Vanity sizing unmasked: why clothing sizes from different retailers are so inconsistent

Same dress. Different size?
Same dress. Different size?

I think we've all experienced this at some point and probably immediately internalised the problem as a fault of our own bodies - either weight loss or gain. 

However, as much as our bodies do change every now and then, the reason why sizes attached on clothing items can be outrageously different from store to store is a result of a retail phenomenon called vanity sizing.

Sometimes I fit snugly into a regular size small at one store, but an extra small (my exact size) at the next store - at Zara and Cotton On, for example - is a wee bit loose on me. 

Now, I know this is what some may call a "privileged problem" to have and a rare one indeed, but all sartorial concerns and (occasional) body image misgivings are valid when we're all still unlearning the damage caused by a long history of being fed a diet of unattainable beauty standards. Some women in their twenties have even shared accounts of their shopping trauma. 

READ MORE: "I am no longer ashamed to say that I shop in the children's section" - but shopping trauma is real 

The issue of inconsistent clothing sizes has been a problem as far back as I can remember, but there is an explanation, albeit somewhat questionable. An article written in 2016, reports how South Africa has not only inherited inconsistent sizing from other countries and because we import from different countries this compounds the sizing confusion; hence Zara (Spain) and Cotton On (Australia) mentioned above.  

I know many women who refuse to buy certain clothing items that are bigger than their ‘designated size’, thinking they are the problem. But we now know: it’s not us, it’s the clothes. It's capitalism - hate it or love it. 

This is why in the video above, Cheddar also investigated the psychological trick meant to pump up a customer's self-esteem - and the company's wallet. 

Fashion stylist Simnikiwe Mahlangu said this has been an issue for her clients to the point where some lose confidence and become self-conscious about their bodies. She notes a key aspect of how clothing retailers operate.

“A clothing store or a clothing brand has its own ‘target market’ for their products/clothing. If the brand targets small-figured women or men it will cater for that group and not the other body type groups,” says Simnikiwe.

READ MORE: This curvy blogger is recreating celeb looks – to show what A-lister outfits would look like on a plus-size women 

“Consistent sizing is important but we must remember that we can’t force a store or the designer to change his/her target market. If they choose to provide for a certain body type we must let them be, and keep searching for stores that cater for our body type,” she says.

Darlene Bayley, stylist at The Imagepreneur SA, says: “One thing to remember is that certain stores also cater for certain ‘style personalities’, ‘body shapes’, ‘ages’”, and says there are certain things to consider when going shopping for clothes, namely: 

- Your body shape

- Skin tone (cool or warm)

- Style personality 

- Lifestyle clothing needs

“We are all so unique, our body shapes although starting with a framework of pear, hourglass etc. are so different.  Some ladies have longer arms and necks or a longer torso and shorter legs or vice versa so unless the items are made specifically for you, sometimes sizing up one or two sizes can be beneficial to your body shape,” says Darlene. 

READ MORE: "I am no longer ashamed to say that I shop in the children's section" - but shopping trauma is real 

Simnikiwe says she doesn’t foresee the issue being resolved but suggests people shouldn’t be disheartened by the existing sizes.

“Do not feel discouraged because a certain store doesn’t cater for your body type, keep on searching for more stores who have clothes for your body type. There are a lot of online stores these days, but find the right and legit ones that will deliver what you want or are interested in buying... Also now, a lot of local designers do cater for all body types,” she says. 

Darlene says: “If every woman had the tools… lives would be significantly different and they would have wardrobes that work and sizing would not be the biggest issue.” 

How has vanity sizing affected the way you experience fashion? Or do you have any suggestions for a way around vanity sizing? Share your tips here.

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