Opinion—Trouble finding your size? Blame vanity sizing

Akasha Khalsa, Opinion Editor

I don’t often go shopping, especially for new jeans off the rack. This weekend, however, I was visiting the Grand Rapids area and I had a very specific piece of denim I wanted to buy while there. I wanted some plain, simple, boot-cut women’s jeans. I thought they would be easy to find.

For the duration of middle and high school, as well as the last three years of college, most if not all of my jeans have come from thrift stores or were handed down to me by my petite family members. Being a small person, I got used to checking the women’s size 2-4 section in Goodwill, and I could usually find something good there.

Here’s where I admit what probably seems obvious: as a petite person, I’m privileged by the fashion industry. For genetic reasons, I’m just small, and as a result I’m not used to being unable to find what I need. Plus-size shoppers will already know better than me how screwed up the fashion industry sizing standards really are, but I’m only just finding out.

I couldn’t find any jeans small enough for me in Target or Meijer. So, in my search I resorted to the mall, a place I cannot stand for more than an hour at a time. I thought they would have everything, in every size.

But as I checked department store after department store, it was difficult to find sizes lower than 6. And even when I could find petite sizes, I had to size down from what I expected. If I tried on a size 2, the waist would sag. I went into junior’s stores which carried more petite sizes and started bringing size 0 jeans to the fitting rooms, then size 00. Since when does size 00 even exist? Finally, in American Eagle I took a size 000 to the fitting room and panicked when I discovered they fit.

I wondered if I had lost an alarming amount of weight, which could indicate I’m not quite as mentally healthy as I thought I’d been this year. I didn’t buy those jeans; the size label scared me. 

I finally found what I was looking for in Old Navy, but the label on the tag was 00. After leaving the mall, I Googled, “are sizes getting bigger?” and was relieved to discover that no, I hadn’t become anorexic. The clothing industry is just a bitch.

Sizes are getting bigger. Apparently it’s called vanity sizing, and it’s been going on for a long time, since the ’50s in fact. Two factors motivate companies to participate in vanity sizing. First, Americans are simply getting bigger as the decades pass. But there’s also a more disturbing reason: companies want to give their customers a self-esteem boost in the fitting room by convincing them they’re a lower size. 

The value judgement implicit in this strategy is that customers want to believe they’re thinner because being smaller is somehow preferable. As many activists and commentators have already pointed out, this value judgement is deeply flawed and creates unhealthy mindsets towards our bodies. Healthy bodies are beautiful bodies, and healthy does not mean thin. Obviously, the size on a clothing tag shouldn’t be related to a value judgement about our person-hood. Yet here we are, in a world where a smaller size tag is supposed to give us a confidence boost.

That confidence boost is starting to cost both companies and consumers. Vanity sizing causes sizes to vary more and more between companies. While shoppers complain about the difficulty of finding their correct size consistently across styles and brands, companies are experiencing growing return rates of clothing bought online. According to the company Fit Analytics, which was begun in 2010 to provide accurate sizing technology to clothing companies, almost 40% of online clothing buys are returned, and 70% of those returns are due to sizing problems.

Maybe there’s hope for sizing to become more reliable if companies are incentivized to do so by the growing return rates and increase in online shopping. I’m not sure there’s much hope for letting go of the value judgments connected to our size tags, but I just have to cross my fingers. If vanity sizing continues to dictate jean sizes, in future years I might be picking more horrifying 000 jeans off the rack.