The deeply negative impact of vanity sizing Leave a comment


Cropped shot of woman's hand selecting a pair of trousers from the display shelf while shopping in a clothing store in the city

It’s just a number… so why does it hurt? (Picture: Getty)

We’ve all been there.

Standing in a cramped dressing room with a dress in your usual size that doesn’t fit.

It doesn’t make sense. You always get this size. It couldn’t be.

You try on a skirt in another store and it fits like normal. Ok then, you tell yourself it must be a blip.

A while later, you order jeans from an online retailer and the fit is off again. You stand there confused, bewildered and agitated.

You put the waistband of your best-fitting jeans against the pair that came out of the package – the difference is clear.

Both the same size, but the measurements are inconsistent. You are angry.

Although you may not want them to, these situations play with your emotions. You question your body and your worth. Self-esteem is fragile and ‘vanity sizing’ has a lot to answer for when it comes to its deflation.

Vanity sizing, or size inflation as it is otherwise known, is the phenomenon of ready-to-wear clothing of the same nominal size becoming bigger in physical size over time. The Oxford Engish Dictionary describes it as ‘the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is really the case, in order to encourage sales.’

However, retailers don’t follow a similar route when it comes to vanity sizing and sizing in general, meaning we are left in a position where sizing greatly differs between stores.

There is no clear blueprint for measurements. This phenomenon is the reason you may be a size 14 in one shop and a size 18 in another.

It must always be remembered that there is nothing wrong with this. Sizes are just numbers, they don’t define a person. And this trend has now permeated the shopping experience of women and men of all shapes and sizes.

Yet the negative impact that vanity sizing has on body image and mental wellbeing could be colossal.

Steff Hansen from Birmingham, believes vanity sizing contributed to her developing an eating disorder.

‘I love one brand in particular but their sizing has always been really small,’ she says. ‘Whenever I tried items on it made me question whether I’d gained weight or not and made me feel self-conscious.’

‘I ended up having anorexia because my mind would play tricks on me. I’d go into a shop and pick up my usual size but it wouldn’t fit. This seemed to work as confirmation bias to these damaging thought patterns I was experiencing at the time.’

Steff says these experiences have made her hesitant to shop and that buying clothes should not be a damaging experience. ‘It shouldn’t be this way’, she explains. ‘I should be able to choose the exact same size at each store without having things come up bigger or smaller.’

Laura Ash is the owner of Rock Solid, a business that specialises in helping people to have a long-term sustainable view about health and fitness and most importantly, to embrace their bodies.

Through her work, she has seen first hand the detrimental effects erratic sizing can have. ‘We have clients who don’t even like shopping centres because it makes them anxious,’ she says. ‘There are times when they have got stuck in the clothing and had panic attacks in the changing rooms.’

Line up of different jean styles

Not fitting into your usual sign can cause your self-esteem to take a nosedive (Picture: Unsplash)

‘We have had clients take a dress out of the wardrobe, put it on, look in the mirror and feel great. But then they catch a glimpse of the label size and feel mortified that it was one of their ‘larger’ dresses and feel terrible about themselves. Even though they looked like a knockout in it and might have bought smaller sizes in other shops that fit perfectly too.’

To counteract the negative implications and help clients with their body image, Laura tries to make them see they are more than just a number. ‘We often get our clients to cut the labels out of clothing, so they don’t attach themselves to a number and instead look at the piece of clothing as something that looks great and that they love.’

‘You don’t go up to someone, introduce yourself, and say what size you are because the other person sees who you are, not what size is on your top.’

Vanity sizing can also change how those with larger bodies view themselves. Activist Lindsay McGlone aka The Fierce Fat Feminist says at its core, inflation sizing buys into the ideology that smaller bodies are more desirable.

‘It’s more acceptable to be smaller in society and that can affect people’s perceptions of themselves and others,’ says the 23-year-old. ‘It convinces people they are a smaller size than they are and makes them more likely to buy the garment. They feel being smaller makes them better.’

‘We need to realise that physical body shapes differ,’ she continues. ‘One item can look completely different on everyone. And that’s not better or worse, just different. However, that’s no excuse for them not to fit well.

‘Stores and designers can make an effort to measure models, not just ‘size up.’ They also need to be truthful with their consumers about previous mistakes in sizing and make it clear that regardless of size everyone is worthy and valid.’

Studies have shown that shoppers prefer to buy clothing labeled with small sizes because it boosts confidence. But why the obsession with a number?

And how much more can our bodies and minds take?

Dr Sophie Chung, CEO of digital healthcare service Qunomedical, says: ‘We are bombarded with the idea that thin equals beautiful and beautiful equals thin. If people didn’t have this at the back of their minds, there would be zero panic over going up a size or two at one shop.’

‘Inconsistent sizing can make you feel as if you’re not in tune with your own body – it plays mind games – something that those who are struggling already with body confidence and eating disorders are plagued by.’

She adds: ‘People run through a lot of emotions when trying on clothing in a size they thought fit them, but now doesn’t. Has my body changed? Have I gained or lost weight? These are questions that can send people in a downward spiral. Not feeling comfortable in your body can trigger feelings of depression, anxiety, social withdrawal, and can aggravate eating disorders.’

So will it ever change?

Following the unfavourable sizing experience she had with a retailer, Steff Hansen confronted management. ‘They said “yeah, we hear about this a lot but don’t worry, it’s not you. It’s just our sizing comes up smaller it seems”. They never fully acknowledged it.’

Dr Chung believes the chances of universal size standardisation are very low. She thinks the only way forward is dealing with the impossible societal standards placed upon us.

‘We should only ever use brand size guides for guidance – they don’t always reflect true measurements,’ she says. ‘Most importantly, however, is that we tackle why we care so much about numbers on a piece of fabric and fight back against these issues.’

‘Only then will the sizing system becomes a little less important.’


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