By Lauren Waddell
Actress Marilyn Monroe is often referred to as a symbol of beauty and perfection, her image used time and again throughout Americana as an example of the alpha female. She was even voted “Sexiest Woman of the Century” by People Magazine in 1999.
Today, many women look at Monroe as the perfect symbol of a true woman”s body. She was, historians claim, a size 12. But according to today”s general sizing measurements, Monroe”s 23-inch waist would be a size 0.
This is just one example of vanity sizing, a trend in which clothes are cut larger but labeled with smaller size numbers.
The vanity sizing trend has progressed slowly ever since designers started using general clothing sizes.
April Ainsworth, owner of online vintage clothing store Vintage Vixen, said the smallest size in the 1940s was a 10, then an 8 in the 1950s, and by the late ”50s-early ”60s, it was down to a 6.
“The idea of vanity sizing was in full swing even back then. … People were not getting smaller; it”s only the numbers of the sizes that diminished,” Ainsworth said. “And over time, those shifts in numbers add up to a tremendous difference in measurements. That”s why a garment labeled size 12 in the 1950s might fit a woman who wears a size 2 or 4 today.”
Vanity sizing continues today because of the psychological desires of women who prefer a smaller size when choosing an article of clothing.
This idea seems obvious to Ainsworth, who concludes that almost anyone will prefer to buy something that makes her feel better, like fitting into a size 4 when she had worn a size 6 for years.
“Our society is obsessed with being thin,” said Catherine Burnham, a BYU professor of fashion design and construction sewing. “If you can buy a Donna Karan [size] 2, you”re not going to go across the street and buy a 4 somewhere else.”
This obsession with being thin shows up everywhere, from magazines to movies. In the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” the fashion industry”s fixation with being thin is clearly manifested. After securing a job as an assistant to the editor-in-chief of a widely published fashion magazine, the main character is shocked by how little food her co-workers consume. In response, a fashion editor for the magazine explains that “2 is the new 4 and 0 is the new 2.” When the main character responds that she is a size 6, the fashion editor quickly retorts, “Aha, the new 14.”
Though possibly exaggerated for the sake of entertainment, this on-screen discussion clearly shows that people want to be smaller than they are, and it appears from manufacturers” clothing trends that designers are responding.
The continual downward trend in sizes may lead some to the conclusion that, as a whole, Americans are losing weight and hence wearing smaller sizes.
The facts, however, display a wide discrepancy in these ideas. Americans on average are not losing weight – they are significantly gaining it, according to a CDC report. On average, both men and women gained more than 24 pounds between the early 1960s and 2002, according to the CDC report, “Mean Body Weight, Height and Body Mass Index, United States, 1960-2002.” The average American woman now weighs 155 pounds and is 5 foot 4, according to SizeUSA, a 2003 study, which included results from more than 10,000 people across the United States.
Karen Davis, who worked on the SizeUSA survey, said the general finding of the survey was just what they expected.
“Generally, it”s what we see in the malls,” Davis said. “We”re getting heavier, mostly through the waist and hips.”
While many Americans viewed the “average woman” as about a size 8, the SizeUSA survey countered with results showing the average woman in America now wears a size 14.
Though waistlines continue to grow, the shrinking sizes lead many women to falsely believe they may have dropped a size or two by their own merits, while in many cases that is simply not true.
“Who wouldn”t want the happy effect that they must”ve lost weight?” Ainsworth said. “It makes one feel that time at the gym is paying off. Yet it perpetuates the cycle that so many of us deal with.”
Burnham agrees that the psychological cycle of thinness will continue unless drastic changes are made.
“There is this craze that we must be thin to be attractive,” Burnham said. “We need to try to be healthy instead of being thin, but changing that in the media is going to be hard.”