You’re So Vain

When is a size 12 not a size 12?

Today, apparently.  Because devious clothing manufacturers have latched onto the idea that American women want to be thin.  And they are using that knowledge to get us to buy more clothes.  How, you may wonder?  By distorting the sizes so we think we are fitting into a smaller size than we really are.  Women tend to buy more, are willing to pay more, and feel better about themselves when they fit into a smaller size.

Do you care that this practice, known as vanity sizing, is running rampant?  That the size you wear today may actually be bigger, despite the number on the label being smaller, than the size you used to wear?  Like this practice?  Hate it?

I’d like to say that for me, size doesn’t matter.  That I buy what fits and only use the number on the tag as a starting place to head to the dressing room.  But I guess if I was being totally honest with myself, I’d admit that there is a certain pant size that I am just more comfortable about wearing.  But, and I will call this a big but to go over my big butt, I now know that the size I like to see in my closet and on my body is only pretending to be the same size I wore for much of my life when in the “thin” phases of my yo-yo-hood.  So maybe I kinda like vanity sizing, because I can fool myself, just a bit, into thinking I haven’t “grown” much over the years.  But on the other hand, finding pants that fit well is hard enough without the mystery of inconsistent sizing.

Here are some stats, courtesy of the Dr. Oz show:

  • In the 1950s, a size 12 had a 26″ waist
  • In the 1970s, a size 12 had a 28″ waist
  • In the 1980s, it had a 33″ waist
  • And now, a size 12 sports a 36″ waist

That’s a full 10 inches larger than half a century ago!  Marilyn Monroe, whose voluptuous body donned a size 16 in the ’50s, would likely wear a 6 by today’s standards.

And it doesn’t just vary over time.  Size also varies across brands, since there is no standard sizing and each designer uses his own measurements.  Again (according to the Oz show) the waist for a size 12 pants:

  • The Gap measures 38″
  • Ann Taylor measures 36″
  • H & M measures 35″
  • Coldwater Creek measures 33″

In one university study, according to Cosmo, researchers measured 1000 pairs of women’s pants and discovered up to an 8.5″ variance in the size-4 waist.  No wonder women find it so frustrating to buy jeans!

So what’s the takeaway from the truth about vanity sizing?  Dr. Oz worries that women may fool themselves into thinking they are not as unhealthy as they might be, not realizing how their waist size (a key measurement to health in his opinion) has changed.  As for me, I say that we need to stop letting a number (be it pant size or pounds on the scale) impact our self-esteem or emotions.  Six may be the new 12, but we don’t have to care.

So, what do you think about vanity sizing?  Does size matter?



Filed under clothing, weight issues

81 responses to “You’re So Vain

  1. Miz

    (yes I will be singing this all day now :))

    The vanity sizing makes me crazy…I shall not rant here (much)—but as a crazyhectic woman who loves running into stores and just grabbing sizes (mine, husbands) and would adore them to be consistent.

    it’s a crazy maker.

    I spend more time returning than shopping these days…

    • Karen

      I almost went with a first line after the title of “… I bet you think this post is about you.” So tempting:) Now I’m humming it in my head! I would love to order workout clothes online or from a catalog. In some ways, those are harder than regular clothes!

  2. One of the things that baffles me about vanity sizing is the fact that size 12 in the 50s had a 26 inch waist. Can you even imagine what a size zero was back then?

    It really raises questions of where corporate responsibility draws the line between doing the right thing and acting for their business. They’re giving people what they want. And people know about vanity sizing yet continue to believe it. It makes me think about how sizing and weight is not everything. I like Dr. Oz’s suggestion to pay most attention to waist size to determine whether we’re at a healthy weight. I’m nowhere near close to where I should be, but it’s a number that seems very personal to me — not dictated by society. He says our healthy waist size is about one half of our height in inches.

    • Karen

      I saw one article that suggests that the small sizes like O were only added more recently because of this whole shift. They probably didn’t need them back then!

  3. Kim

    I’m aware of vanity sizing and I have to say I like it! It does make me feel better walking to the register thinking, wow, I’ve never been a size 4 before! I love this store! I know full well that the sizing is altered. I do agree with Dr. Oz’s observation that it might fool women into believing their healthier than they are.

  4. Hi Karen! When we go to the clearance rack, I tell my daughter to try on anything from 5’s to 13’s because any of those sizes might fit them. The sizes just aren’t meaningful at all anymore. It just makes you bring in 2-3 of the same clothing item in different sizes to try on.

    I’ve never been exactly one perfect size in any time era though. My thighs always have always decided my jean size, since my butt and waist is one size smaller. Thank goodness for stretch in the jeans to accommodate all of this now. And junior department fits much differently than misses department.

    🙂 Marion

    • Karen

      Love stretch in my pants!! My butt is what decides the size for me; the waist is almost always too big. I do what you are talking about… bring in multiple sizes. So much more work, IMO. I only have boys and somehow it seems to me that for them, fit is so much easier. Might have to write about that one day too!

  5. I worked in the fashion business for over 15 years and I know first hand the “logic” behind those smaller sizes…our company did it too. Right before our company shut down they were in the process of doing universal sizing so that if you bought a pain of Anne Klein pants you could buy the same size in Calvin Klein. It was a hard sell for some companies and I think that’s because some companies embraced the vanity sizing and some didn’t. Higher end stores favored it for the most part – cheaper brands didn’t (in fact many cheaper brands ran small in comparison). I’m not really sure how I feel about it….part of me feels like if I am fitting into smaller sizes simply because of the way a company sizes their garments and NOT because I have really lost weight will mess with my mojo. I will feel more successful in my weight loss than I actually am – and that’s a bad thing. Hmmmmm….come to think of it – now I am second guessing those size 18 jeans I bought. Are they really a 20??? E-gads!

    • Karen

      Interesting insider knowledge! I guess I sometimes forget that businesses are in business to make money – not to make our lives easier. Sad, really. Food manufacturers do all sorts of stuff to get us to eat more food that is not healthy. Sigh.

  6. I primarily shop at Kohls. The sonoma brand is always a size smaller then the other brands. I like that i can say i am in an 8 for Apt 9 and Sonoma. I maybe a 10 for other stores. Either way its better then the size 20-22 a year ago.

    • Karen

      I shop at Kohls too sometimes, when I even bother to shop at all:) One thing I appreciate there is the shopping carts so I can load up on pants in multiple sizes! Love that they carry petites, too.

  7. I’ve noticed that plus size clothing, at least at Walmart, has changed. I’ve worn a size 22 for a very long time and have always looked for a 2x at Walmart. Now I have to choose a 3x and on the label it says 22-24. That means a 2x is an 18-20. I think I’ll just shop at somewhere other than Walmart.

    As I lose weight, I don’t know how I will feel about the numbers. Right now, I just want them to be smaller.

    • Karen

      I was just in Walmart the other day and thought “I should really look at the clothes while I’m here” but forgot with my long list of other stuff to buy.

  8. Sable@SquatLikeALady

    I’m not too affected by size — I’ve always had a big butt so even though I’m only 5’1, I’ve never been below a size 4. (I was a size 2 when anorexic…but that hardly counts.) BUT….this practice is ANNOYING. It sucks that I have to try on approximately twenty pairs of jeans/shorts at any one store because I can’t figure out what my size is there.

    • Karen

      I KNOW! So annoying. I have a big butt too:) Almost always the waist of pants is too big. But I have to say that some companies are now adding multiple cuts to their lines and I like that practice:)

  9. It’s a very scary thought that I might actually be bigger than the unmentionable size I am currently wearing! Maybe they stop when they go bigger than 14?? Please?

    You mentioning Dr. Oz reminds me that we’re finally going to have him where I live at 4 in the afternoons starting in September. Can’t wait. I haven’t ever been able to watch him with my work schedule. Now sad chasm of time left by Oprah’s departure will be filled by a person worthy of my watch time.

    • Karen

      Like everything else I watch, I record him. I have it set up to save only 5 shows and sometimes I get around to fast-forwarding through and sometimes not. It’s a good one to watch when I am not investing in serious TV viewing but have a few minutes. The thing is… I often have to run for a notepad to write something down that he says! I still have a couple Oprah episodes on the recorder that I have not gotten to yet:) In the fall, I’m going to check out the new Rosie show. I liked her old one years ago.

  10. Jan

    I agree completely. I try to keep my glee under check as I drop sizes by measuring my waist circumference. Then I realize that manufacturers tag me anywhere from a size 10 to a size 16!

    Just like the scale, one’s worth (and true health) is not determined by such measures.

    • Karen

      And you remind me of bras. Wonder why:) That sizing is so inconsistent too, at least in my tiny size. And in theory it’s all based on measurements.

  11. I don’t really care what the number on the tag says, although I do tingle a bit buying single digit pants. I just wish the sizes were the same from store to store.

    And I echo Jan’s comments above. That number on the tag (or the scale) isn’t who we ARE or necessarily a reflection of our health.

    • Karen

      Amen, sitah! We need to start a movement away from those numbers. You are always on my mind when I write a comment on a blog about not being able to control the number on the scale and only able to control ourselves. That was a great paradigm change for me, thanks to you:)

  12. Roz

    Hi Karen. I get so frustrated by the vanity sizing…makes shopping a true challenge. sigh. As Jan said above, we just have to remember the our success isn’t tied to a specific number, it’s how we feel. Have a great Monday.

    • Karen

      Such a great reminder, Roz. I am part of a “diet” forum and so often someone posts in frustration when the scale is not moving and in the next sentence they say how great they feel. But the scale always comes first, it seems.

  13. This is a real sore spot for me. I have ranted and raved about it repeatedly on my blog and IRL. In case you didn’t see my latest rant,

  14. It would be a heck of a lot easier to find things that fit if they did sizing like men’s sizing. Then you could get pants that were the right girth and height.

    • Karen

      I can remember buying my first Levis, back in junior high, and they must have been unisex or from the boy’s or men’s department because it was all about the waist and inseam. So long ago:)

    • YES. Yes, yes! Exactly what I was going to say. Except I also want to add a “butt cup” size to the whole equation, like a bra! Every brand should have sizing according to the circumference of the waist and hips, plus the leg length. Maybe I should start my own pants company and stop complaining…

  15. I guess I can put this unpopular response since you already know this about me and we’ve laughed about it. I HATE to shop and could care less about fashion, so when I am forced to buy something, I just find what fits. Because of the way I am built (thanks, mom!!!), buying clothing is never easy and something I wish I could forego altogether. So the brand name and vanity sizing stuff is pretty much news to me. When I do buy something, it is practical, good quality, coordinates with the rest of my wardrobe and the plan is for it to last a long, long time. It takes me a couple of long hikes to help me get over an afternoon of shopping!!

    • Karen

      That last part is too funny! I rarely shop either. But when I do… so frustrating. But for me I am more frustrated that it is so hard to find anything that fits comfortably regardless of the darn size. I even struggle with finding tops that fit!

  16. That’s really mind-beniding.
    I guess I’m going to have to stick with how I feel and “look”. Of course, I still don’t know where I’ll land.

    • Karen

      Oh this reminds me of my very first ever post-diet shopping experience. It was in 1982! The second semester of my freshman year of college, spring break. I’d gone on my first official diet New Year’s Day and when I went home for break needed new pants. I remember the sales clerk sounding so surprised “You don’t know what size you are?!”

  17. It’s amazing the difference in stores! I’m a size 4 in jeans at Kohl’s but a size 6 everywhere else. I buy the Kohl’s less because of the label and more because they just fit better…But I’m sure there’s some vanity in there too!

  18. Vanity sizing bugs me so much! Especially because it’s so different in various countries as well. While I do appreciate the fact that I can fit into smaller sizes, it’s frustrating to have no idea what “size” I’ll be in each particular store!

  19. I think vanity sizing reflects how much people makes themselves crazy about numbers. With dress sizes, I don’t stress myself too much because I need different ones at different shops and for different kind of clothes (upper body vs lower body). My bone structure isn’t very feminine, so I have small hips and rather large shoulders and always need two sized more for my upper body. It also happens quite a lot that I simply buy in the men’s department, especially trousers and jackets.

    • Karen

      Kudos to you for going with what works and not letting it bother you:) I have been known to buy t-shirts in the girl’s department… cheaper and I don’t have much to fill them up, if you know what I mean.

  20. I’m dieting and not weighing so only using dress size as a measure. It would be a nightmare but I am very tall and only wear a brand of jeans from a shop called ‘Long Tall Sally” I know when I have dropped a size because I buy the SAME jean in the next size down and only consider myself having lost to that size when I can fit into them looking good to go out. It works for me as a measure of my weight loss but I agree different shops and different styles vary greatly and its so very confusing

  21. I like vanity sizing. It is like grade inflation. Amazing GPA (small size) without all the work! Plus, it allows people of the X size (that is big woman size for you regular sized folks) to get into regular size quicker.

    People are bigger now. Why my mom was young people called her an amazon – she is 5’8″. Nutrition is better (sometimes too good0 and people have grown larger. Why not adjust the size. It is when you say “I won’t buy brand Z because I am a 12 in it… but I am only an 8” that is the warning sign. Long ago they did not have size OO – but they confined heavy women to mumu’s.

    We’ve come along way baby. Well, some have. Some still think fat people should not be indulged by giving them decent things to wear. How many times have I heard and read that? More than I can count.

  22. I wrote about this a while back & I do think it does matter to some. My clothes are so old that I am still measuring myself by a pair of jeans I bought years ago!:-O
    Plus I do weigh as well but yes, people that don’t pay attention – this may effect them. As we know, many have know idea how much they are eating too!

    • Karen

      First – kudos to you for fitting into them! Second – I think Oz talked about that… measuring against your own pair of something or a belt. Great way to go. I have read many bloggers who use a pair of favorite jeans instead of a scale.

  23. soooo true…..we explored this back when I was a fashion merchandising major 10 years ago….and obviously nothing has changed for the better….it’s all about consumerism…and I admit, I fall into the trap myself….hook/line and sinker

  24. no wonder it is so hard to find a good pair of jeans a siz 12 isn’t the same at every store. Sheez as if staying healthy isn’t hard enough lets play with the clothing size as well

  25. Michele above says “They’re giving people what they want.” And that’s true in terms of both clothing AND food portions/processing/etc. It makes perfect sense.

    Because I don’t weigh myself, I use my waist size as one of my health indicators. I also use my cholesterol, BP, resting heart rate, glucose, and other numbers. These are the numbers that truly matter…not the number on the label or the scale…

  26. OK, seriously?? 10 inches more?? I am stunned by this information and feel a bit cheated, to be honest about it. What, they think I can’t handle the truth about myself? lol

    • Karen

      They are in business to make money and this is one thing that is clearly working for them or they wouldn’t do it!

  27. I hate the lack of uniformity because it makes it that much harder to buy clothes. You have to try everything on every time. The whole size thing hit me one day when I was buying shorts. I got three pairs: size 4, 6 and 8 and each fit!

  28. MB

    Vanity sizing drives me crazy. I wish there was some consistency in sizes. I do have to admit being excited about squeezing into a size 4 but realize it is nowhere near the size 4’s of my youth that I never got close to wearing.

    • Karen

      Kinda makes me wish I had an old pair of pants from way back in the dark ages to try on for grins. It would be rather depressing, I know.

  29. I saw that show too! I already knew this was going on as I worked at Ann Taylor Loft as Christmas help one year and the customers would tell me there is no way I am a size — these clothes are not true to size! But you know what? they loved being able to fit in a smaller size even though they knew it wasn’t a true size!

    Also we were having lunch in a restaurant up at Lake Tahoe one time and the tables were very close, we started chatting with the lady seated next to us. She was a clothes designer from San Francisco and she told us how much sizes had changed that the new size 6 use to be a 10!

    I think it’s terrible! We all know the truth-but hey who doesn’t like to think they fit in a smaller size?

    • Karen

      How funny that the customers commented on that. The one I really struggle with is Chicos – they have size 0-3 or something like that but they are not smaller, just different than typical sizing. So confusing.

  30. I always get slightly peeved when getting dresses or skirts made…dressmakers have never been fooled. A 29- inch waist is STILL a 12 in their book. Not a 6.

    • Karen

      Ooh – I’m intrigued that you get stuff made!

    • Janis

      I’ve heard this, too. Pattern sizing books are still at the old standard. According to them, I am exactly what I was before all this rigmarole started: an 11/12. Today, I buy 4s or 2s. It’s completely stupid, and all it means is I can’t buy clothing online or from catalogues unless it’s sweaters that are meant to be baggy.

  31. Interesting post. As a weight loss loser, I am always happy when I can get into something sized smaller than I could before. But, I know in my heart that sizes range. Take me for example: I feel I wear about a size 16 now. But, sometimes 18 still fits well and I have even been able to squeeze into a 14, not to mention the clothing that is sized with XL and L. For me the marker for weight loss is really the lose-ness of my clothing as I downsize (like I posted about a while ago), not really the size.With all that said, I hope to be a size 10 some day!!

    • Karen

      I think the best measure IS how an item of clothing fits differently over time. Rather than something new. Dr. Oz actually recommended having one belt that you pay attention to for that reason.

  32. I know this is happening here in Canada too. I was thinking the other day that before I had kids I was at a point where I had GAINED weight up to 138 lbs and I was a size 12. Now I am around 150 pounds and I am a size 10!!! I personally don’t like it. Maybe if the size number had gone up along with my weight it would have been a wake up call. With vanity sizing you can just stay blissfully ignorant.

    • Karen

      Which I think is exactly why Dr. Oz doesn’t like it! And, of course, he is all about the waist measurement being a key to health.

  33. Personally it’s frustrating me to because you can’t buy clothes without trying them now! I have pants ranging from size 12 to 16 depending on the brand! Am I a 12 or 16?! And do I wear Medium or Large shirts?!

    This is why I am jealous of MEN’s sizing!

    • Karen

      Well, I think there is more to it with men too. Not just easier sizing. But maybe because their body shape is simpler, clothes fit more easily. I don’t know what it is but I have two boys and one husband and they just easily pick out a pair of jeans and … voila. Of course, my teen wears his on his butt so maybe size really doesn’t matter for him!

  34. Size doesn’t matter, but fit sure does! No matter what your size, wearing well-fitting clothes always makes us look better. As far as the health thing – definitely true.

    • Karen

      What a great point you make! I tend to wear baggy stuff and the truth is I look better, thinner, in clothes that fit better.

  35. Janis

    I HATE VANITY SIZING. I have pants that I bought from Eddie Bauer that were size 8 a couple years ago I swear to you that fit like a glove. I am now wearing freaking 2s. I have no gained, lost, or changed AT ALL.

    I can’t buy clothing online or from catalogues. At all. I hate it.

    It’s hitting shoes, too. I have always worn an 8.5 in everything. Now I have to buy 6s. Jesus on a trampoline, this is ridiculous.

    • Karen

      I haven’t noticed it with shoes… but I don’t buy them very often. I don’t shop online either:( I do like Eddie Bauer but if I order I order multiple sizes and return what doesn’t fit.

  36. I just want to find a pair of pants that fit my disproportionate waist and butt. I don’t know whether I have a small waist or a big arse. Well, actually I know the answer to that. I better go hop on the treadmill now. 🙂

    • Karen

      My butt is much bigger than my waist. Of course, my waist has spread over time. Thus… part of the reason I called my blog what I did.

  37. Judith

    I find it annoying when there is such a range in size 12 from one brand to another. I have partially solved the problem of taking umpteen garments into the dressing room. I simple whip out a dressmakers measuring tape and measure the hip, crotch length, and waist. Saves time and nerves.

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