I tried on the same size in different clothing stores to show how ‘vanity sizing’ makes shopping needlessly hard

This and the fact that our jeans have no pockets are the biggest crimes in fashion

Popular culture and stereotypes tell me that, as a woman, I should enjoy shopping. I don’t. To me, shopping means an exhausting day at the mall trying on forty different clothing items in a million sizes until I find just one that fits right. Meanwhile, my brother can stroll into a store on any given day and find a pair of pants based on two simple measurements: waist and inseam.

For women, sizing is much more complicated. US clothing stores employ a sizing technique known as “vanity sizing,” which means that clothing stores have shrunk their sizes over the years in order to make shoppers feel skinnier. However, the clothing items themselves are still the same size. For example, a size 16 dress in 1958 is now considered a size 8.

Not only are the sizes arbitrarily assigned to clothes, they’re also super different between stores, since there’s no standard sizing. A graphic from The New York Times shows that a size 8 piece of clothing can vary as much as five inches between different brands.

The whole concept of vanity sizing also has a dark undertone to it. By making their sizes smaller, clothing designers send a message to women that they need to be smaller. Along with this dangerous sentiment comes the invention of size 0 and 00. As author and activist Jean Kilbourne says in her film Killing Us Softly 4, “Imagine a man going into a clothing store and asking for anything in a size zero, but our girls are taught to aspire to become nothing.”

To show just how annoying and inaccurate vanity sizing really is, I conducted an experiment of my own. I consulted with my friend Liz, who studies fashion merchandising, to determine what size I should be based on my measurements. I then went to four different popular clothing stores to try on a pair of jeans and a basic T-shirt. At each store, I tried on the exact same sizes: a small (S) for the shirt and a size 4, or a 27″ waist, for the pants.

Forever 21

I didn’t exactly have high hopes going into Forever 21. As much as I adore their prices, their clothes rarely fit me correctly, and there’s always something about them that’s unflattering on me. Nonetheless, I charged forward.

The T-shirt and the jeans were basically opposites in terms of fit. The t-shirt fit exactly zero parts of my body and kind of made me look like a bag. It also scrunched up very awkwardly at the bottom.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, these jeans were way too damn tight and uncomfortable.I felt like I was suffocating in them. despite the fact that it should have been the correct size.


H&M has usually been a reliable clothing store for me – at least when it comes to tops. I almost always leave the store with something new at an affordable price, so I walked into the store with high expectations.

What I found instead is that their sizing system for pants and shorts is completely out of whack. Some of the sizes for their shorts appear to be insanely small and not in line with other styles of pants in the store.

A pair of size 2 shorts?

Not only that, but the sizes vary a lot between different pairs and styles of shorts. This time, I couldn’t even button up the pair I picked.

A true tragedy

The t-shirt, however, was a lot more flattering than I expected. It felt super comfortable and was definitely a step up from the garbage at Forever 21.


Ah, an old middle school favorite. As soon as I walked into Hollister, the overwhelming scent of cheap perfume made me want to immediately turn around and walk back out. However, my persistence and dedication to this very important research kept me going.

The sizes for pants here are pretty confusing. A size 0 is equivalent to a 25″ waist, while a size 9 is a 29″ waist. That means just four inches makes the difference between a size 0 and a size 9 at Hollister. As I later found out, this kind of jump is actually fairly common when it comes to women’s sizing.

It was also difficult to find a plain T-shirt that didn’t have the words “Hollister” stamped on them in big letters, so I settled for this simple shirt that had the words in the corner. It fit fairly comfortably, but it was nothing to get excited about.

Surprisingly, the jeans didn’t fit horribly; I could actually get them on this time. The only problem I saw was that they were a bit long and bunched around my ankles, which I hate. They were also a little too tight for my liking.

American Eagle

American Eagle has historically been a good place for me to get jeans. They’re well-made, decently affordable and generally fit well. As I expected, American Eagle did not disappoint when it came to jeans. The pair I tried on easily felt the best out of the four stores and weren’t too tight or too big. They did, however, bunch a little bit around the calves and ankles which I wasn’t crazy about.

The t-shirt I picked was incredibly soft and comfortable, but I don’t know that it really looked good on me. 10/10 would buy for comfort, though.

Even though I only visited four stores, I felt completely drained by the end of my shopping trip. In the end, only one T-shirt and one pair of pants really fit me correctly, despite the fact that I tried on the exact same sizes for each item. This shows a clear lack of unity for women’s sizing that makes it difficult for us to efficiently find clothes that actually fit. I also found that the sizing for most of the stores was difficult to understand and seemed to vary from style to style and store to store. It was hard to tell what size I was looking for when glancing through the tags, especially for the jeans.

I also found that I felt some pressure to fit perfectly into “my size” at every store. I was pleased when I fit into the size 4 and was disappointed when I needed a size bigger. It just goes to show how women’s self-esteem can become tied in small yet damaging ways to the number they see on the clothing tag.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of vanity sizing is the fact that it doesn’t exist for men. Women have to continue to play a guessing game designed to psychologically manipulate our feelings about our body. It all seems pretty unfair if you ask me.


Penn State