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Size Matters: Why Store Sizes Aren't Created Equal

It's not even worth it to check your pant size before you go shopping anymore–you may end up with the same number or a different one entirely. 

It’s a dieter’s dream: the lofty yet difficult goal of losing a dress size seems to happen overnight. A size twelve is now too big, but size ten seems to fit just right. Somehow, smaller just became a whole lot easier.

Easier, that is, if you believe the labels. Although Americans aren’t getting any slimmer—quite the contrary, our population has steadily gotten heftier—our clothing sizes tell another story. As most women well know, sizes between stores aren’t consistent. But now the numbers on clothing labels designate completely different dimensions and meaning than they did twenty, ten, or even five years ago.

“I remember consistently being a size ten at Banana Republic and then one day, I was an eight,” said Selma Anderson, thirty, a San Franciscan. Although she hadn’t lost any weight, and the clothes in her closet still fit, she wasn’t taken aback. “I was excited.”

Open up your closet and you’re likely to experience the same trend. My jeans from ten years ago hover around the six/seven range, while newer pants tend more toward four. Eight years ago, I would have never pulled anything below a four off the rack—those sizes were for midgets or skeletons—but now a 2008 size two fits me just as well as a 2000 size seven. What gives?

Arbitrary Numbers
Vanity sizing—when retailers drop the size on the label without changing the actual dimensions of the clothes—isn’t something new; it’s been happening since standardized measurements were snipped from the designer’s arsenal. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Commerce dropped a uniform sizing system because they didn’t think it accurately reflected women’s sizes. And they were probably right—our population is heavier and more diverse than when the system was constructed in 1941. But while our perception of what a size should be hasn’t changed much, the actual size of clothing is anyone’s guess. Retailers now assign sizes almost arbitrarily.

For instance, a 2003 University of North Texas study, which measured the inseams, crotch seams, and waistlines of over 1,000 different types and brands of women’s clothing, found that the actual size to label difference could be as large as thirteen inches.

Not all stores vanity size, however; the study found that larger brands were more likely to skew the numbers than smaller ones. But for those that do, it creates a ripple effect, creating a completely new, teensy weensy, number scale.

Size zero used to be the smallest size out there, reserved for the extremely petite. Now it’s common to see something even lower—the perplexing size of double zero. Extra small and extra, extra small take up shelf space in the t-shirt aisles; ten years ago, they would’ve been categorized as small and medium. Lowering the numbers are retailer’s way of convincing us we can be tiny without actually being it, that our ever-increasing obsession with being small can come true, if in number alone.

Lying or Just Shifting the Scale?
But if the numbers don’t mean anything anymore, what’s the point? Part of the allure of size inflation is that it helps sell clothes to a shifting demographic. Americans have grown taller, but mainly we’ve grown heavier. SizeUSA, a national survey that digitally analyzed thousands of Americans, found that the average size of an American woman is no longer a 35-inch bust, a 27-inch waist, and 37.5-inch hip—the industry’s standard size eight. Now the average American woman is more like a size fourteen.

But no one wants to be a fourteen. So, instead of acknowledging it, retailers have simply changed what used to be a fourteen into a smaller size, say an eight, ten, or twelve. This not only creates brand loyalty, it also makes consumers feel better and keeps them coming back.

“I think the psychological trick worked,” said Anderson. “I liked thinking I was an eight instead of a ten.”

However, reality sometimes does bite. If the numbers are inconsistent, they don’t carry as much weight as they used to. Then there’s the realization that numbers in some stores and countries don’t quite translate.

“I got slapped in the face when I went to Europe and realized there was a huge discrepancy.”

One would think that men have it somewhat easier. The numbers on their tags denote dimensions, and those aren’t up for fibbing. A 32-inch waist is just that—32 inches. Measurements seem like a sure-fire way to go in keeping a standard—except that some retailers have even altered these.

A report from the United Kingdom found that men’s pants listed as a 40 were actually a 44 in some stores.

Shopping for Denial?
While vanity sizing may help inflate our egos and good feelings as we shimmy into size six jeans, it may also have negative ramifications. Without standard sizes, it takes a lot longer in the dressing room to figure out what fits. It can be a lot harder to shop for gifts. And while it may just be a matter of numbers, there could also be subtle psychological shifts happening in our collective minds. If our perception of size hasn’t caught up with actual sizes, it might enable women to deny or normalize weight issues that may be putting them at risk for health problems. And as the gap grows between the incredibly skinny models on the catwalk and the 60 plus percent of our population that’s overweight, it seems that vanity sizing is just another way to try to mentally airbrush away our problems.

Whether vanity sizing is a more accurate reflection of our population or just another trend to get us to buy more, one thing is for sure—shopping just became a whole lot more confusing.

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