The Size Lies

I stood in the fitting room and sobbed. Big, snotty, heaving, agonized sobs. I tried to be quiet so that no one would hear me, but I probably failed miserably.

13 years old and smack dab in the middle of a puberty-fueled growth spurt, I was eager to spend my babysitting money in a fancy boutique. A new pair of dressy pants seemed like exactly the thing an almost grown-up like me needed. 

I’d chosen slacks in my normal size to carry into the fitting room, and as I pulled those on?  They gripped my thighs and all I could see in the mirror were sausages stuffed into too-small casings. I felt like such a failure because those pants were the right size, so it must have been my fault that they didn’t fit.

No longer was I that smart middle-school girl who loved to twirl a baton. Now, I was the girl who had gotten so fat she couldn’t put on a normal-sized pair of pants.  At least that’s how I feltl.

In that moment, my tender 13-year-old self-image was obliterated, and replaced with shame and self-judgment that took years to overcome.


Here’s what I wish someone in that store had told me that day. 

Size tags are nasty liars. 

There is no “normal” size. No right size that you SHOULD be. In fact, there’s no industry-wide proportional relationship between a woman’s measurements and a standardized size chart. 

There is no data behind those size tags.

It’s just a tag. 

And it’s insanity.

Size 8 jeans from different brands can vary by as much as 6 inches in the waist. If you’re pegging your self-worth to that size number, you’re going to feel like a hero or a jerk. 

And either way, you’re wrong.

Women’s clothes are generally divided into 4 different size categories. 

  • Juniors
  • Misses (or Missy)
  • Women’s (or Plus)
  • Petite

Add in these 6 specialty size categories:

  • Half-sizes (they’re a real thing!)
  • Tall
  • Young junior
  • Junior petite
  • Plus-size petite
  • Missy petite

And then there’s the monster of  “vanity sizing”.  That’s when a brand intentionally alters the dimensions and size of a garment to make you think you’re wearing a smaller size. They want you to feel good about yourself when you’re wearing their clothes, but this trick only works if your ego is tied to the size label. Don’t fall for it!

A size 8, is not a size 8, because there is no “size 8”.

Women from different racial and ethnic backgrounds can have vastly different body shapes. LatinX and women with African heritage generally have more curves. Asian women often are more narrow and rectangular. Until recently, many American brands had few choices for either of these body types.

So how are you supposed to shop if you don’t know what size to pull from the rack? And how can you avoid ending up on the fitting room floor in a sad, snotty mess?

  1. Know your measurements and write them down. Don’t judge them or place any importance on them, other than that they are data for selecting clothes. (Pro tip: I use the notes app on my phone to write my measurements so that I always have them with me.)
  1. When shopping in person take a small measuring tape with you and measure the waist and hips of the garment that you’re interested in, and compare them to your measurements. Ask a salesperson, “Do these pants run big or small?” They’ll usually know.
  1. Try everything on and leave the judgment at the door. You are not better because you fit into an 8, or worse because you fit into a 16. The numbers mean nothing. Focus on the way the clothes fit and flatter your body.
  1. If you’re shopping online, try a free service like TrueFit  that tells you what size in different brands works for you. TrueFit allows you to enter your measurements, and answer questions about brands that fit you well, and then it matches you up to major retailers in their system, telling you what the equivalent size for you would be in that brand.
  1. Always refer to the size chart on a brand’s website and look at the reviews. Women can be brutally honest and they’ll tell you if the sizing is off. 
  1. Make sure that the brand you’re shopping with has a good return or exchange policy. Don’t get stuck with something that doesn’t fit you right.

As a general rule, less expensive brands like H&M, and Forever 21, run smaller in their sizing and cuts. Higher-priced brands like Eileen Fisher and Vince run larger. (Seriously, I wear an XS in Eileen Fisher, and I’m a 34E bust. That should not be XS in anybody’s book.)

And some brands, like Loft and Old Navy, are all over the place. It’s all just try before you buy.

The takeaway and the truth is that when you’re shopping for clothes there are only 4 things that you need to pay attention to:

  1. Does the garment color flatter you?
  2. Does the garment fit you properly?
  3. Does the garment fill a need in your wardrobe?
  4. Does the garment make you feel beautiful?

The rest of it is all just noise. 

Do you have your own fitting room story?

Thanks for reading this, and remember to wear something that makes you feel bold today.

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