How Vanity Sizing is Killing You….

Monday, March 22, 2010

What size clothes do you wear?

Are you sure?

Last week I went shopping. Not ground breaking news, but I wandered into TK Maxx and took 4 dresses in a size 12 into the changing rooms. Two were too big, one made me look like I was wearing a kids party dress because of the insanely high waist band, but it did fit (Red Legs in Soho feels the same about the High Streets obsession with the Empire Line) and the fourth was so small it wouldn’t even do up around my torso.

If that number on the label of a dress can’t help you pick out a dress that will fit then what relevance does it have?

Originally the idea of a dress size was to take the average measurements of a woman and divide them into easily recognisable sets to make purchasing standard sized clothing easier. Almost unbelievably there is actually a British Standard for clothing sizes, introduced in 1982. Yet as there is no requirement for manufacturers to use it it is largely useless.

What size are YOU according to the British Standard?

For the record this chart gives me hips on the lower end of a size 18 and a size 14 bust. Though even when I was 2 stone heavier than I am now I never once bought an item of clothing in a size bigger than a 16.

The Oasis dress on the left is a size 12. The M & S dress on the right is a size 10.

So if we can’t rely on the size label in a dress to tell us if it will fit, then what is it’s purpose?

The use of vanity sizing by High Street manufacturers is quite simply one of marketing. Most of us already have wardrobes full of clothes that fit, keep out the wind/rain/sun and cover all the bits that we would get arrested if we didn’t cover in public. To keep us spending on “fashion”, brands need to make us feel good. In a world where body image and appearance is so important a regular High Street shopper will learn, for instance, that in store A they wear size 12 jeans. When they walk into store B and find themselves needing a 14 they feel bad, so they go back to store A.

This essentially means that the sizing in High Street stores is based on it’s target customer. If Topshop is aiming at slim teenagers and women in their early 20s their size 10 will be smaller than a store like Wallis that targets an older, more affluent consumer in her 30s.

This lack of standardisation also allows brands, like Next, to state that they only use models size 10 or above. Does this mean a hip measurement of 34.3″, as per the British Standard, or 36″ as per the Next size chart (making them a BS size 12)?

Focusing on the number on the label could not only be misleading, it could also be dangerous.

The NHS advises that a waist measurement above 32″ for women can lead to increased risk of heart disease. Diabetes UK says a waist measurement over 31.5″ could put you at increased risk of type 2 diabetes. However, a woman with that waist measurement could easily be wearing a size 14 in most UK High Street stores and reassuring herself that she’s even wearing a size smaller than the UK average. That can’t be unhealthy, right?
(Note: Just want to make clear that waist measurement is one of a number of risk factors in deciding whether you are at risk of possibly developing these diseases. It is by no means the only one!)

Research from the University of Leicester shows that Women also under estimate their waist measurements by an average of 2.2 inches. So, by deluding ourselves that we’re smaller than we really are, or that we are an “average” sized woman, we could actually be putting our health at risk.

It’s easy to blame magazines and media for showing unrealistic images of super skinny celebrities and making “normal” women feel bad. But maybe they should be feeling bad if normal =  unhealthy.

Body size shouldn’t be a political battleground. The increased risk of heart disease and diabetes is a simple fact, as is the increased risk of stroke, arthritis and Cancer. Celebrating overweight celebrities, like Beth Ditto (shown here on the cover of LOVE magazine) isn’t about promoting a more realistic image of women. It’s about making yourself feel better. If the average woman in the UK has a waist measurement of 34″ then that means the average woman is slowly killing herself, and all the while blaming magazines for promoting an unrealistic body image.

So, if you do one thing today, be honest with yourself. Ignore your clothes labels, the scales and the magazines and get out your tape measure.

What does it REALLY say?

34 Responses
  • Rebecca
    March 22, 2010

    This is such an interesting post.. you are so right, it’s a nightmare with the system at the moment. That’s why I never buy clothes online as there’s just no way of knowing if they will fit.

    What REALLY annoys me is when shops sell jeans by waist measurement, e.g. 26, 27, 28. But this number doesn’t actually refer to any measurement on the garment! My size can vary by 2″ depending on the shop.. Also I’ve bought jeans in fcuk that were a 32″ STANDARD length, as opposed to a 32″ LONG. Surely they should just measure 32″? How can there be a long or short version of 32″??
    .-= Rebecca´s last blog ..Warm tones =-.

  • Kelly Dudley
    March 22, 2010


    However, I think that the label in your jeans is only part of the explanation. Weight and measurements are far from the only indicator in personal health. Lifestyle, build and genetics can all play a big part, and I find it a little irresponsible of the NHS to pinpoint a single figure that could possibly have a bearing on every female body in the UK.

    • Retro Chick
      March 22, 2010

      To be completely fair to the NHS and Diabetes UK they don’t use this as a single figure, it is one of a range of risk factors in any of these diseases.

      If you follow the links in the post to the NHS website you will see that the feature also meantions BMI and waist to hip ratio as figures to be aware of, I particularly mentioned the waist measurement as it relates more to dress size, but I provided the link for completeness!

  • Sarah
    March 22, 2010

    Gemma, this post is amazing, and a really important point. As if we aren’t misled enough about the routes to take to pursue an unrealistic body shape, tampered sizing in shops makes it harder than ever to assess what size we actually are.

    I would say I’m a pear-shaped 12, as that’s the size I normally buy, but my hips are 40 inches. I’ve got items from sizes 10-16 in my wardrobe, and yes, I never, ever shop in Zara or Mango after a horrible incident where I couldn’t button up a pair of XL trousers.

    Yes, I should be less vain, but stores need to set common boundaries. And I should stop reading celeb articles that either:

    a) mock someone for losing weight
    b) celebrate someone for gaining weight

    Neither’s positive – really hope one day there will be less focus on the female form and how fat/thin it is, and more focus on all us being healthy and happy.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..3.1 Phillip Lim =-.

  • Lauren
    March 22, 2010

    That’s a fascinating read! I found UK sizes to be smaller than South African sizes. Thanks for posting this. x
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..Make a wish with Carrie! =-.

  • Franca
    March 22, 2010

    Completely agree with you on the sizing! It’s ridiculous. I’m pretty much a straight size 12 according to that chart, but own clothes between an 8 and a 16.

    Though I have to admit, I find this big waist = health danger!! thing a bit alarmist. As Kelly and you said there are loads of other factors involved. And you also have to remember that all these statistics about waist size, BMI etc are just about statistical associations. The statistics are about risk, they don’t predict whats going to happen.

    I work in government research and it does my head in all the misreporting that goes on. A statement like ‘people with a waist bigger than XXX are significantly more likely to have a heart attack’ is usually to be understood to mean they are A LOT more likely to have a heart attack. But chances are, the word significant refers to statistically significant, i.e you know that the difference is real and not an artefact of sampling. It does not neccessarily mean that the difference is big. It might be as little as a 0.1 of a percent and could still be statistically significant. I imagine the NHS stats have probably been assessed for that sort of thing, but the vast majority of health scares reported in the media are based on this sort of confusion and therefore completely blown out of all proportion.

    Sorry for the unrelated rant, but seriously noone understands this, not even the journalists that are reporting it. Phew!
    .-= Franca´s last blog ..Chichia London =-.

    • Retro Chick
      March 22, 2010

      I agree with you, I hate alarmist “health scare” reporting. I certainly didn’t intend this article to be that!

      I’m concerned that womens sizing is increasingly being portrayed as a matter of choice and aesthetics, ignoring questions of health and genetics along the way. I think is dangerous both physically and psychologically as it removes women from thinking of their bodies needs outside of the way it looks.

      • Franca
        March 22, 2010

        I do agree with that, focusing only on looks is unhealthy in lots of ways. But I can honestly say I have never come across anyone that has actually advocated being overweight/fat as a positive choice and something they actually want to be. The way I’ve experienced fat activism is that it’s more about if you’re already fat, you can accept that and still feel good about yourself, because self-hate leads to crash dieting, which is really unhealthy and usually ends up with that person putting on more weight. And once you accept yourself, you can focus on being active, happy and healthy, rather than obsessing about weight, and you’ll probably end up losing weight as a side effect anyway. And that position I fully support, but it is different from the ‘fat is great!’ position which people are always talking about, but like I say I’ve never seen anyone actually defend. It’s such a fascinating topic!
        .-= Franca´s last blog ..Chichia London =-.

  • Maddy
    March 22, 2010

    Oh my! This topic is so huge and personal, I don’t even know where to begin. I think the sizing system is a wreck! Sometimes, even in the same store, sizing isn’t universal across the board. This has put me off to shopping in general. I use to love buying clothes in my “thinner” days, but after ever trip to the store being an emotional drain, I pretty much gave up on shopping for a while. We obviously have a long way to go, but I hope any attention to this matter will help the general cause.
    .-= Maddy´s last blog ..Last-Minute Date Night =-.

  • flower mash
    March 22, 2010

    Extremely informative!

    I used to work in a very popular US retail store. Every season brought different sizing..
    This is when I started realize label size means little.

    I went from wearing a US label 8 to a 6 to a 4 and sometimes even 2’s!! At the same store that carried their line exclusively.

    I did lose weight working there but not enough to go from an “8” to a “2” (I lost an unnoticeable 15lb because I was eating better)

    The subjective sizing with no real standard is frustrating as a consumer. I get the reasoning and marketing, but it has spun out of control!

    Thank you for this article 🙂 I see a lot of women are frustrated by the wildly inaccurate sizing.
    .-= flower mash´s last blog ..some weird folds I like =-.

  • Intrinsically Florrie
    March 22, 2010

    A really interesting post: though apparently my bust is like a size 20! =S I do stuggle with it sometimes when finding dresses and such and I don’t even think I’m that well endowed but the highstreet just does not like my body shape- in two years I have found one pair of jeans that fitted me on waist, hips, thighs and calves which is pretty despressing as I didn’t even like them! Oddly though my hips are the size I would have first gone for in any shop and on that chart.
    I guess your ‘store A’ and ‘store b’ logic does make sense but I can’t say it makes me happy! *sighs*

    Florrie x
    .-= Intrinsically Florrie´s last blog ..Time for tea and roses =-.

  • perfectlytwistd
    March 22, 2010

    I shall probably send you an “I love your blog!” fangirl message on Twitter for this one, but seriously, this is an issue close to my heart. I hate clothes shopping as I’m 5’11, with a full clevage and long legs. I refuse to buy dresses or fitted things from H&M after a size 20 wouldn’t consider meeting round my chest, I was horrified and put off shopping for so long! Sizing these days is unrealistic and I don’t think one woman I know could say her wardrobe has one single size in it, cuts differ shop to shop

  • Piper
    March 22, 2010

    Such a great post! It’s so frustrating to try and figure out sizes. At one store you can be one size, but go right next door to another and you can drop a size or two! Not to mention that anytime you go to buy pants…they come in tall and for us on the shorter side it always means a trip to the tailor!
    .-= Piper´s last blog ..{shake it up – week 12 scoop} =-.

  • Erin
    March 22, 2010

    Great post. I work in a high street retailer here in new york, and while in the boutiques I’m about a size 6, in vintage I can be up to a size 12, and in the store I work at I’m a 00 petite.
    The system is bull and needs to be standardized.
    Especially when I hear clients in my store saying “thank god you make clothes to fit “real women”, no place else fits me” or my favorite “why are your clothes so small? Why don’t you go past a size 16??”
    Honey. That means you are plus sized/have bigger issues than nothing fits you while you shop.
    okay, I’m done with my rant 🙂
    .-= Erin´s last blog ..Do the Gender Bender III =-.

  • Laura Connell
    March 22, 2010

    I agree the number means nothing. My stylist friend says if you don’t like the number on the label, cut it out! (literally with a pair of scissors). I would add vanity sizes makes life difficult for skinny girls who find a size zero is too big!
    .-= Laura Connell´s last blog ..Fashionable Femalepreneurs =-.

  • Fi
    March 22, 2010

    I gave up trying to label myself into a particular size years ago since my bottom half and top half nearly always differ by a size and shop sizing varies dramatically and ridiculously. If I favour any shops, it’s the ones that design for my shape rather than my size. Hence the stores that design for straight up and down figures are out and those whose designs celebrate my pear hips are most definitely in.

    Excellent article, RC.

    • yolande
      April 5, 2010

      which stores???

  • Ellie Di
    March 22, 2010

    When I was younger, I used to wear only boys’ jeans for this exact reason. I knew exactly how those things would fit every time. These days, I’m in girls’ jeans, but I struggle daily with the fit vs. number debate. Thank you for bringing this into clear light. <3
    .-= Ellie Di´s last blog ..“The Boondocks” is Back, Bitches! =-.

  • Catwalk Creative Vintage
    March 23, 2010

    A very informative and interesting read. It’s obvious to see that lots of others have exactly the same issues by reading all of these comments. 🙂

    The only real way of buying clothes that fit correctly is to try the clothing on OR if you’re buying online, you must measure yourself and regularly. Our measurements can fluctuate just the same as our weight.

    Buying great fitting clothing online can be very easy so long as the seller has provided full measurements and you know your own measurements too of course. Simply compare! It’s handy to know measurements such as shoulder to waist if you happen to be long or short-waisted. If the measurements aren’t there, contact the seller or go somewhere they have taken the trouble.

    For example, most vintage clothing professionals will provide lots of measurements but buyers need to remember to always add on an inch or two to their own measurements for ease of movement. If you’ve got a 27 inch waist, a dress with a 27 inch waist isn’t going to fit. Unless it’s made with stretchy fabric you’re going to need a dress with a waist measurement of at least 28 inches.

    The moral of the story is to go by your measurements rather than the size on the label (vintage sizing is much different to modern day sizing anyway). No-one can buy into standard sizing because there’s no such thing as a standard shape. We are all unique so do yourself a favour and buy a good quality tape measure and get measuring. They’re easy enough to pop into your handbag too. 🙂

  • eyeliah
    March 23, 2010

    Hey, we are the same sizes 😉
    .-= eyeliah´s last blog ..5 Days of Symmetry Challenge ~ Style Me =-.

  • Becky
    March 24, 2010

    Ugh, what a complicated topic! My size/proportions actually hasn’t changed a whole lot since I was a teenager, so I can quite easily see how this has become more of a problem in the past 10ish years–when I was in high school, my pants and jeans averaged somewhere between an (American size) 8 and a 12, depending on the brand. The ones I’ve been buying lately have ranged between a 6 and a 4! To make things even more complicated, I thrift and sew a lot of my own clothes, and pattern sizes are completely different from commercial. (Usually I end up sewing something between a 12 and a 14, or a 38-40 if I’m making European-based patterns. And then have to tweak it as I go to fit, since those sizes are hardly ever perfect on me.) And then since they’re upsizing everything, I have to often buy shirts in small these days instead of my old medium, but in other places (like the online store ModCloth), I’m considered a large. It’s kind of annoying, but sewing has me more or less used to checking the measurements on things. Or just trying on EVERYTHING before I buy when I can.
    .-= Becky´s last blog ..Pattern Review: Burda 6/09 #102 =-.

  • Lisa
    March 24, 2010

    I’m a size 10 according to the above chart and vanity sizing is out of control in the U.S. It varies from store to store so I can be anywhere from a 0-2. I find it sort of offensive to be a 0. Is that a number even? It is a marketing thing but I always feel bad for shorter smaller women who now have to shop in the kids section.
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Ten things that make me happy =-.

  • Ella Mode
    March 25, 2010

    So many things to say in reply to this post, lol.

    1. You look great in those dresses, in fact I want the one on the right, hehe.
    2. I always take at least 2 sizes into dressing rooms with me, but of course it gets more than cumbersome.
    3. I know I need to lose some waist. Actually, some statistic mentions 35 inches as some cut off, but it’s actually about height to waist ratio. I just need to get down to a 28 – I’m so petite. I’m right now hovering around the numbers you mentioned.
    4. About vanity sizing, that’s one reason I love The Limited jeans, but it doesn’t go to my head or put more food in my mouth. Actually interesting is the idea of using vanity sizing as a business model or such. Hmmm.
    .-= Ella Mode´s last blog ..(Outfit +) Coming Out of My Own Camera-Shy Closet – Or: It’s Hard to Face My Weight Gain =-.

    March 26, 2010

    I agree, designers often lower sizes to make consumers happy (“Oh I fit into a size 2!”) and thus purchase more. I think numbered sizes are significantly better than small-medium-large where there is no telling what they really mean.

    Another confusing factor is plus-sized models…How often do they look plus-size? I mostly see them as wearing 38 or something and to my knowledge that’s in the “medium” category which (I hope) is far from the plus-size which I expect covers x-large.
    .-= JESSU´s last blog ..Goal: To not have "nothing to wear" =-.

  • Ashling
    March 26, 2010

    It’s so misleading when the high street alters sizes! I thought that I was a comfortable size 10 but when I went in to Harvey Nichols to try on a designer dress for fun, the zip wouldn’t go near me! The high street has no problem in fooling its customers that they are a size smaller than they actually are, but designer labels tell you to put down the Doritos if you are going to fit into their clothing. It’s funny! 🙂

  • Peldyn
    March 26, 2010

    I agree that it is frustrating to try and buy clothes, especially online when there is so much fluctuation in the sizing. I just hope they post measurements specific to the garment and go from there. If not then I cross my fingers! I think more online sellers should go to the trouble of posting measurements. There would be less returns that way!
    .-= Peldyn´s last blog ..Everybody Loves Parfait! =-.

  • Jacqui
    March 26, 2010

    The whole sizing/labelling issue on the high street is the exact thing thats been irking me for years. I can’t count how many shops I’m different sizes between, whether it’s a size 10 in one shop, to a size 6 in the next!

    It does make you feel as if you’re completely disproportional when you can’t find that dress you’ve been lusting after in a size that fits comfortably.

    All the more its made me turn more to saving for made to measure garments, and designer only in my wardrobe.
    .-= Jacqui´s last blog ..Friday favourites =-.

  • Helen
    March 27, 2010

    This is such a good post! It often astonishes me just how much difference there is in sizing, sometimes even in one shop (hello H&M). I guess I’m lucky in that I’m smack-bang in the middle of the 8 measurements, so usually that size will fit, but I’ve found that I can range between a 4 and a 10 depending on the shop. Which is ridiculous.
    I guess promoting a healthy body image is important, but at the same time there’s been such a backlash against naturally slim people. Everytime someone uses the phrase ‘real woman’ to mean everyone over a size 12 I go crazy. It’s completely unfair.

  • Lisa
    March 28, 2010

    I really appreciate how you incorporated so much research into this post to support your point. It was articulated very well.

    As far as shopping goes for me, I have a pretty good eye for “measuring” what will fit me. I know my body type and this helps me select clothes. My measurements are within the healthy range and I have been taking steps to have a healthier lifestyle. =)

  • 1955nurse
    March 28, 2010

    I’m glad someone ELSE is finally speaking out about all this! Every store has their own agenda (and I DO believe that some manufacturers “size-down” the # in order to make their sutomers feel more flattered.) But in this day & time we seem to not only have a larger number of women who wear larger sizes, we ALSO have a growing number of grown women trying to diet/exercise their way into a teenager’s clothing! This, too presents a very real health risk, as they are not taking in the proper nutrients to keep their bodies/minds healthy. And I don’t know about anyone else but I find it incredibly sad when I see a women who wears a size 2 walking around with a face/skin that looks like it belongs on a 70 year-old lady! And don’t EVEN get me started about the designers and ‘Fashion week’ – it’s as if they want a walking coat hanger to display their clothing! Here in the States Jessica Simpson is doing a series on beauty by travelling throughout the world looking @ the different standards of beauty in different locales. (Japan, France and many more to come). If you have the opportunity to catch it on either VH-1 or MTV, ck it out – you can also access it via the internet @ It’s a real eye-opener, especially the show in France w/the former Haute Couture model who was forced to lose so much weight she now looks like one of the women liberated from a Nazi death camp @ the end of WWII. I think if the tables were turned, and men were constantly scrutinized as we are, there would be a change. Ever notice that men can go by a 32 x 34 pr of pants, and almost w/o fail (despite the brand!)they will fit pretty much the same. Now why is possible w/men’s stuff and not ours?!?!?!?!/////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

  • Secret Recipes
    April 19, 2010

    Wow, you’ve put in a lot of work into this post haven’t you. I better shed some weight if I want to comply to those standards 😛

  • Helen
    May 2, 2010

    I’m overweight and have recently had a gastric band installed (put in? attached? Not quite sure of the appropriate verb). I got very large at one point and didn’t realise because… clothes are so stretchy! I mean, it helps to be stretchy to accomodate the different shapes women are, but honestly, I had a 49″ bust and was wearing things I’d worn quite easily with a 44″ bust.

    The trouble with Fat Power is that you get very defensive about your weight and vehement too and then depending on your mindset you might end up getting bigger. And that’s why I’ve got a gastric band. You might call it a drastic band, but I had to do something and I was conscious of the health risks of being large.

  • Denise @ Swelle
    May 15, 2010

    Congratulations on the fantastic press, this is a very interesting issue. (Great job on the radio, you pulled that off like a pro!)

    I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’m launching my shop. Most of the pieces were designed exclusively for it and each designer cuts their patterns differently and assigns sizes in their own way, so the size doesn’t tell you a whole lot, which is why I’m giving full measurements for each item. One of the collections is Italian and cut for women who aren’t particularly curvy, and I worry that women won’t want to order the large, which is really like a 12 and what most women will fit into.

    I having everything from xs to 16 in my closet, meaning clothes that I can wear right now. It’s ridiculous. But at the end of the day I’m not so vain and daft to avoid things because that particular manufacturer didn’t see it fit to flatter me with some illusion. I cringed a bit when I had to buy size 16 leggings but I knew they were cut really small – at the same time I also bought two size 12 leggings from the same shop! – and they fit so I just bought them. I know women who will search until the size they want to be accommodates them. Unbelievable. I know when I’m slim and I know when I’m fat. I agree we’d better start thinking for ourselves – delusions are dangerous!