The Genteel
January 28, 2021



We've all experienced it: you fit into one size of clothing in a certain shop, but a different size in another. These nominal numbers have come to represent less than precise measurements and shoppers are increasingly unsure about their true measurements. Most of the confusion is due to vanity sizing, which, over the years, has seen the labelled size of clothing decrease while actual measurements have remained the same.

Yet over the past 50 years, the size of the average woman's body has increased significantly. Given that the labelling of clothing hasn't followed suit, how skewed will labelled sizes become before we recognise that vanity sizing is disguising a serious health issue?

vanity sizing what size am I app
The "What Size Am I" app helps consumers find their size
in various high-street stores according to their actual
measurements. Source:

As of 2010, over two-thirds of the US adult population was overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - with a similar proportion in the UK. And while the proliferation of size zero by clothing companies is often criticised for promoting an unhealthy body image in women, there seems to be less discussion within the fashion industry concerning health issues on the opposite side of the scale.

According to statistics given by the London College of Fashion, the average British woman in the 1950s had a 37" bust, 27.5" waist and 39" hips. The average waist measurement for women today is much larger - it's 33.43" in the UK and 37.5" in the US. But as Stephanie Clifford reported in the New York Times in 2011, "a woman with a 32-inch bust would have worn a [US] Size 14 in Sears's 1937 catalog. By 1967, she would have worn an 8 [...] Today, she would wear a zero."

Perhaps it's time to reframe our prejudice against the size zero image and consider that, rather than becoming smaller, these numbers mean that for many of us, we're getting bigger - to the detriment of our health.

A study from The School of Public Health at Harvard University into waist sizes found that a waist over 35" for a woman and 40" for a man increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and other obesity-related deaths. These measurements would place seemingly "healthy" women in clothing that is US14 or UK18, at best. With these numbers reflecting just above the average in clothing sizes today, they may not be causing as much concern as they should be. However, with the average height for women in the UK at 5'4", a healthy waist size, according to height-to-waist ratio, should be no bigger than 32".

With all of these different numbers to consider, it's no wonder that consumers are baffled. Although clothing size standards are in place, there is currently no requirement for fashion companies to use them. And, it's not surprising that they don't; the British Standard hasn't been updated since 1982.

Women are not the only victims of vanity sizing, though. Most men's sizes are indicated in inches, which should make sizing more accurate and easier to navigate. However, in a 2010 investigation by Esquire into size 36" men's trousers from numerous stores, Abram Sauer reported that most stores were at least one inch larger in the waist than the size stated, and Old Navy's trousers were a staggering 5" larger. Given that most men measure their bodies by the size of trouser they wear, no wonder men can be led to believe they are more fit than they actually are. 

The only reason vanity sizing exists is because men and women are flattered when the smaller size fits - and we're all guilty of it.

With this in mind, clothing lines based on rough size measurements could in fact be dangerous. In the Esquire article, Sauer asked rhetorically: "Do highway signs make us feel better by informing us that Chicago is but 45 miles away when it's really 72?" No, of course not. And neither does vanity sizing. The only reason vanity sizing exists is because men and women are flattered when a smaller size fits - and we're all guilty of it. 

A woman might know she's a size 12 in one shop and a size 14 in another, but few of us really know our exact measurements - and it's in the interest of our health to find out. There are brands looking to help us with this issue, though. now allows you to type in your bust, waist and hip size to the nearest half-inch to calculate your size, and apps like What Size am I allow you to work out your clothing size based on a correlation of popular brands' size guides. Although these are still rough guides, it's a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, vanity sizing not only reinforces the prejudice that bigger is undesirable, but it lulls us into a false sense of security by disguising the fact that we're getting unhealthily large. If the fashion industry started relating to our real measurements and stopped trying to flatter us into buying smaller sizes, hopefully our awareness of what a "healthy size" really looks like - labelled or not - would increase. In an ideal world, clothes would be sized based on our true measurements, not upon the numbers that the fashion industry feels most comfortable assigning us.



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