What’s Up With Women’s Clothing And Changing Sizes?

If you asked me what size jeans I wear, or sports bras, or dresses, I honestly couldn’t tell you. And I’m not alone – women all over are starting to notice weird discrepancies in online retailers and brand name stores when it comes to sizing. So, what’s up with women’s clothing and changing sizes?

By Gwen Farrell3 min read
shutterstock What’s Up With Women’s Clothing And Changing Sizes?

In reality, it comes down to some tricky marketing tactics, and when we’re more aware of what brands are trying to sell us, we can make better, informed choices on what we purchase.

Why Are Sizes So Confused?

Did you know that if Marilyn Monroe were being sized today by modern retailers, she’d be a size 6? You read that right. The notorious blonde sex symbol of the ‘50s was known for her curvy figure and ample bust, and experts agree that were her body type being fit by today’s standards, she’d be a size 6, whereas at the time, she was a size 12.

Charts generated by The Wall Street Journal reveal that the way sizes are generated have changed dramatically over the last half century. Once upon a time, sizes actually correlated to specific bust and waist measurements, but now, that logic seems to have gone completely out the window.

The culprit behind this weird, ever-changing standard is what’s known as vanity sizing. Vanity sizing is a marketing tactic that retailers, designers, and manufacturers use to sell more clothing. The maneuver operates on retailers making larger clothes with smaller sizing, which has proven to be effective in getting women to buy more clothing. The idea is that someone who is a size 12, for example, would actually be trying on clothes that fit them which are sized considerably lower than 12, prompting them to buy up as much of that “smaller-sized” clothing as possible.

There’s no real standard of measurement anywhere anymore. 

Additionally, it’s important to recognize that there’s no real standard of measurement anywhere anymore. All measurement scales are pretty arbitrary and individualized by different retailers. This explains why we may go from being a size 8 at Old Navy, but we could be a size 4 or a size 12 at another retailer, like Target or Walmart. 

A Broken System

If we look back on past sizing methods, we can see how far we’ve come – and how completely off the rails sizing has now become. What was size 8 in 1958 is now labeled as size 00. What was size 12 in 1970 is now labeled as size 0.

The supposed solution to vanity sizing is what’s known as universal sizing, which would mean every retailer and manufacturer would abide by one specific set of guidelines and sizes. But many are concerned that universal sizing would fail to accommodate plus-sized women and much smaller-sized women, leaving out entire groups of sizes in favor of more conventional figures.

It’s not hard to see the reasoning behind this. My individual body differs a lot from my own mother and sisters, and I’m sure they’d have a similar perspective. Each woman’s body is so different and unique that it would be difficult to invent a reimagined system where each individual size would accommodate everyone.

Universal sizing would mean every manufacturer would abide by one specific set of sizes. 

So we’re back to the drawing board, and once again faced with closets and drawers full of differing sizes on our clothing. And who’s feeding this evolution of always-changing sizes?

Fast fashion is one party many designers would like to blame. If you’re not aware, fast fashion is the industry behind brands like Shein, Romwe, Zara, Uniqlo, Urban Outfitters, and many more. Fast fashion brands pride themselves on being able to keep up with trends, but they use cheap labor and poor material to do so. Each new season means a brand new trend, which means new clothing with low quality control. Many argue that with these brands constantly producing items and trying to keep up with trends, they’re contributing to and supporting the wild variation of sizes, and that influence often spills over into other reputable retailers and stores who are in competition with them. 

How Sizing Influences Our Attitudes

Crazy sizing can be a pain whether we’re shopping online or in-person, but it’s even more detrimental to our self-esteem.

When it comes to vanity sizing, we’re emboldened with a false confidence when we wear smaller sizes, when we should be embracing confidence no matter what’s on the tag. When it comes to sizing with larger numbers, we may be led to believe we’re bigger than we really are.

Not only is this system messing with the industry, it’s messing with our perceptions of ourselves.

It’s hard to look at a tag and put on clothing that should fit us, but doesn’t, and sometimes it’s even disheartening to go up a few sizes and have the clothing fit better. Not only is this system messing with the industry, it’s messing with our own perceptions of ourselves, specifically in believing that our bodies may be assigned to a certain size, versus what they actually are. We also might think that our bodies should belong to one specific number or category, but in a completely arbitrary system meant to intentionally mislead consumers, there’s no real guarantee.

I have several extra small dresses hanging in my closet, right next to large or extra large blouses or other clothing, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. When I was in the middle of an eating disorder, I would intentionally buy clothes that were too big for me, and though I’ve been in recovery for several years now, it’s a hard habit to break. It’s an even harder one when meaningless, insignificant sizes continue to reinforce those toxic thoughts that I once had.

Closing Thoughts

You’ll be glad to know that when it comes to shopping, there can be a few ways around this system.

You know your body better than anyone, so the next time you go in looking for a new dress or a pair of pants, instead of immediately looking at the sizes to tell you which items to pick up, look at the actual shape of the clothing and the amount of material. Try on as many items as you need to with this method, and find the items that work on the basis of your own body, rather than a size written on the tag.

Know how the items are cut, what they emphasize, what looks good (or doesn’t) on your body, and let the perpetrators behind these mind games worry about the numbers instead. Shopping can be a fun, validating, confidence-boosting pastime, and it shouldn’t come with the worry and anxiety induced by weird or inaccurate marketing tricks.

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