The problem with quantitative size labels

Do clothing sizes make us feel fat?

Whatever our size, clothes labels force us to directly compare us to those that are smaller or larger than ourselves. Size label make us aware of our body flaws, and can make shopping an emotionally painful experience. Perhaps the sizing system needs an overhaul.

fat size label

A hundred years ago, consumers were more likely to get clothes tailor made than buy them off the rack. Many women never knew their dress size, or at least not in a simple term that could be easily compared to the relative sizes of other people. The process also ensured that no one’s body flaws could be exposed by ill-fitting garments. As soon as size labels were introduced, women became painfully aware of how their bodies differed. Moreover, they were able to quantify the difference between their own bodies and the ideal.

Jill Fields suggests that the introduction of standardized sizing in corset manufacture is responsible for the notion of the ideal body type[1]. In previous centuries, corsets had been measured and made for every individual consumer. In the early twentieth century, however, corsets were mass-produced. This required them to be designed to fit a range of different bodies, which in turn led to the need for different body types to be classified. Corsets were sold in different categories, for different body types, labelled as ‘stout’, ‘average’, and ‘slender’. This prompted comparison between consumers, drawing attention to their physical differences. The identification of ‘figure faults’ in customers who did not fit the standard sizes, exacerbated the problem, by publically labelling some women’s bodies as faulty.

Being classified as ‘stout’ would dent anyone’s self-esteem. Contemporary sizing systems attempt to sooth egos with euphemisms like ‘plus size’, but as these terms become widespread they become synonymous with ‘overweight’.

There are labels that equate to ‘fat’. The term ‘extra’ suggests ‘excess’, and as anything labelled with an ‘x’ – XL, XXL, XXXL – strongly suggests abnormality. ‘Extra’ (even when abbreviated to ‘x’) is a term that directly references greater-than-normal volume.

Numerical sizing (10, 12, 14) is as neutral as it can be. It is quantitative rather than qualitative. It does not judge; it simply states the facts. However, over time, we have been led to believe that the ‘perfect 10’ is the ideal, and so that any higher number is imperfect.

One solution may be to develop new sizing systems that are not based on relative sizes, rather on positive connotations that already exist elsewhere. Women who might normally feel ashamed at having to pull a size 16 or 18 off the rack might feel far more comfortable if those clothes were labelled in a way that explored the positive connotations of feminine curves. That size ‘16’ could be replaced with a label that reads ‘burlesque’.

size label burlesque

Similar systems could be developed for men. A broad-chested 42 could be renamed ‘athletic’. A sturdy 46 could be rebranded as ‘warrior’.

Perhaps retailers could name their size labels after role-models or celebrities. According to anthropologists, evolution has programmed us to want to imitate prestigious individuals in whatever way we can[2]. I would certainly rather buy a ‘Marilyn’ than a size 14.

marilyn size label

Designers and retailers are aware that smaller sizing can boost confidence, and increase sales, hence the rise in vanity sizing [3]. While vanity sizing can positively influence self-esteem, it also irritates consumers, making it impossible to predict what size to try when moving from one shop to another. Perhaps a better solution would be to start afresh; to begin with a new size system that doesn’t label people as larger or smaller than the ideal; one that acknowledges that everyone is equally different.

[1] Fields, Jill, ‘Fighting The Corsetless Evil’: Shaping Corsets And Culture, 1900-1930,’ Journal of Social History Vol 33, No. 22 (Winter 1999),
[2] Jamie Tehrani, ‘Four Thought,’ BBC Radio 4, 26 June 2013.
[3] Aydinoğlu, Nilüfer Z., and Krishna,Aradhna, ‘Imagining thin: Why vanity sizing works,’ Journal of Consumer Psychology Vol. 22, Issue 4 (October 2012),  565–572