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Teeny-Tiny Problems: Why Vanity Sizing Insults All Women

2010 October 4

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.

17 Responses
  1. October 5, 2010

    Katy, earlier in September, this appeared in a friend’s buzz feed:
    Until I read that article, I was also under the impression that size 36 waist meant 36 inches, but apparently waist sizes can go as big as 41″ for something that claims to be a 36″. I was thoroughly surprised, but i suppose if they did it women can do it for it for men. No wonder the country’s waistlines have been epanding: we can’t tell when they are because our pants are getting bigger too.

    i’m surprised you dream of being shorter. at 5’4″, i’ve always wanted to be a few inches taller — it would certainly improve my ultimate game. but i’m also on the edge of petite sizing. I can’t wear petites, because i’m just a little too tall. And for jeans, i have to roll up the cuffs of my regular length jeans. I will say, though, that I own a pair of size 11 cords, and they’re tight. I’m a 6. THAT was depressing.

    • October 5, 2010

      I saw that! I think she may have sent it to me on Facebook. I think it’s really interesting, though it seems like this is an established practice for women’s retailers that has only just begun to take hold in men’s. Could be wrong though.

      I’ve finally come to the point where I’m proud to be a tall girl – I even started wearing heels. However, it took me along time of disordered eating and trying to be as small as possible. So, this is a personal issue, but the more I think about how society tries to minimize women, the more I realize how personal & political are so infuriatingly intertwined.

  2. Jacqueline Moss permalink
    October 5, 2010

    Great article Katy. Vanity sizing drives me nuts, as its already impossible for me to find clothing that fits, and I have to have most items altered. But as a “teeny-tiny” petite woman, I have always, all my life, wanted to be taller. Especially as I am busty and petite. It makes it impossible to find button-down shirts that fit, because when they fit my chest, every other part of the shirt is down to my knees. Pants, even petite pants, are almost always still too long and always need hemming. The only good things about being petite and clothing is that mini-skirts fit me like regular skirts.

    And being petite (and busty) comes with a whole other set of cultural expectations. All my life I have been battling the perception of being extremely “feminine” simply because of my physical characteristics. These are mostly the negative aspects of “feminity” i.e. I am often perceived as girly, frivolous, physically weak, and (mostly because of the the DD’s) dumb. For example, I do a fair amount of physical labor at my job, and recently badly strained my back. I am currently on work restrictions until I heal, meaning I cannot lift, push, or pull more than 10 lbs or reach for anything over my head. I am very proud that I am strong, and have been weight training since I was 15 (for 10+ years), so its been very hard asking people to things for me. Recently I had to stock an item that weighed around 30 lbs, but I couldn’t lift it because of my restrictions. I had to ask a male co-worker to do it for me. Later, I thanked my co-worker, and he said it was no problem, it was heavy. I said I know, but I don’t like asking men to do things for me because most men tend to think I can’t do anything that is labor intensive. Surprisingly, this co-worker said he understood, which may be because he is also on the petite side for a man.

    • October 5, 2010


      Isn’t it great how, as women, we’re always damned if we do, damned if we don’t? Fitting into the box can often be just as difficult as being an outlier.

      Also, I’m always really interested in hearing about how men respond to these pressures. I think a lot of men are less willing to admit that they don’t feel “manly” – probably because “girly” traits are still considered inferior. A tomboy has always been more acceptable than a sissy, etc. Even now, girls aren’t supposed to look manly, but being a “guy’s girl” (while thin and hot of course) is like, the best thing EVER.

      • Eric permalink
        December 30, 2010

        It sucks for men too. I went from BMI 33 and being able to shop anywhere to a BMI of 22 and not being able to shop in many stores because of vanity sizing in menswear. I have to go from store to store and try everything on, just like women have to do. I’m finding that the smallest size in the store is often too big. Thanks to vanity sizing it’s impossible to know what the real measurements of a 29×30 pants will actually be.

        As for tops, most stores I’m in a small. They often don’t even stock that size or it sells out quickly. It took weeks to find a nice, warm, winter jacket this year that was appropriate for work. I’ve been relegated to shopping in the teen section and its hard to find clothes that don’t make me look like a teenager there.

        The sad part is I still have a few inches to lose and by that point there will be few stores that carry anything my size. I have started learning to alter my clothes since i have a feeling it’s the only way I’m getting stuff that actually fit me.

  3. Blake permalink
    October 5, 2010

    I completely agree with what you’re saying here (don’t see how one could disagree), but I think you make a pretty unfair assumption at the top of the piece when you say that this phenomenon isn’t present in men’s chain store fashion. Ask any guy over 6’, 175lbs if they fit into even the largest sizes at Uniqlo, and you’ll likely get a blank stare, because chances are they’ve never even bothered going into a Uniqlo. Places like Uniqlo, Zara, and many more stores than you may think are beginning to design for the trendier, slender body type. A buddy of mine bought a suit off the rack not too long ago from Zara – too bad he’s about 40lbs underweight. For the fashion minded however, hipster is in(!), so he’s probably the perfect size.

    The trend toward slim (or teeny-tiny) is of course much more present in women’s fashion, and vanity sizing is at its most abhorrent when it comes to women’s clothing. There’s no questioning that.

    • October 5, 2010

      You’re right. Some stores do vanity size for men. And there are plenty of guys who feel pressured to be thiner, however, it just isn’t as extreme. It is far more acceptable for a guy to be slightly overweight, and it is far more acceptable to find said dude attractive.

      I also hope that the whole skinnier-is-better hipster trend doesn’t continue for too long. It would be nice to see a swing towards more accepting standards for both sexes – especially as people in general get bigger – but I don’t know if I see that happening.

  4. Randa Tawil permalink
    October 5, 2010

    Loved the article!
    I totally agree with you Katy, As a very tall woman myself I have noticed that this one trait has made me feel less feminine than any other trait I carry, especially when it comes to men. I presently am dating a man who is much shorter than me, and people always make comments about it as if it is fundementally wrong for a tall woman to date a short man. Vanity sizes are just one more way to make women feel uncomfortable with their size, and reaffirm that women should always want to be as small as possible. I haven’t quite worked up the courage to wear heels yet, but maybe this article has inspired me to buy a pair of four-inchers.

    • October 8, 2010

      Thanks! And do buy some heels. They’re tough to walk in at first, but I’m learning. Plus, being the tallest person in the room can sometimes feel really awesome.

  5. jen permalink
    October 7, 2010

    I’m a bit late to the (very good) discussion here, but I think it’s a bit unfair to characterize men as “dudes” unable to sympathize or understand the issue.

    Lots of men have a thorough understanding of feminism and gender issues, and stereotyping them in this way only serves to reinforce the gender stereotypes that we’re supposed to be fighting all over the place, especially in a piece like this.

    • October 8, 2010

      I don’t think I did stereotype them all as “dudes unable to sympathize.” My boyfriend isn’t like that – he just didn’t realize it was an issue. Plenty of people (men and women) don’t really realize vanity sizing exists, but that does not mean they can’t or won’t understand once you explain it/start a conversation. Similarly, I think a lot of people (especially men) don’t think about feminist issues on a daily basis. This doesn’t mean they are clueless jerks – just that they need a little prodding to consider all these problems, especially the less obvious things, like clothing sizes or everyday harassment (versus the bigger problems, like low rate of incarceration for rapists).

  6. Rachel permalink
    October 8, 2010

    yet one more reason why I prefer vintage clothes shops! It’s not like anybody else can see the label, and be like “hmm..she’s usually a 4-6 in new clothes, but this awesome dress from the early ’70s says ‘size 12’- what a heifer!”

    @Meg- I’m pretty sure Jr. sizes run smaller than women’s- it’s not in your head!

    • Joanne permalink
      January 8, 2011

      I was married in 1974 and my wedding dress is a size 5. I was 5’2″ and 100 lbs then. I am still 100 lbs, but although my wedding dress still fits, I now wear a size 0. Size 5 in today’s vanity sizing would fall right off me.

      Those of us who are older, and still have our old clothes, know all about how bigger they have made clothes over the decades.

  7. Marisa permalink
    November 4, 2010

    Katy, this is fantastic! I’m new to your blog and couldn’t agree with this more. I’m 5’11” and full figured. Not only is it annoying to go shopping for pants that may accommodate my 35in inseam, but when you’re built with curves, it’s hard to feel feminine and beautiful amid the sea of teeny tiny fem-bots. All my life I’ve wished that I was shorter and thinner and as I get older, I’m learn to accept something about myself each and everyday and focus on the things that I love. Including wearing the occasional pair of heels and not caring that I’m taller than everyone else in the room. Perhaps I just need to find some taller friends…

    Thanks for the great write up!

  8. David permalink
    November 6, 2010

    Very good point, calling out McCartney on totally ignoring the truly insidious side of vanity sizing.

    One thing: the claim that the pressure to be thin “relies on the idea that women should take up as little space as possible”. Wasn’t the pressure in the opposite direction until relatively recently? Don’t get me wrong, I definitely agree that forcing weight anxiety on women is a form of social control. That particular claim just struck me as kind of hasty, and in the second half of the piece you can’t seem to decide whether you want to stick with it or not.

  9. Cynthia permalink
    November 11, 2010

    I have to say as a full figured female who is 5’5 I feel your pain. I hate shopping for jeans Many plus size chains have gone to “Rightfit Sizing” in which you are a 1,2,3 ect but it all depends on shape triangle, square, circle. It take me twice as long to figure my size and then my shape (I am busty and hippy but have a flat butt) . It makes the whole process a nightmare can’t we go back to even sizing numbers. I doubt may of us PLUS size girls will go and say” hey jenny like my new jeans guess what I am a size 1. ” I have accepted the fact I am big and I will never be a size 1

  10. wkatzen permalink
    January 13, 2011

    Vanity sizing exists for men as well.

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