How Do You Measure Dress Size? Even the Stores Don’t Know

clothes rack

Just because it has a familiar letter or number on the tag doesn't mean the item will actually fit

What does it mean to be a size 4/6? How about a 10/12? What about the average American dress size for women, a size 14? Depending on the manufacturer, all of these sizes could be just about anything. But there is one really big clue ... generally speaking, the less expensive the clothing, the more "generous" the sizes. I'm in the process of losing weight to get ready to shoot two fitness videos. I didn't want to get hung up on what the scale says, I just wanted to get down into the 4/6 range (after having started in the 8/10 range).  That seems simple, right?  I made my declarations about my 60-day weight loss program and then started looking up what a size 6 actually meant in measurements in order to get my body there. Let me give you an example of a size 8 at different stores: The bust range is between 34" and 36 1/2" ... the waist cruises from 26 1/2" to a generous 28 1/2" ... and the hips from 37" to 39 1/2". And did you note that last column? Pattern makers never varied the sizes over the years. It's still the original sizing from the early 1900s. What you see in that column is what a size 8 used to be. I'm shocked by how far we've inflated. In general the pricey brands keep the sizing more streamlined. I suspect this is because they only want a certain "type" of woman wearing their clothes, but I can't be sure. If you've got two or so inches to work with at any given dress size, how are you supposed to find clothes that fit? Do you know what 2 1/2" on the high side means in terms of how much fat you're carrying on your frame?  A lot!  How does this make sense to anyone?

Vanity Sizing vs. Reality

Our egos have gotten the best of us. Yes, we are happier when our size is in single digits. Yes, we want to think we haven't actually gained any weight. "I'm still a size eight after all," you think to yourself. Ladies, the clothing sizes lie. It's the mirror that tells the truth. Look at yourself naked, and if you're happy with what you see, keep doing what you're doing. If you're not happy with how you look, well, go find that wagon to hop on. I've been judging myself two ways lately: what I see in the mirror and what I see on video. I can tell you, it's totally bloody true, the camera does add 10 pounds!  I'm often really happy with the mirror and then I'll start editing video and cringing.  If you ever wanted a really good incentive to stay on a diet, start shooting videos of yourself in form-fitting clothing. Trust me, that'll keep you on the straight and narrow. The next time you're in the dressing room try to cut yourself some slack.  The most important thing is that the clothes hang well and that you look good in them.  No one but you sees the tag, and if it bugs you that much, just cut it off.   Have you had a snit fit in a dressing room over wandering sizes?  Have you had a self-esteem moment (good or bad) from what size you wear?  Let me know and we can start the conversation. Cheers, Lisa

photo credit: Dalvenjah

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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8 Responses to How Do You Measure Dress Size? Even the Stores Don’t Know

  1. Tammy August 24, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    I knew about vanity sizing, but I didn’t realize how much things had changed! Thank you for presenting the constant of the dress pattern. That was definitely a wake up call!

    I want to be healthy. That is my goal for exercising and eating good-for-me (and hopefully good tasting) food. It is easy to allow the number on the tag affect how I feel about myself. Now I know just how badly that tag is lying to me and how much that varies by brand, it helps devalue its importance in my mind.

    Thank you for sharing your story about preparing for your video. Knowing that a fitness professional has these concerns lets me know I’m not alone.

  2. Curlsz August 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    In weight loss mode I usually go for small,medium and large. It’s easy to get a snug small where I still have room to go down or a comfy medium where it’s ok if it looks a little baggy, they aren’t as precise in the sizing there and are a little generous anyway, plus much more affordable till I’m consistently in a particular size.

    Women’s sizing van be a joke, a year ago I bought a 28 at Gap, ok I was a solid size 10 then and did not have a 28 inch waist, the 28 was a little loose but 26 was too tight. Talk about being way off, even in measurement numbers they were feeding into the fantasy

  3. Lisa Johnson August 24, 2012 at 6:13 pm #

    Tammy & Curlsz, it is silly how off everything is now. Vanity sizing has just turned into “useless sizing” let’s call a spade a spade and get on with it. Maybe having true sizing will help the obesity epidemic? A possible wake up call?

  4. curlsz August 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    funny you say that – several months ago Dr Oz did an “expose” of sorts on this very topic – using the size 12 as his example – it was very interesting – he’d give a size 12 dress to a variety of women that said they were a 12 and maybe ONE of them actually fit into the dress – a dress being a harder fit than pants or skirts for many. But the real point was that most were no where near to fitting, it wasn’t just a little off, but significantly off. But they get us because “I’ll buy from X because their clothes fit me better, I won’t buy at Y because their clothes just don’t fit me right” – well if you picked the right size they would. I’ve gotten to a point I really don’t care what the number says I just want to look good in what I wear!

  5. Lisa Johnson August 26, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    exactly curlsz and well said …

  6. Nancy McCoy September 6, 2012 at 4:53 am #

    This was fascinating. I went out and looked up the dress pattern sizing for size 14, 12 and 10, then I went and compared the sizing charts to one of my favorite place to buy clothing–Coldwater Creek and Eddie Bauer. It is unbelievable. The measurements for size 10 on the dress pattern were 32 1/2, 25, 34 1/2 (Bust, waist, hip). At the Eddie Bauer website those measurements equal a size 0-2!!! We really ARE fooling ourselves. Time to hop on that wagon for me. I would be happy to be a true 14 or 12, which is what I was when I was younger (and leaner). So I’ve now set the dress pattern measurements as a goal–and we’ll see how close I can get. It should be interesting

  7. Lisa Johnson September 6, 2012 at 8:38 pm #

    Nancy that’s awesome! Good luck with your adventure. Let me know if I can help ~ LJ

  8. Diane September 9, 2012 at 4:58 am #

    I’ve suspected this for years and so glad to see it down in black and white! I am a size 4 (8 in the UK/AUS) now, the same ‘size’ I was when I was a teenager and 15lb lighter.

    And yes, I’ve had a snit fit – I was trying on dresses in a relatively high-end store and couldn’t get the 10 even anywhere near zipped up. I walked out, partly because I refuse to even consider a 12, partly because I was so annoyed at the store for not being in line with average sizing. But really, this is a store that’s stuck with original sizing I guess. So should they? Or should they just go with the flow so people can shop more easily.

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