What’s in a number? Self-esteem. But only for some, says a University of Texas researcher who investigated clothing size and the impact it has on a woman’s sense of self.

“The fashion industry practice of vanity sizing does have some merit in that a smaller size number does make a woman feel better,” Tammy Kinley, of the University of North Texas' School of Merchandising & Hospitality Management, wrote in her paper. Oddly, it does not follow that number influences self-perception in all cases.

History of Clothing Sizes

Women's sizes were first developed in the 1920s when ready-to-wear clothing began to replace self-sewn items and tailor made outfits, reports the Associated Press. Men’s clothing soon became based on chest sizes that had been worked out by the U.S. Army, but women’s sizes could not follow a similar pattern when it was found that women’s bust measurements did not reliably indicate overall size. Retailers soon adopted a system of even-numbered sizes, and this over time decreased from sizes 14 to 24 to sizes 0 to 24 in use today.

It is generally acknowledged that women’s sizes cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered ‘standard.’ Tammy Kinley, of the University of North Texas, measured 1,011 pairs of pants for her study published in the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal in 2003. Although she found inconsistency in each size category, size 4 varied most widely, followed by size 6, while expensive clothing brands were generally larger across the board.

For a more recent study published in Family & Consumer Sciences, Kinley looked into clothing size and its potential effect on a woman’s body image.

Does Body Image Relate to Clothing Size?

Kinley hypothesized that achieving fit in a smaller (or larger) than expected garment size would affect a woman’s attitude toward her body. She assembled a group of 149 participants and asked each to complete a questionnaire that established a baseline measure for both self-esteem and body image, the size pants they buy most often, and demographic information. Generally, her subjects were found to have positive self-esteem and a neutral-to-positive body images. The majority also fell within the 'normal' BMI range. Next, she randomly divided subjects into two groups. One group would try on a brand of pants that should fit in a smaller than expected size; the other group would try on a brand of pants that should fit in a larger than expected size.

“By and large, subjects in this study were affected by the achievement of fit in a smaller or expected size,” wrote Kinley. “Generally speaking, self-esteem and body image were both enhanced for these two groups.”

The women who fit into either a smaller size or an expected size had boosts to their self-esteem and body image. Those who achieved a smaller fit even felt their weight was lower. Yet, among the women who needed a larger than expected size, no effect on self-esteem or body image was reported. In general, younger women were more vulnerable to the influence of clothing size than were older subjects.

“The major finding of this study is that a smaller size number makes women feel better, but a larger size does no harm to self-esteem or body image,” wrote Kinley. Unlike average participants, some might argue, the self-esteem ratings for a group of women outside the 'normal' BMI range might take a hit... but it is much more satisfying to believe a woman's healthy self-perception remains intact no matter what her dress size.

Source: Kinley TR. The Effect of Clothing Size on Self-Esteem and Body Image. Family & Consumer Science. 2010.

Kinley TR. Size Variation in Women’s Pants. Clothing and Textiles Research Journal. 2003.