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The Mental Toll of Inconsistent Women's Sizing

by Emily Fletcher

Buying clothes as a woman is frustrating. One week you’re sliding into a size 8 in Primark, the next week a 12 in Zara, 16 in H&M, and a 10 in New Look. 

This leaves many to wonder why can't womens sizing be as straightforward as men's sizes, measured in inches or centimetres for accuracy? 

The current women's sizing system, represented by numbers or sometimes even simply Small or Large, is baffling and can lead to feelings of confusion and demoralisation - especially considering that 91% of women in the UK experience stress related to their body image.

It’s key not only to understand the inconsistency in women's sizing, but also to consider how much of an effect this has women’s mental health. 

Why are women’s clothes so inconsistent in size?

Unfortunately, clothing retailers have 100% free rein to decide how they size their clothes.  

There is no standardisation of UK sizing outside of retailers aligning their practices, and therefore variation will occur. So, what one company's size 6 is, can be another company's size 10. 

For example, Topshop has a size 8 waist measurement of 64.2cm, compared with Next which has 67.5cm. For size 12, ASOS has 98.5cm hips, whereas H&M has 100cm. Size 16 was available in a 99cm bust at Next, but 103cm at ASOS. 

Considering this, it's no wonder that a third of women return their purchases due to sizing issues!

Where did women's sizes come from?

In 1958, a sizing system ranging from 8 to 42 was introduced, using unpredictable numbers based on bust size. It also included a letter for height and indicators for hip measurements ('full' for increase, 'slender' for decrease). However, this system was incredibly unpopular and was modified in 1970 to align with ever changing consumer preferences and body shapes.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a universal sizing system emerged. This data was derived from a very small sample of women, so it is unreliable to still rely on decades-old data. Clothing companies started using smaller numbers like 2, 0, and eventually even 00, downgrading size labels. For example, a waist measurement that was previously considered a size 12 was labelled as an 8. This was known as vanity sizing.

What is vanity sizing?

Vanity sizing is a practice where clothing sizes are made smaller on the label to entice customers into purchasing the product. It essentially capitalises on people's desire to match smaller sizes, playing on body image ideals.

This is confirmed in a recent study, where it’s proven that smaller size labels increase the self esteem of customers. Conversely, larger size labels (for the same actual size clothing) reduced the self-esteem of the customers and, more importantly for brands.

This approach is what turned sizing into a marketing strategy, rather than just a means of indicating fit.

The impact of sizing inconsistencies on women's mental health

Sizing inconsistencies in the fashion industry exert a profound impact on women's mental health. Unfortunately, diet culture has ingrained into us the idea that numbers mean everything. Believing you are a certain size and then not fitting into that size can severely impact your self-esteem and result in lasting emotional distress, despite the fact that the true problem lies in the garment's manufacturing process.

Additionally, sizing inconsistencies can lead to more than just dissatisfaction; they can trigger mental health issues. Constant struggles with ill-fitting clothes create chronic stress, potentially worsening or causing conditions like anxiety or eating disorders, and in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. A significant 13% of adults have experienced suicidal thoughts due to body image concerns. This emphasises the urgent need for changes in the fashion industry.

Women’s counsellor, Georgina Sturmer, commented, “Do you know what size you are? Me neither. It’s laughable to notice the discrepancies in sizing between different brands and products.  But it’s not a laughing matter.  

For many of us, fitting into an item of clothing can be a deeply personal matter.  It links with how we see ourselves, our confidence and self-esteem. So when sizing varies, it catches us off guard.  It shakes our sense of what we think we look like, and how we identify ourselves.  It can also feel like a judgement on our bodies.  

If a brand is notorious for making us squeeze to fit, then it feels like an affront to body positivity.  Maybe we’ll laugh it off.  Or maybe it will feel like a criticism, as if we are not good enough.”

How To Deal With Sizing Inconsistencies

Admittedly, this advice is easier said than done, but it remains crucial: concentrate on how a garment looks and how it makes you feel. Your confidence in the item should be the deciding factor in your purchase, not the number on the label. As proven in the earlier text, sizing standards were established decades ago based on a limited sample of women, and they vary significantly from one store to another. A number does not define your worth. 

Edited by Emily Duff

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