You've probably wondered why you can be a size 6 in one store and a size 8 in another. Women's sizing is endlessly frustrating. My boyfriend can buy the same size pants in Macy's as he would at Banana Republic, but when I shop I can be anything from an extra small to a medium depending on the brand. According to the Wall Street Journal, alpha sizing is the reason you can wear a varied range of sizes.
Alpha sizing is a simplified system for sizing apparel. When you see the word "small" instead of a number, that garment indicates two combined number sizes. But there is no standardized way to do this, which is why you can be a "small" sometimes and a "medium" or "large" other times. According to WSJ, the rise of alpha sizing has something to do with the increased popularity of relaxed fashions (baggy t-shirts, yoga pants) that rely less on exact fit. But alpha sizing can be really damaging to the psyche of shoppers, especially female shoppers.
The appeal of alpha sizing for retailers is a no-brainer, especially financially. From the WSJ:
"Alpha sizing's biggest draw of all is financial. Clothing makers can reach just as many customers while producing clothes in a smaller range of sizes. "If I only have to build four sizes instead of eight, my supply chain is going to be much more efficient," says Ed Gribbin, president of Alvanon Inc., a New York firm that consults on sizing and fit strategy."
From a consumer perspective alpha sizing has some surface level benefits as well because it's such a simplified process.
"Having five or six sizes to choose from, you are more willing to go into that rack, take it into the fitting room, try a couple of sizes on," Ms. Bricker says. With numerical sizing, there might be 10 sizes or more to wade through, which shoppers can find daunting."
But the problem with alpha sizing is that it is inconsistent across the industry. A size large in one store does not necessarily equal a size large in another. Fewer size options lead to inexact sizing, which is such an issue when trying to find flattering clothing. Not all women are shaped like clothes hangers, and we need specific sizes to help us determine the best fit. As Erin Gloria Ryan wrote for Jezebel:
"I've seen the havoc wrought by inexact sizing — dresses that rely on drawstrings, bunchy elastic embedded in the waist of rompers so that fewer sizes can accommodate a wider range of bodies. Shoddily constructed wraparounds that would give Diane von Furstenberg an allergic rash. Blazers with stretch. Profit-maximizing clothing labels are, I suspect, responsible for the proliferation of "layering," or, if we're not going to put frosting on bullshit, "making women's clothing so flimsy and impractical that it's designed to be worn on top of other garments when in the past a single layer provided adequate coverage against both sideboob and underboob."
I have had countless dressing room breakdowns because of "sizing up" in a particular dress or top. You can blame this on my insecurities, if you wish, but here's the thing — those insecurities are not my fault. They are the fault of a society that prizes skinny over healthy and airbrushes the hell out of every woman featured in a magazine so that the rest of us believe that fat rolls are the work of Satan instead of, you know, natural.
When you place women in "small," "medium," and "large" categories, you aren't doing those women any favors. You are reducing them to the size-based word on a tag. Size matters when it comes to clothing, and some women wear larger sizes than others. Numbers aren't perfect, but they are far less judgmental and far more exact. If stores are going to employ alpha sizing, the least they can do is standardize the process and save us some grief.