The New Downsizing in Fashion

Our waistlines aren't getting any smaller, but our dress sizes are. Does this kind of vanity sizing really boost our self-esteem? One study suggests yes—but here's why we should say no

by Editors
Photograph: Rowan Butler

American women aren’t getting smaller—but the sizes assigned to their clothes are. “What used to be a size 8 in the 1950s became a size 4 in the 1970s and a zero in 2006," says Aradhna Krishna, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan, whose research on the psychological effects of size creep is in the October issue of The Journal of Consumer Psychology. In an article called “Imagining Thin: Why Vanity Sizing Works,” Krishna and co-author Nilüfer Aydinoğlu say they found that, unshockingly, American women prefer small-size clothing labels to larger ones—and that the downsized labels provide a self-esteem boost, evoking “more positive self-related mental imagery. Thus, consumers imagine themselves more positively (thinner) with a vanity sized size-6 pant versus a size-8 pant.”

Size inflation, which has also invaded menswear, raises some interesting points to ponder, perhaps while waiting in line for an empty fitting room. Is it merely a harmless form of ego-enhancement, a little joke—“I’m finally a size 6, wink-wink, nudge-nudge”—at nobody’s expense? Or can it cost us our health? A third of American adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and less than half get enough exercise. Vanity sizing, some experts argue, could be partly to blame, encouraging unbridled eating and sedentary behavior, which increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other ills. (The envisioned scenario: “Screw portion control and exercise!” cries the woman who’d wear a size 14 in reality-based clothing. “I’m an 8, dammit!” Cut to the cardiac ICU.)

Maybe. But suppose the negative effects of vanity sizing are subtler and more insidious? We see two possible dangers. The first is that size creep is a form of self-delusion that can leak into other areas of life. If as a nation we get used to pretending we’re a size six when we know damned well we’re a 12, maybe we’ll get used to accepting other notions we know deep down can’t possibly be true, as good as they make us feel—that global petroleum supplies will last forever, for example. A leap, perhaps; we’re just sayin’. Second, we worry that accepting vanity sizing is a capitulation to cultural ideals of female beauty that are unrealistic, limiting, and punishing. Even Dr. Krishna’s work equates positive with thin. Real women have curves—didn’t the first and second waves of feminism establish that? (BTW: We don’t see buyers as merely the helpless victims of manipulative manufacturers and marketers; the consumer is clearly in cahoots here. What mall shopper can fail to notice that size 8 pants are roomy in one store and unzippable in the next?)

It’s no crime to be a healthy, gorgeous 12, or 14 or 16 on up. What if we recalibrated and returned to mid-20th-century national size standards? If we accept our healthy bodies as they really are, we don’t need vanity sizing to generate self-esteem. We can feel good about ourselves without having to buy a little black dress that’s a liar.

Next: MORE Editor-in-Chief on TODAY: Clearing Up Confusion Over Women's Sizes

Want MORE? Sign up for our weekly newsletter here.

Share Your Thoughts!


E. 01.28.2013

Oh, come on -- get over yourselves! "Fashion" is not the be-all-and end-all of most women's lives (and certainly not most men's). There is not woman who buys a vanity sized garment and says to herself, "OK, now I can overeat and be sedentary!" Fashion does not have as much world-changing impact as the completely self-absorbed fashion industry thinks it has. The only person who might be permanently deceived by the size on the label of a garment is someone who buys ALL her clothes at Loft or Ann Taylor or some other relatively high-end store which uses vanity sizing, and never shops at Marshall's, T. J. Maxx, Penney's or Walmart. And I hardly think that one who can afford to buy exclusively at Loft and similar stores is stupid enough to think that she is of healthy weight just because of the size label on her skirt -- not, at least, if she owns a scale! Buying a 6 at Loft when you know you ordinarily wear a 10 simply gives women bragging rights with their girlfriends who don't shop at the same store. If anything, the vanity sizing might actually motivate women to become or stay trim, as any ego-boost is a positive thing regarding keeping oneself healthy. Most women get a little lift fitting into vanity sizes, but the majority are not taken in. Vanity sizing is merely a business strategy, and it works for both the business and the customer. Everybody is happy -- no harm done!

LISA CRADY11.19.2012

But women are generally getting larger as a whole. Some of it may be weight gain, but my grandmother was a "tall" 5'4" woman of her time. My mother is 5'6"....and I'm 5'8". I think we were all a size 10. That is a good thing.

Post new comment

Click to add a comment