Small, medium or large: why high street retailers continue to confuse us

When we go to a store and pick clothes from the rack, we know that the numbers on the label shouldn’t matter. What they should do, however, is guide us as to which garment to choose, in order to find the item that will fit us best. 10, 12, 14, whatever – we all think we know our number, or near enough. And yet, being forced to exit the changing room half dressed and grumpy when the zip won’t close on the medium you chose is a feeling we’ve all experienced far too often. All the time, actually.

It’s not just the inconvenience, of course – it’s the sudden doubt that you might not know your own body as well as you thought. Or that it might have changed, despite the fact that the person looking back from the mirror is the same as yesterday, and the day before.

“I’m in between sizes right now”. But are you – or does the fault lie with that leather skirt, those ripped jeans, the shirt that won’t even button down the front?

Inconsistency in sizing is a problem that women face regularly, and never more so than in this era of online shopping, where we’re often forced to resort to buying two identical items in order to be sure that one might fit. And one man hailing from Pennsylvania, US, took public umbrage against this very fact recently, taking to Facebook to air his anger over the classification of his girlfriend’s clothes.

Upon discovering that many of the items in her wardrobe were sized extra large, Benjamin Ashton Cooper donned them himself, illustrating with his slim build and deeply unimpressed face how very unreasonable he found the sizing.

“So I’m helping my girlfriend clean out her closet… and I noticed that a lot of what she was getting rid of was of the XL size,” he wrote.

“That didn’t look right to me, and here’s why: They fit me. I don’t say that to be silly or ironic. It p****s me off.

“I am not an extra large man, and, more importantly, a woman my size is not an extra large woman.”

He then went on to blame the misrepresentative sizing for the proliferation of eating disorders among women, as well as pointing the finger at our glorification of thinness as the reason why “even nominally curvy women” get verbally abused on the street.

Whether his anger stems from the classification of his or his girlfriend’s body, at least one point is salient, and one that every woman knows well – how are we supposed to dress ourselves when retailers’ conceptions of our bodies are so very different from our own – and vary so much?

White knight Ben might be US-based but sizing discrepancies are an issue we also face in the UK – and there’s no shortage of people complaining about it.

In a survey run by Which UK in 2010, 91% of women surveyed stated that they took different sizes into the changing room when shopping, due to a lack of certainty about their size. We’ve simply come to accept inaccuracy. So where do the sizings for most clothing on the high street actually come from?

Surprisingly, they’re largely sourced from one company – SizeUK, which runs a National Sizing Survey annually in order to analyse the core shape of the average UK shopper. According to Andrew Crawford, Director of SizeUK, this “enables retailers to understand the distribution and overall size and shape profile of their target customers, to improve the sizing and fit of their garments and maximise the percentage of their target customers that can fit their clothes.”

Despite having this information, the sizings used for hip, waist and bust by a range of high street retailers can vary by as much as 4 centimetres, as a quick analysis of their sizing charts illustrates. This is often explained away by “vanity sizing”, which sees brands inflating the measurements for standard sizes in order to flatter women into a purchase.

If this was the only problem then we suppose you could learn your measurements, and the correlating sizes across your favourite stores (a drag, sure, but not impossible) – but it’s not just the charts. Quick and inexpensive manufacturing processes frequently mean that the same size in the same shop might have completely different measurements.

There’s no shortage of recent research on the subject, either – market research firm Mintel ran a study in 2015 which found that one in three women are now resorting to having their clothes altered in order to find garments that properly fit.

All of this was so frustrating to one computer programmer (and frequent shopper) Anna Powell-Smith, that in 2012 she was moved to create a simple website, What Size Am I, which uses a graph to compare the measurements for all sizes across a range of high street brands in both the US and the UK. It’s useful, certainly, if you’re shopping online, know your measurements and need a quick answer – but it would be completely unnecessary if sizings were standardised.

The upshot of all of this? That Benjamin from Pennsylvania, standing pensively in his girlfriend’s bedroom clad in a purple lace top, might well have a point. His partner might not be a size extra large. She might be a small, or a medium, or something else altogether, while never changing in her measurements at all.

But for the time being she, as well as the rest of us, is going to have to continue the practice of trying on multiple garments in order to find her Cinderella slipper (or blouse, or jacket). Because although millions of women around the world are shouting their displeasure at a system that is frankly nonsensical, as long as we also continue to shop in the very outlets that are causing our angst, little is likely to change.

 

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