Teeny-Tiny Problems: Why Vanity Sizing Insults All Women
Last week, I mentioned my frustration with clothing sizes to my boyfriend. After going on at some length about the annoying problem of “vanity sizing,” I realized that he wasn’t following. I should have probably seen this coming. Not only is he not much of a shopper, he is also a dude, and this is not something stores bother to do for men. No, this is a special treat for the ladies. A special, infuriating, and extremely insulting treat. Like how our haircuts cost more, or how bank tellers tend to treat us with super special consideration. It’s an everyday injustice–but it’s also a lot more than that.
For those of you who haven’t become acquainted with this particular phenomenon, this is when companies size their clothes up in order to make the customer feel smaller or thinner than they actually are (for example, what would normally be a size 6 is labeled a 4). To some, this may not sound like a big deal, but it has begun to drive me insane. And I’m not the only one.
Guardian writer Jenny McCartney recently wrote about this infuriating practice. To quote her short but sweet rant:
For years now, the retailers of women’s clothing have been sneakily upping the dimensions of their garments while keeping the sizes the same. This policy, known as “vanity sizing”, is intended to appeal to the self-deluding element among their customers, who will supposedly thrill to the fact that they miraculously drop a size every time they step into the shop.
The real effect, however, is like one of those maddening friends who sings out: “Hey, you’ve lost weight!” as an automatic greeting to all and sundry, whether or not you are smiling back from above three newly acquired chins. You know when it isn’t true, and after a while, it begins to get on your nerves.
When it comes down to it, McCartney’s biggest gripe is that the practice can hinder clothing purchases, especially when shopping online. It makes it more difficult for women (because, as previously mentioned, this is something they do only for women) to find items that fit. The practice is also by no means uniform, so while I may be a certain size in the Gap, I’m a completely different size at J. Crew.
However, there is something far worse than the inconvenience of being forced to continually visit the dressing rooms. The real reason vanity sizing makes me want to boycott chain stores is this: it is based on some very insulting assumptions. This practice relies on the idea that people–no, scratch that, women–always want to be smaller, that no matter our real size, we are always flattered by the idea that we could pass as a thinner version of ourselves. It relies on the idea that women should take up as little space as possible, that we shouldn’t dare carry more mass than absolutely necessary.
Am I paranoid? I don’t think so. Though I can identify with this neurosis, it is by no means mine alone. As a taller-than-average woman, I’ve spent the better part of my life dreaming about being cute and petite. It is only recently that I stopped to think about why I–and every other tall girl I knew in high school–dreamed of being shorter. It’s one part grass-is-greener mixed with one part social pressure. Smaller women are perceived as more feminine, more attractive, more desirable. Sure, models are encouraged to be tall, but they’re still encouraged to shrink their bodies to child-like proportions. Celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson makes this clear with her “fitness” model, which is based on the idea that every woman can become “teeny-tiny” if they only try.
Vanity sizing is designed to fool us into thinking that we are smaller, not because we all actually want to be smaller, but because, as bearers of the XX chromosomes, we should always strive to be teeny-tiny. This goes hand-in-hand with a lot of other damaging messages: women should be quieter, nicer, less aggressive. We should be less obtrusive than men, demand less attention and take up less space. However, while many of those standards are beginning to feel outdated, the acceptable size for women is getting ever smaller.
But that doesn’t mean our options are shrinking. Admittedly, this is something of a (forgive the insulting phrase) first world problem. It also has a first world solution: as with so many things in capitalism, you can always put your money where your mouth is.