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The Standard Sizing Scam

In late 2020, I decided to join a self-love group lead by body-pos babe Carly Compton (I’m not affiliated, but I love her and the groups so link to her site here). I really started to redesign how I thought about my own body, my emotions towards my body size, and how I felt about clothing. I went through a really long period of time in my early teens of refusing to wear pants that had a numeric size on them because I just could not come to accept anything over a size *gasp* 10. When I entered my twenties I started really diving into the world of retail and understanding how clothes are made, which helped me get over my pant-size phobia a little bit. Before we talk about how shitty standard sizing is, let’s have a little history lesson on it.

Standard sizing, or vanity sizing, is either the numeric or alphabetic size you see on the tag of women’s (and some men’s) clothing. Before standard sizing became “standard”, manufacturers would distinguish sizes by age of the wearer (up until 16 years old) or bust size. It was assumed that women would know how to sew at home in order to adjust to fit. Once the catalog industry started booming in the late 30’s and early 40’s, the Department of Agriculture decided to create more “standard” sizing because US manufacturers estimated that they were losing money without offering set sizes. Time magazine had a great article about it in 1939 called “No Boondoggling” (read it here) which I thought was interestingly cheeky…the term boondoggling meaning “waste money or time on unnecessary or questionable projects”.

Basically, the data that the DOA collected was too small and not representative of the majority of American women. It was then re-evaluated during the late 40’s and 50’s creating the 1958 Standard Sizing (close to what we know today). It included sizes 8-38 and Tall, Regular, and Short. For reference, a women’s size 12 in 1958 is comparable to a size 6 today. The 1958 standard remained, but things got quite out of control with many manufacturers deviating.

In 1990, a private organization, ASTM, started to publish its own Standard Size Table – which still used the idea of an arbitrary number system. And just why do they call it vanity sizing? ASTM adjusts its size tables every so often so that larger women can “fit” into smaller sizes. For example, a size 2 In the 2011 ASTM standard falls in between the 1995 standard sizes 4 and 6. Even writing this, I’m like….how the f*** does this make sense to anyone?

In addition to the fact that “standard sizes” are completely arbitrary numbers, there is pretty poor quality control on most fast-fashion garments and even if they are checked, there is still a decent tolerance in measurements that allows for discrepancy (click here for a visual of how different a single size can look from brand to brand).

Finally, the worst part about vanity sizing is that it can make the average size woman feel like shit (not really doing its job correctly is it?!) and it perpetuates fatphobia in the retail landscape. The average size woman in the United States is a “standard size 16” – and she can’t shop most high-end designers or cult-following insta brands. It can be immensely uncomfortable to go shopping for women at any size, and standard sizing is a large part of the anxiety. So, what do we do? How do we fix it? Why go on like this?

Well, in my opinion, we should completely throw out standard sizing. I’ve seen some retailers try to reinvent sizes using shapes, colors, and foods. I know it sounds crazy, but what if we just identified clothing by its actual size in inches/centimeters? Understanding the measurements of the garment can help us understand how it will fit on your body, which can be especially hard when shopping online. The only adjustment we would need to make as shoppers? Get comfortable with understanding your basic measurements; bust, waist, hips are the three most important. Having a tape measure on hand will be super helpful –my only plea here is that you use your measuring tape for good…obsessing over body measurements can lead to toxic diet culture, disordered eating habits, and more. If you are unable to measure yourself, reference the measurements of the garment and compare them to a standard size guide.

By just providing the measurements of a garment, you cut out a lot of guesswork for the shopper, especially if they’re shopping online. If my bust measurement is 42” and you tell me that a shirt has a 40” chest…I know it won’t fit! So how can retailers start this process?

Online retailers can easily provide these measurements within their web copy (and some do, but most just reference the model size and height). When most garments are made, a technical designer will create a packet that is sent to the manufacturer. They include details on how big the bust should be, the length, the waist, etc and they do this for each size they are producing. For example; most tech packs will have a chart that shows size Small, Medium, Large. Under that they will say the measurement for the small size bust should be 34, 36” for a size medium, and 38” for a size large. So if you know the measurements, why not utilize them by printing them on the size tag? Replace the “SMALL” with “34” bust, 22” long” or something more shorthand. (I guess this could open a can of worms with consumer-Karen’s who pull out their measuring tape to dispute whatever inches are printed on the tag – but we have to understand that there is going to be SOME tolerance and discrepancy - usually by 1/4 of an inch.)

Overall, I think that providing the actual measurements of the garment can create a better shopping experience for babes of all sizes. That is why I am working hard to revamp the WOVN website to include key measurements for all of our garments. Going forward, WOVN will no longer be assigning arbitrary numbers or letters to garments. No size smalls, no size 10’s – just factual information about the measurements of the garment. If you don’t know how to find what your measurements are, check out our new size guide page and if you need a measuring tape you can get one free with purchase.

I am definitely looking for your feedback on this process! Does this make shopping easier for you? Does it take away the stress of knowing your size? Let me know in the comments or send me an email with your suggestions

xoxo -Zoë


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