Does a size L in Zara and a size S in Westside fit you the same? Do you feel more comfortable in fitting into smaller sizes, while not visibly noticing any changes in your body shape? You may be falling prey to vanity sizing, which renders most sizes quite meaningless.

The impossibility of shopping: What is my size?

Sowmya Srinivasan is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in Law honours from Tamil Nadu National Law University, Tiruchirapalli. They enjoy research and writing, and advocate for LGBT+ rights and mental health. They actively participate in debating, and when free, indulge in painting.

Fitting rooms are often places that can be traumatic for its users – picking clothes which are defined by sizes you think you are, while often varying across every brand, attempting to distill your unique body shape into one magic number or letter. This trend is quite recent, and can be traced back to the last 30 years. The economic liberalisation of India in the 1990s ushered in a new wave in the clothing industry, both in terms of volume and trends. The fashion industry experienced a boom due to the entry of multinational companies in a domestic market previously dominated by local clothing brands that catered to the needs of a more conservative clothing trend. 

 

In the women’s fashion industry, the progression from more traditional forms of clothing such as saris and kurtas to western imports such as shirts and jeans came with a unique set of problems: sizing. While “What’s your size?” has always been a loaded question, the rise of a trend called vanity sizing has enabled brands to shift their metrics and make their customers feel differently about their bodies based on the labels they fit. Brands constantly seek to entrap women into cycles of comparative sizing, enabled by the lack of standardised metrics. The US/UK scale — considered a benchmark for the industry — also varies across brands, with many not indicating the same size or dimensions.  

 

Vanity sizing, or the practice of labelling clothing with sizes smaller than the item’s measurements and industry standards seeks to capitalise on people’s need to feel better wearing smaller sizes. A size 12 in 1986 is currently marketed as a size 6, and it is often observed that these size differences vary across different brands. Attempting to go shopping at brands such as Westside, Zara and Mango will result in wildly different sizes at each: a size L at Zara is equivalent to a size S at Westside, and each of these measurements seems absolutely arbitrary. While not immune to vanity sizing, in comparison, male brands generally advertise a more standardised measurement system, with brands such as Raymond and Cambridge dominating a relatively less diverse market – both in clothing styles, as well as trends. How drastically has your dad’s style of workwear changed since you were a child to the day he retired?

 

While vanity sizing can affect both men and women, it affects women disproportionately. Sizing can negatively impact the self-confidence of women as they attempt to find clothes that fit them. Indeed, research shows that women are scrutinized for their clothes more closely, with many fashion choices loaded with value judgement — ‘too modern,’ in the Indian context, can as easily be used to slutshame women as to applaud them. This affects women in every walk of life: in interviews, on the street, or in the corporate world. 

 

Indian women also struggle with modern readymade clothing sizes as more have transitioned from tailored petticoats and blouses for sarees, to fast fashion attire – dresses, jeans, and shirts that are mass-produced. This demand for fast fashion, combined with vanity sizing, creates an environment where consumerism capitalizes on women’s insecurities and creates artificial demand. The trend feeds on a psychology of insufficiency that continues to fuel the fast fashion industry. Studies have shown that women prefer to buy clothing that are labeled smaller sizes, as it helps boost their confidence.  Vanity sizing makes customers like an item more, making them more likely to purchase it. Customers feel good about themselves in that garment because the size on the label is favorable to their image of themselves as being smaller or more petite than their actual measurements. 

 

However, in doing so, brands give into a larger trend of sending mixed messages about body sizes, and complicate the shopping experience. Women of all shapes and sizes struggle to figure out their size, and with the rise in online shopping, this has led to frustration galore. 

 

Some companies have come up with more innovative uses of technologies to try to address this challenge. With the rise of online shopping, use of computer vision techniques to help customers find the correct clothing sizes. The pitch is lucrative, technology can potentially reduce returns, improve customer experience, and help shopping by considering each body its own unique sense. 

 

However, these technologies are quite nascent and yet to take off in the Indian market, and their applicability is quite untested even in other markets. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, there are several ways women can feel more comfortable while shopping. The most important, and in many ways the most obvious, is to always try on the garment regardless of the size that it shows on the label before a purchase. In instances where this may not be feasible, use a measuring tape to measure yourself and match those measurements with what’s on the size chart on the clothes. 

 

Beyond the practical approach that one can take, it is also important to have a wider, societal conversation on the value that one attaches with the number on a label. Constantly judging one’s beauty, fitness, and self-worth through a size L is a one-way ticket to a life of insecurity, and reinforces a heinous system of power that preys on consumers’ purchasing power as well as self-confidence. Disassociating a sense of value from a number and recognizing that there is no standardised sizing system is key. 

 

Being comfortable in the clothes you have, whether bought from a fast fashion brand or a small corner shop, is essential. The size on the label matters far less than the comfort in daily use, and women must embrace their bodies and beauty and choose clothes to fit them, not contort their bodies or their self-worth into numbers written on an arbitrary clothing size label. One other, often quite economical alternative in the Indian context, is to reject the fast fashion bandwagon, go old school, and to get clothes tailor-made, making clothing that fit well and carry your unique style and brand that represent you in the wider world!

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