Sunday, September 02, 2012

Today in Moral Panic

(Photo credit:, Zara Woman campaign featuring Freja Beha Erichsen)

So a number of news outlets ran a story about Zara -- a fast fashion chain, who is apparently not doing as well in the US as the rest of the world due to the fact that their sizes run small. That part itself isn't particularly controversial -- I am not a big Zara shopper, as I tend to avoid fast fashion in general, but occasionally I am tempted to try on an especially trendy jacket (haven't bought anything yet), and I know their sizes are actually the same as most designer versions (which tend to be almost aggressively anti-vanity sized). But compared to Gap, Banana Republic, JCrew these sizes do run small. Or, if you prefer, Gap etc have fallen victim to "vanity sizing".

I find the term "vanity sizing" very curious -- it seems to place the responsibility on the wearer rather than a manufacturer. As if it was the wearers who demanded that the manufacturers redefine their sizes to assuage their egos. This is of course not the case -- women for one didn't decide that they need to fit into the smallest size possible in a cultural vacuum. The media is saturated with references to acceptable sizes for women -- size eight, four, zero have all been touted as THE size every woman should fit into or at least get as close as possible to be socially acceptable. Without those 8s, 4s and 0s referring to a real thing (like, say, a specific measurement in inches) what is to stop the manufacturer from shifting those sizes to sell more units to women, basically luring them with promises of social acceptability IF THEY BUY THIS DRESS? Nothing, of course, and it is not the wearers and the buyers who are to blame -- it is the unrelenting pressure from the society and the basic tenet of capitalist economy: dissatisfaction will keep us buying. But yes, we still blame the victims. NB: and of course since there isn't a TRUE size 0, 2, 4 etc, since sizes are arbitrary anyway, so the whole "vanity" thing is a bit of red herring. But I'll roll with it anyway.

(Of course if it was indeed the issue with people getting bigger, the sane response to it is not to redefine the existing sizes but rather add more clothes at the larger end, and extend the sizing as necessary. But now many stores are not carrying anything over the size 16; plus-sized departments are often depressing, ghastly places populated by juvenile ruffles, sassy t-shirts, and potato sacks. Although this is changing, attractive larger clothes are still hard to find, and plus-sizes are still segregated. And we are forced to conclude that vanity sizing is not the result of the manufacturers trying to accommodate a larger customer but rather to sell more crap by peddling illusion of social acceptance).

The victim blaming, hand-wringing and pearl-clutching get fascinating in comments to those Zara articles. It is perhaps best exemplified by the following comment: "Vanity sizing is partially responsible for the obesity problem in America. If a women buys a dress and the tag says she is a size 6 when she is really a size10, then she feels her body and weight are just fine because she is fitting into a size 6."

Yes, people. Vanity sizing is killing us all because apparently there are fat people among us who don't realize how truly fat they are (hint: there are not a single fat woman in the Western world who doesn't know she is fat. We remind them daily.)

Then there is an issue of morality, again. You see, Zara is a business, and their sizing is not a moral choice but a business one: do they need to extend their sizes (which, by the way, is different than vanity sizing -- they can keep the existing sizing scheme but simply carry additional larger sizes) to accommodate customers who would be happy to give them money if they could find clothes that fit? Many commenters don't think so. They approach it as a moral issue (you don't deserve these clothes!):

"Americans need to lose weight...period! I am 5'7" and weigh 115. I am a zero in vanity sizes at stores like Banana Republic, or Old Navy. At Zara and H&M, I am a 4! If these stores change their sizing, they will need to make xxxs to accommodate the leaner individuals, such as myself! I say, keep the sizing chart as it is Zara! If fat Americans don't like it, tell them to eat a salad:)"

Zara should apparently just fail financially to make a point. Not to mention, that I wonder if people who are sized out of Zara are truly the ones who are seriously overweight. Most people who shop at plus-size stores are unlikely to set foot in Zara and such retailers (and if they did, they would likely be hustled out of the doors by salespeople.) But that of course is besides the point; I do find it interesting however that to many people accommodating larger sizes seems to mean discontinuing the smaller ones, which of course it doesn't have to, not to mention catering to the rampant self-indulgence.

So on balance, it seems to me that complaints about vanity sizing are just a form of concern-trolling (but how will fat people know they're fat? This ignorance might kill them!!!) Because really, everyone deserves flattering and well-made clothes that make them happy. The manufacturers are of course free to define their customer base; they are free to shoot themselves in a foot if they are so inclined. But let's not pretend that their decisions are at any point driven by morality -- even when they should be, like when they use our anxiety to sell us crap.


Susan B said...

Wow, great post! I wish we could (as a culture) get beyond size as a moral barometer.

Fish Monkey said...

Thank you! On my end, I enjoy your blog a lot -- it is very thoughtful and practical. And yeah, the whole idea of fat as visible vice is disturbing, not to mention wrong and yet so pervasive.

Anonymous said...

This comment appeared in my mailbox but not the moderation cue, so I am copying and pasting it.

playingwithscarves (

Hi there,
Just discovered your blog thru "Une Femme d'un certain âge" and I love it. As an ex Parisian living now in Florida, I understand very well your point. Though I am far from being as thin as you (lucky you), I used to shop at Zaras's in the past and I have always thought their sizes were an issue. On the other hand I tend to think that it's good to remember that extra large sizes are convenient but "dangerous"... They make us forget to take care of our body and look... My French paradox...
All the best,

Fish Monkey said...

Hi Anne!

Thanks for stopping by and I glad you enjoyed the post. I do think there is danger in conflating health and size -- there are plenty of heavy people who are perfectly healthy, and plenty of thin ones who are not.

Also, not sure why you think I am thin -- I don't believe I mentioned my size anywhere?

Anonymous said...

I think the comment about "your size" arises from confusion over the quotation from the self-described size 0/4 who is 5'7", 115. When I first read it (reading quickly), I initially thought it was your voice, as well.

Fish Monkey said...

Oh, I see! No, that was a comment from a terrible person

Kate said...

I'm considered average here in the U.S. (a 12/14 post baby) but plus sized by the fashion standards. I will say that vanity sizing irritates me, because I wish there was simply a standard to make shopping easier! I think that what some mean by the lack of health in women in larger sizes really is meant more towards those who by medical standards are considered close to (if not at) morbid obesity. I think though that at that point, yes, women of that size know they are "fat"....sizes don't really matter.