our clothes, but in reality they are quite often arbitrary, misleading, and in many cases, specifically designed to boost sales like any other marketing asset.

Moreover, sizing should be a measuring stick. Maintaining a steady weight—whatever that may be—is often key in staying healthy. But the uncertainty that can arise from vanity sizing threatens to rattle even the soundest of minds. If you identify as your size (“I am size X”) but then you don’t know what it truly is, your self-identity risks serious damage.

“Fashion is not consistent, but sizing should be,” says retail specialist MaiaMonteagudo, who has experienced disordered eating like obsessive calorie counting and abstaining from food. “That’s why we as consumers focus on that one element to help navigate the industry but in the process we’ve given it too much power. It’s not a useful tool anymore.”

“It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with how outrageously inaccurate sizing has become in retail,” Monteagudo continues. “If you’d look in my closet and just focused on the sizes, you would think I was all over the place or just going from a major weight loss/gain process.”

One licensed eating disorder specialist, who asked not to be named to protect the identity and well-being of his patients, recalls one woman’s breakthrough during a group therapy session. “We recently had a client who said in treatment ‘I know that clothes are supposed to fit me, I’m not supposed to fit the clothes.’ Sadly, a majority of the population doesn’t think that way, they think like ‘I need to make sure I fit this size.’ Getting them to believe that it’s really vice-versa is a hard point to drive home because sizing is so fluid.”

My own appreciation for the correlation between vanity sizing and body image began with a text I sent to my friend from the dressing room during a shopping trip. “I can’t tell if I have body dysmorphia, or if clothes are just sized incorrectly,” my text read. “Probably a bit of both,” he replied, half joking.

I was at Anthropologie, a multi-brand retailer that carries clothing from a variety of fashion labels both domestic and imported. I had gone into the dressing room with an armful of clothing mostly labeled medium or large. Several trips back to the racks and a couple rounds of trying things on later, I found myself at the register paying for my purchase. I ended up buying all size smalls.

Clearly on a #spring kick for this pull from @anthropologie !! #perfect wares for a #fashion #anthropologist #nestpas?

A photo posted by Renata Certo-Ware (@untouchableblog) on

I was, frankly, alarmed and concerned for my sanity. Did I perceive myself as a “large” when in reality I’m much thinner than I think I am? Or, is sizing just completely smoke and mirrors? In any case, the takeaway from that trip was “You shrunk,” and I would be lying if that didn’t make me feel a bit lighter on my toes (and a bit less regretful about spending money) even if I was suspicious of the veracity of those measurements.

Indeed, those warm and fuzzy feelings that come from buying a size (or two) smaller than one’s usual size is a side effect of vanity sizing. But just as vanity sizing giveth, it also taketh away, especially if you head into a dressing room in a store that doesn’t employ vanity sizing. You may select items in what you believe is your size based on what you buy at other stores, and be in for a rude awakening.

“The devastating realization came in H&M,” writes Abram Sauer in an article forEsquire“Specifically, in a pair of size 36 dress pants. I’d never bought pants at H&M before, and suddenly asked myself: how could a 36-inch waist suddenly be so damn tight?”

After purchasing a measuring tape and literally measuring waistbands at various stores against the size listed on the labels, Sauer soon learns that the pants he’d been wearing from other stores (this was the first time he’d tried on pants at H&M, remember)  that were labeled 36” were, in fact, an inch or more larger than that in reality. (The title of the article was “Are Your Pants Lying to You? An Investigation.” The answer? Yes.)

I should add that vanity sizing goes both ways—not accommodating large sizes seems like a self-serving vanity on the brand’s behalf, retail’s version of the now infamous “You can’t sit with us” scene in the movie Mean Girls.  

I went into the dressing room of a Zara store in Boston not long ago with 10 items. None of them fit. By way of apology to the manager, who was eyeing my pile of reject garments with annoyance, I said “why is everything so tight? I usually wear a medium but the large doesn’t even fit me!” He looked a little flustered, but replied “They’reEuropean sizes,” with a trace of smugness. “Oh, really? Well, I’m European,” I said. (It’s kind of true—my mother was born in Italy.) “That’s just what we’re told to say…” he stammered. Perhaps, as a recent study from Journal of Consumer Psychologysuggests, a customer who feels bad about not fitting into clothing can actually increase spending, “as consumers engage in compensatory consumption to help repair their damaged self-esteem.”

Vanity sizing can have majorly deleterious effects on consumers, who use words like “devastating,” “shameful,” and “demoralizing” to describe the negative experiences they have had with badly sized items of clothing.

Jemesii has found a way to avoid the negative repercussions that accompany size-doubt. For her, it’s all about finding a sweet spot—and steering clear of the rest. “These days I find that I generally know what fits, and I shop at one place because it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself. The sizing stays standard. And everything is stretchy.” From a retail perspective, she encourages women to not even look at the size, but focus on fit instead. Easier said than done, but a step in the right direction.

“Sizing is just a cold, numerical variable that the industry uses to gauge inventory,” adds Monteagudo. “The incredible ‘I look good’ feeling is the true value in fashion, not the size.”