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.
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