Understanding Vanity Sizing: How it Made Online Shopping Impossible

The effects of sizing inflation can be catastrophic, here's why


Image: Amy Cole, Little Freckle Prints

Trigger warning: mention of eating disorders

Vanity sizing, the labelling of clothing with sizes smaller than the real cut of the items, is a strategy used by clothes companies to, in effect, give the shopper the sensation of being thinner than they are. It is a sales phenomenon that works, but it has a lot to answer for. In the last two decades, new sizing standards by ASTM International brought measurements and shapes up to date. But this has not stopped retailers from tailoring their sizes to their target customers.


Buying properly-fitting clothing online is demanding because manufacturers don’t use identical standards for labelling, meaning that products are rarely the expected size. Consumers return up to 40 per cent of the clothes they buy online; considering that the fashion industry is under pressure to cut waste, the fact that size discrepancy is causing a waste crisis is not a good look. In an attempt to give consumers a better idea of what clothing sizes to order, ASOS tried out an AR tool that provided mock-ups of what certain clothes would be like on varying sizes. However, there is only so much that tech can offer when estimating sizing - the only real way to see if something fits comfortably is to try it on.


Vanity sizing has made nearly all size labels completely illogical and this matter has sparked incessant TikToks, Tweets and Instagram posts. Some assert that vanity sizing simply aims to make wearers happy, as they want to be slim and feel better about themselves. This works by adhering to the theory of compensatory self-enhancement, as it is supposed that vanity sizing gives rise to a more positive self-image upon seeing a smaller size tag.


However, it doesn’t necessarily have the desired effect; discrepancies between sizes actually challenge our self-assurance and our welfare. That’s why I loathe shop fitting rooms - you just never know how you’re going to feel when you leave them. For instance, picture this: you are in a fitting room in Brandy Melville in New York City, a small number of steps from a sign encouraging you that “one size fits most.” You try on a dress that looked gorgeous on the hanger, but it doesn’t fit you. Does that mean you’re not like “most” people? What are “most” people even supposed to look like?


Having negative self-image has regularly been found to be foreboding of mental illnesses like eating disorders. But the body positivity movement focuses on self-esteem and improving body image - which means ditching the idea promoted by vanity sizing that thin is always better. Body positivity is guided by the understanding that feeling positive and accepting of appearance can make mental health better. This is exactly what we need need in a time when social media creates unrealistic beauty standards, which are then reinforced by the notion that your clothing size determines your worth. It may be hard to remember in a world where sizing is here, there and everywhere and many stores are not inclusive - but nobody should be brought down by the number tucked away in the back of their best jeans.