It’s a dieter’s dream: the lofty yet difficult goal of losing a dress size seems to happen overnight. A size twelve is now too big, but size ten seems to fit just right. Somehow, smaller just became a whole lot easier.
Easier, that is, if you believe the labels. Although Americans aren’t getting any slimmer—quite the contrary, our population has steadily gotten heftier—our clothing sizes tell another story. As most women well know, sizes between stores aren’t consistent. But now the numbers on clothing labels designate completely different dimensions and meaning than they did twenty, ten, or even five years ago.
“I remember consistently being a size ten at Banana Republic and then one day, I was an eight,” said Selma Anderson, thirty, a San Franciscan. Although she hadn’t lost any weight, and the clothes in her closet still fit, she wasn’t taken aback. “I was excited.”
Open up your closet and you’re likely to experience the same trend. My jeans from ten years ago hover around the six/seven range, while newer pants tend more toward four. Eight years ago, I would have never pulled anything below a four off the rack—those sizes were for midgets or skeletons—but now a 2008 size two fits me just as well as a 2000 size seven. What gives?
Vanity sizing—when retailers drop the size on the label without changing the actual dimensions of the clothes—isn’t something new; it’s been happening since standardized measurements were snipped from the designer’s arsenal. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Commerce dropped a uniform sizing system because they didn’t think it accurately reflected women’s sizes. And they were probably right—our population is heavier and more diverse than when the system was constructed in 1941. But while our perception of what a size should be hasn’t changed much, the actual size of clothing is anyone’s guess. Retailers now assign sizes almost arbitrarily.