Teaching Girls The Truth About Lying Numbers

When Numbers Lie :: Vanity Sizing and Our DaughtersI could feel her little hand stop halfway up my back.

“Mommy, either there’s not enough zipper or there’s too much…you.”

We walked out of the fitting room hand-in-hand and made our way to the next store. 

Trying not to freak out in frustration in front of my 6-year-old daughter? Now that was hard. But it got me thinking about these numbers I’ve become so attached to.

Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

In the 1950s, an attempt was made to standardize women’s clothing sizes. The first problem encountered was that there is no “standard” body shape for females. The second problem was that they only sought the measurements of white women. The third problem was that no one was willing to divulge their measurements – even for the sake of fashion. On to Plan B: they created arbitrarily numbered system where the smallest size available in stores was a size 8. Sounds ridiculous, right? Not when you look at the numbers. An 8 back then is the same as a 0 today. Those who criticize our modern view of beauty tout Marilyn Monroe as the queen of curvy girls, wearing a size 12 – and she did! At 5’5″ and averaging 118 pounds, she wore size 8 pants and a size 12 dress – which puts her squarely into the 0-6 range by 2017 standards. Not exactly Melissa McCarthy.

Over the decades, Americans got fatter but our clothing sizes miraculously got smaller. Designers, manufacturers, and retailers essentially believed they could trick female consumers into purchasing more items by appealing to their vanity through flattery.

Who wouldn’t return over and over to the store with nice lighting, mirrors designed to take 10 pounds off your reflection, and clothing a good 2 sizes smaller than you usually wear? I’m guilty!

But now, I’m also a mom.

A time is coming when my daughter’s age will no longer be the basis for her sizing. Numbers – the smaller the better – will begin to take over her mind as she shops. Although she has the build of her long and lean grandmothers, I know this will do little to curb that nagging voice that starts whispering to tween girls. The one that says there’s always room for improvement, that nothing is ever good enough.

I remember in 7th grade – much plumper than my friends and already adept at eating my feelings – having a number in my head. It was my number, no matter how many pairs of stretchy stirrup leggings or jeans of other sizes my mom put in my closet. It was the closest I could get to 3s and 5s my friends wore…the fact that my jeans barely buttoned and that they dug into my stomach should have been a huge red flag – but instead, it was all the justification I needed to roll my eyes at my mom and feel vindicated. If I could squeeze in, then they fit. And if they fit, then I was ok. Now, 24 years and 2 kids later, my pant size is smaller than that magical number from junior high, but I guarantee you my measurements are larger. It’s almost funny. 


Someday my daughter’s mood or worth will be dictated by the arbitrary number or letter (that no one else can see!) stitched on the label of the clothing she wears. Of course I will give her the typical American talks about eating healthy foods and the importance of movement. I will assert over and over that we value what is on the inside of a person more than what is on the outside.

But I will also be proactive.

When shopping for our clothing, I will say, “Oh, this feels great!” Or I will ask her, “How do you think this fits me? Would it feel better if it was a little bigger or a little smaller?” I will hold pants up to her legs and say, “Are these long enough?” And in the dressing room I will ask, “Are they comfortable? Can you dance and jump and kick?”

When she’s a teen, we’ll talk about retail vs. resale and cost-per-wear. I’ll explain to her the history of women’s sizing the way I just explained it to you. From there we’ll transition straight into how mommy is an “apple” shape and which styles I choose to flatter my curves. Together, we’ll determine her own body shape and make it fun to figure out which cuts and styles fit and feel great on her frame. I will tell her that “her number” is only a starting point, not a destination, and that she’ll have to go up or down, depending on the brand, to find her perfect match.

I will pour myself into molding her understanding and approach to body image, clothing size, and self worth before advertisers and marketing departments do.

And I will teach her that numbers lie.

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