The mis-sizing culture of high street stores and its affect on mental health

It’s 2019. We have cutting edge technology that allows us to purchase items with the touch of a thumbprint, and control our homes with our voices. Yet still, we’re having to buy a size 14 in Topshop and a size 10 in ASOS, just so our clothes fit.

WHY is there still no strict, universal sizing system?

Back in March 2018, Becs Parker walked into a H&M clothing store. She picked out a pair of beautiful jeans, in her usual size, and took them to the changing rooms to try them on. To her surprise, the jeans she expected to fit so perfectly, couldn’t even be pulled up past her thigh.

As a nearly 25 year old woman at the time, Becs was more frustrated than upset. “Why is it OK for a brand to label an item of clothing as a size which it clearly isn’t?” Becs asked in an open letter to H&M she wrote on Facebook.

The first thing I thought about when I heard of Becs’ story, was how the mis-sizing of clothes could seriously affect someone’s mental health, especially young girls.

Between the ages of 14 and 25, eating disorders are the most common, with 1 in 100 women between the ages of 15 and 30 affected by Anorexia Nervosa. With eating disorders continually growing more common, surely clothing retailers have to take some responsibility for how young people view their own bodies?

I managed to get in contact with Becs, speaking to her about the impact incorrect sizing has on mental health, as well as about the responsibilities companies should have when it comes to body image.

She said: “I believe inaccurate clothes sizing has the potential to cause detrimental harm on a young person’s emotional well-being and mental health.” 

“I wrote my letter to H&M for this reason: it was never to do with the fact that I couldn’t fit in the jeans.

“The process of trying and failing to fit in a pair of jeans in a size I know I am caused me to think about the impact this experience would have had on my younger self. 

“Impressionable and insecure thirteen year old Rebecca would have been devastated that she couldn’t get a pair of jeans over her thighs.

“Self-esteem and body positivity are two of the greatest struggles young women face today as they try to navigate this social media filled world in which they are constantly told they should look and behave in a particular way.

“Failure to do so runs the risk of social isolation and the constant repetition of being told they are not good enough. 

“I called out H&M because their poor sizing system has the potential to make young people feel bad about themselves and I felt they should take responsibility.”

A row of tops in H&M

Becs’ letter proved successful, as it prompted H&M to do something about their sizing, after years of complaints about the clothes being much smaller than expected.

Becs found that the company had previously translated its European sizes to a lower UK size, meaning that a European 38 would be labelled a UK 12, where in other high street stores in the UK it would be a 10.

 However, now the store is rolling out sizing that suits the UK audience, so a size 10 in H&M should eventually be the same as a size 10 in other British high street stores.

Becs said: “I think it’s incredibly important that clothes sizing on the high street should be universally the same size.”

“How this is policed or decided however is the tricky part. One of H&M’s excuses they gave during my correspondence with them stated they used a Northern European sizing system (the UK is in Northern Europe last time I checked!) and as a Swedish brand they were ultimately catering for a Scandinavian body type.

” I didn’t think that was good enough justification; H&M were prepared to sell clothes to a UK market so they should therefore cater more effectively for UK consumers.

“Whether it is introducing a system for women’s clothes similar to men’s (jeans in inches rather than arbitrary labelled numbers, for example) or stronger legislation at a government level to ensure retailers produce clothing that is true to the size it is advertised as, I feel more drastic measures need to be taken to make clothes shopping better for customers.

“I’ve written to my local MP on this issue to ask that they raise the question in Parliament. 

“Clothes stores that are selling ill-fitting garments have a responsibility to try and combat the potential difficulty and anxiety their poor sizes can cause for shoppers, especially for young people, who may be struggling with their mental health and self-esteem.”

To check out just how ill-fitting some garments are in high street stores, I popped into Middlesbrough town centre to take a look and test it out for myself.

Already wearing well-fitting skinny jeans from Topshop, I trekked into H&M to try on a pair of their skinny jeans – same size (6) and same fit (super skinny, high waisted).

Well-fitting Topshop jeans:

My well-fitting, Topshop jeans. (Size 6, super skinny, high waisted)

As someone who has always struggled to find jeans/trousers and skirts that actually fit, I wasn’t really surprised when I tried the jeans on and found them to be an ill-fit. Baggy round my thighs, knees and crotch, the jeans were simply just too big. There was excess jean around the waist, too, meaning that they sat a tad lower than the high waist that it was meant to.

My ill-fitting, H&M jeans (Size 6, super skinny, high waisted)
Excess waist space

I put the two size 6 jeans together, to see the actual difference between the size on the waist and the thighs:

Difference between waist sizes
Difference in thigh sizes

Although my H&M jeans didn’t fit as they were too big for me rather than being too small, the point still stands that clothing sizes still simply aren’t universal.

Becs said: “I firmly believe poor sizing systems have the potential to lead to extreme and potentially dangerous action.”

“Failure to fit into clothes can lead to people believing dropping dress sizes will ensure they better conform to the incorrect perception that the number in the back of your jeans is the only thing to gives you worth. 

“For a moment in that H&M changing room, a small part of me felt bad about my body. I am a 25 year old woman who is very comfortable with her squishy thighs, wobbly tummy and wide hips.

“I would certainly say I am comfortable in my own skin. However, stood in that changing room my confidence was knocked. Those ill-fitting jeans had the power to make me feel rubbish; I felt as if it was my fault I couldn’t get in the jeans

And it’s not only misleading sizes that are a cause for concern, but also how many garments are on sale in store of certain sizes.

Being able to cater for all body-types is something that every store should be able to do, allowing everyone to celebrate their own body. Walking into a store and not being able to find your size has potential to make an individual feel “too big” or “too small”, therefore causing issues with mental health and body image.

Becs said: “The body positivity movement have made huge leaps forward in recent years.”

Women are no longer standing for our bodies being edited, our outward appearances being judged; we are fighting against the idea that there is only one type of body we should be striving for and thankfully we are seeing more and more positive change. 

“All bodies are good bodies and we are put on this earth to do so much more than just think about how we look. 

“We need to see more media campaigns featuring bodies that look like us and I think it is terrible that H&M currently only cater up to a clothing size 16 (the average clothing size for women in the UK) in their stores and very rarely is that size available in every garment.

“I feel H&M and others like them who are making clothes in inaccurate sizes are not practicing what they are preaching. By all means, please do sell that feminist t-shirt or pencil case but also take responsibility by becoming a feminist brand and celebrating every woman’s body, not just a small, select few.

Although H&M have started rolling out more accurate sizes for UK women, it seems that high street stores are still a horribly long way from perfect.

Looking for our sizes in H&M

You can follow Becs’ blog hereas well as catch her on Twitter and Instagram.

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