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Narcissism in numbers: what our sizes say about us

By August 8, 2013 3 Comments

I’ve felt that all-too-familiar terror of walking into a store and wondering what size I’m going to be this time around, or worse, if anything will fit at all.

Graph displaying The Economist’s research on size inflation in Britain.

The Economist’s research on size inflation in Britain.

There’s a bit of buzz right now in the media around “vanity sizing” or “size inflation.” Vanity sizing refers to the trend of clothing measurements getting larger over the years and size numbering staying the same.

The Economist found that a British size 14 pair of women’s pants are four inches bigger at the waist and three inches wider at the hips than in the 1970s and that the same phenomenon has happened in America. This doesn’t even address differences between brands!

This is totally frustrating, but clothing retailers are really just appealing to the public’s weight neuroses. Research has shown that vanity sizing makes people feel happier, and happy people are more likely to spend, spend, spend.

Perhaps what we really need to address is the underlying beliefs that make this a marketing strategy.

Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe’s size 10-18 figure by 1950s’ standards would be a size 6-14 today.

Why are we so afraid of moving up the sizing chart? Possibly because pervasive TV shows and magazines like The Biggest Loser, Cosmopolitan, and Dr. Phil are constantly offering hot tips on losing a dress size, or parading around a previously miserable, dowdy size 14 who’s transformed to a slim and sassy size six.

Not to mention the incessant size speculation when celebrities like Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian gain or lose a little weight.

The real question is, what’s so bad about being big, small, or somewhere in between? Clothing sizes offer an easy reference with which to classify and compare ourselves, but shouldn’t we just be embracing our individual shapes?

And how is that possible in a world where clothes are mass-produced for a few specific sizes, while bodies are not?

Next time a clothing tag strikes fear in my heart, I’d prefer to think what matters is happiness, and that can happen at any size.

Sara Omary is a semi-recent grad from UC Berkeley in Marine Science and Environmental Politics who loves very little more than she loves pizza and the company of her cats.