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Fun with Numbers - Women's Clothing Sizes


The last few years, there's been a lot of discussion about women's body image, how destructive it is to many young women's psyches to think they have to look like supermodels.  To counter that perception, in 2002 Jamie Lee Curtis famously allowed near-naked photos of her over-40 body to appear in More Magazine. A year or so ago, Dove soap began an ad series called Campaign for Real Beauty, featuring an array of beautiful but mixed size women.  This year, retired model and TV talk personality Tyra Banks admitted to a 30 pound weight gain and talked repeatedly about the need for acceptance of more realistic body images.

Yesterday, while web-surfing for something else, I came across some interesting and related information.  Who knew that the Department of Commerce's National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the guys who test things like the accuracy of fingerprint matching technology, are also interested in women's clothing?  They explain that standardized sizes are a relatively recent phenomenon, since people used to make their own clothes.  When the issue of standardizing ready-to-wear clothes arose in the late 1940's, NIST (then NBS) actually appointed an Acting-Secretary of the Sub-Committee on Body Measurements for Wearing Apparel Sizes and Measurements. The resulting standard remains in place today.  Since people have changed over the last 60 years, a new measurement study was begun in the 1990's.

In 2004, a company called TCSquared, published preliminary data after measuring more than 6,000 women in the US.  Although they subdivided the women into groups, I've averaged the results below:

                                         Bust        Waist        Hips

Women 18-35                        40.2        33.5        42.5
Women 36-65                        42.7        36.3        44.6

Women's clothing used to come in sizes 6-16 and, now, come in sizes 0-22.  Either way, the sizes in the middle, the ones you'd expect to fit the average person are 10-12.  But, here's a comparison to the size 12's of some of today's most successful manufacturer's of women's clothes:

                                          Bust         Waist       Hips

Women 18-35                        40.2         33.5         42.5
Women 36-65                        42.7         36.3         44.6
Talbots                                   38            30            40
Gap                                        38.5         31.5         40.75
Ann Taylor Loft                      38.5         31.0         41.0
Lauren (Ralph Lauren)            39.5         31.5         42.5

The dimensions are similar for JCrew, Brooks Brothers, Liz Claiborne, etc.  And, what size would you have to buy if you were the average-sized 18 to 35 year-old?  For these brands, either a 14 (L) or 16 (XL).  And, if you're an average-sized 36 to 65 year-old?  For these brands, either an 18 (XL) or a 20 (XXL). 

No wonder women have body issues.  The major manufacturers just keep telling average sized women that they're Large or Extra Large.

Posted by K Krasnow Waterman on Sun, May 20, 2007 @ 09:24 PM


"Average" is not the same as heathy or desirable. If half the population weighed 300 lbs and the other half 500 lbs, then the average weight would be 400 lbs. Should we call that a medium?

posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 at 7:19 AM by Jo Gaston

Yes, of course. You are absolutely right. I call this "fun" with numbers because I'm not doing any detailed research or hard statistical analysis. I'm just noting that clothing sizes contribute to the perception of body image. I'm asking whether the clothing manufacturers are intentionally aligning with the medical profession and telling the average sized population that they're too big and should all be trying to get smaller? Or , are they just missing the marketing opportunity capitalized upon by Dove to promote and sell to "real" women? On that note, I had forgotten to mention something else I saw in my quick review. Nearly all the manufacturers were offering sizes where the waist was an inch too small for the other proportions. Perhaps that's what explains the ubiquitous phenomenon now referred to as "muffin top"!

posted on Friday, June 01, 2007 at 8:42 AM by

This is probably really old now, but I am interested in this topic.

If we were still going by the standardized sizing (from when they first made it all up), just think how big the numbers would be (what used to be a size 4 is now called a size 0. Basically, add 4 to the number and that is how it used to be). It has caused massive confusion in the clothing world because of "vanity sizing". As a result, I peronally find it nearly impossible to find clothes that fit. I am built according to the "old fashioned" standards...more of a classic hourglass shape, if you will. The "muffin top" is caused by people that are not hourglass proportions trying to fit into clothes designed for hourglass bodies. Most of the clothing, however, is being manufactured according to the 'straight line' body shape...also called 'boyish' shape and etc. (As a result,I am so frustrated trying to find clothes now that I have pretty much decided to just make my own clothes for myself).

I find this whole subject fascinating. It would seem that the human race is evolving into a bigger and different shaped being. I do not believe that clothing manufacturers are aligning with doctors to give this vibe to the consumer. I feel that it is more that the human race is evolving too quickly for the clothing manufacturers to keep up. And perhaps evolving at such scattered rates that it is hard to see exactly what is happening. The doctors try to get the information to people about what measurements are healthy based upon what it used to be and what they are now seeing.

Thank you for having this website! And the opportunity to post comments and thoughts!

posted on Friday, September 07, 2007 at 1:55 PM by Sarah

most of the online shopping lingerie shop have this...but it's also nice of you to share it here....

posted on Thursday, November 20, 2008 at 5:34 AM by lovinlingerie


posted on Saturday, February 21, 2009 at 5:45 AM by DELORES BARDEN

What irritates me is that we all seem to accept that Americans, on average, are have bigger waists than they did 10 and 20 years ago! Women don't have body issues because people call them large; they have body issues because they are fatter than they should be! I'm all for being comfortable with your body, but only when you deserve it! Women in other countries have managed to stay smaller than us, so what are we doing wrong?  
I hope we do away with these "vanity sizes," it's just like hiding your head in the sand. It doesn't change how you look.

posted on Friday, February 27, 2009 at 2:49 PM by hmm

I know this is an old post, but I think it is very interesting. First, I want to say I really wish there would at least be some standard to clothing sizes. It is pretty bewildering to get an XS in one store and an L in another. I am generally an 8, except when I go to more expensive places like Ann Taylor where I am a 6. Sometimes I am a 5 and a 9 in the same department store at the same time. Go figure! 
That said, I do appreciate campaigns that promote being in peace with your body. I definitely understand the pressure of the size zero. Think about it this way: The models we see in popular culture every day is a completely unachievable objective for most women, in addition to being unhealthy (you need some body fat to produce estrogen). Many might feel, then why try? Many others may undergo crazy and unhealthy diets, only to gain more weight back at the end. We need actually healthy examples to follow and set objectives for us, and be in peace with our bodies.

posted on Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 9:31 AM by aysecik

I agree with the previous poster that just because the average size woman is larger than in the past, that doesn't make it okay. Society has just decided to accept the fact that, on average, people are far more overweight than they used to be. Speaking from experience (used to weigh over 200, now weigh 135), there is no good to come from allowing people to think that they can be overweight and still fit into a size 10 or 12. I hadn't been a "regular" size in over 16 years. Imagine my surprise when I reached the weight I was back in my early 20's, but I wear 2 sizes smaller than I did then. I wear an 8 now, but I wore a 12 then. It's ridiculous. Not to mention that not every clothing manufacturer does the vanity sizing, so it's impossible anymore to buy anything without trying it on.  
But, my main point is, that society needs to lose weight. Not to shoot for the super model body, but to be healthy. Imagine how much lower the cost of healthcare would be if everyone finally decided to start taking care of themselves instead of leaving it up to drugs and doctors.

posted on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 9:26 AM by Kristi

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