To your health: Vanity sizing - do we need a reality check?

By Leia Kedem

If a stranger took a peek in your closet, would they be able to tell how big or small you are from the labels sewn into your favorite shirts and pants? Due to the phenomenon of vanity sizing, probably not. You're likely familiar with the concept from personal experience, but according to National Public Radio (npr.org), vanity sizing is when marketers "(re-label) large-size clothes as small to give customers the satisfaction of feeling that they still fit into small-size clothing."

To add to the confusion, sizing is by no means standardized. Sizes vary across brands and even within brands if a particular company has both low- and high-end clothing lines.

Within the past century, clothing sizing in America has changed dramatically. Alaina Zulli, a clothing designer interested in costume history, has looked at variations in dress sizing since the 1920s. According to Zulli, a size 14 in Sears' 1937 catalog became a size 8 by 1967 — and a size zero by today's standards.

In a 2012 interview with NPR, University of Michigan marketing Professor Aradhna Krishna agreed: "What used to be a size 8 in the 1950s has become a size 4 in the 1970s and a zero in 2006."

Unfortunately, we seem to have selective attention to that detail. Consider Marilyn Monroe: Her body has always been an attention-getter, but in recent years, she has become more scrutinized for her size. Entire discussion boards online are devoted to discussing her clothing measurements and whether she would have been plus-sized.

Even the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (naafa.org) has claimed that she would be considered overweight today.

I might not be able to put that debate to rest, but I use the example to question whether we are in denial. Looking at pictures of Monroe, one thing's for sure: She was not a very big woman then or now. Are we using her curves to defend our country's collective weight problem?

Clothing manufacturers have good reason to practice vanity sizing. Studies have shown that vanity sizing improves people's body image, which may influence them to buy more. Funnily enough, this effect holds true, even when we know it's a trick.

Either way, vanity sizing probably does drive up profits and make us feel better about ourselves. But does it lead to consumer complacency in terms of weight?

I can't say for sure, but it absolutely is important to be aware of your body size and whether it's healthy for you. I just don't recommend relying on clothing sizes to figure it out.

A good place to start is with Body Mass Index. BMI is a height-to-weight ratio that gives a general idea of if you're normal, overweight or obese. For the math-minded, you can calculate your BMI with the formula [(weight in pounds)/(height in inches)2] x 703. For the rest of us, check out the BMI calculator from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/obesity/BMI/bmicalc.htm. Shoot for a normal BMI between 18.5 and 24.9. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and 30 and above is classified as obese.

Another way to get a check on your health is to take a measuring tape to your waist. Having a waist circumference larger than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women is associated with high risk of weight-related chronic illnesses.

I admit that even when you know you're fine on the BMI front, it can be hard not to feel a little twinge when you have to ask the salesperson to get you a larger size. I totally get that. For most of us, there is a gap between society's ideal and our personal realities, but the measurement of our self-worth should not directly correspond to our physical measurements.

On the other hand, although it's now "normal" to be larger, that doesn't mean it's healthy or that we should stay blissfully ignorant.

Yes, Monroe might have been a size 14, but the size 14 of yesteryear is long gone, and there is no standard 14 anyway.

Take your measurements, look at each company's size chart and order clothing accordingly to get the best fit. Don't be afraid to go up a size if it looks and feels better.

Clothing companies may try to appeal to your vanity, but don't let it get to you. A well-fitting wardrobe and knowing you're in good health is a better boost to your self-esteem than any arbitrary number.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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