Are All Jean Sizes Created Equal? I Took My Sister to the Mall to Find Out

You don't need me to tell you that the world of ready-to-wear clothing sizes is a strange one. One store is selling you even-numbered dresses, another is selling you odd-numbered camisoles, and a third store is vanity sizing central. A white T-shirt from this store flatters your torso, but the same white T-shirt from that store makes you look like the abominable snowman. In short: The mall is a jungle, and nobody knows anything.

At the center of all this madness lie blue jeans, that denim American staple that's given women of the world so much grief for so many years. If you've ever gone jeans shopping, you know that your size can vary wildly, depending on the store you happen to be in. Where one size 7 literally falls short, the other is bunched around your heels. Where one pair hugs your thighs, another suffocates them. Like Indiana Jones fighting the Jungle Cutter, you have to soldier through the wilderness using your five senses and your animal instincts, not your knowledge of selvage fabric.

In the interest of hands-on, ultra-specialized journalistic research, I took my long-suffering younger sister Anna to the mall to try on skinny jeans. Anna tried on six pairs in the same size, while I snuck photos of her endeavors (taking photos in dressing rooms is, uh, frowned upon?) and took notes. Note that a pair of skinny jeans sized 29 might be closer to a 6 or an 8, depending on the store, so it was impossible to get a 100 percent accurate estimation. But can you really expect accuracy when you're hacking your way through the jungle?

Jean #1: Forever 21 Low-Rise Ankle Skinny, size 29, $17.90

At Forever 21, we opted for the "expensive" pair — $17.90 as opposed to $7.90 — but there's only so much you can expect from a pair of jeans under $20. She didn't like how low the back pocket sat, creating an odd silhouette, and thought the cheap fabric was ill-fitting: tight around the knees, loose around the hips. Even though these jeans are designed to be a little bit cropped, hitting at the ankle, they are not designed for tall girls.

Overall reaction: Acceptable for a cheap jean, but you can do better.

Would she buy them? No.

Jean #2: American Eagle Mid-Rise Super Skinny, size 6, $29.99

Despite the fact that these jeans were advertised as "super skinny," they weren't as tight as the "skinny" ones we tried on at Forever 21. CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER. They fit almost perfectly, though they still weren't long enough for her taste, but that's what an artful cuff is for. According to Anna, these jeans are "very comfortable — just stretchy enough, but not weirdly stretchy. No one likes weirdly stretchy."

Overall reaction: On point. Well-fitted, affordable, good fabric.

Would she buy them? Yes.

Jean #3: H&M Super Skinny Super Low Waist, size 29, $39.95

I personally thought these looked amazing on her, but Anna begged to differ, informing me that "super skinny" jeans should not have rips. Destroyed jeans are supposed to be casual, and there's nothing casual about shredding that's tight enough to squish poor little knees.

Weird rips aside, these jeans were extremely comfortable and had a similar fit to the American Eagle pair, though the fabric was flimsier. I loved them, but Anna said she wouldn't have bought them. Her reasoning? "Butt was like eh." File that under Jeans Shopping Is an Extremely Personal Pursuit.

Overall reaction: The uncomfortable shredding was a deal breaker.

Would she buy them? No.

Jean #4: Lucky Brand Brooke Legging Jean, size 6, $119

Anna fell in love with this pair, calling them "heaven in a jean." They were flattering, incredibly comfortable, soft, easy to pull on, and were cut a bit higher in the back for those times in life when you just have to sit down in your blue jeans. She told me they "conveyed confidence," and when I asked what she meant, expecting a lecture on our cultural perception of dark-hued denim as stronger and more in control, she replied, "I don't know, I just felt more confident in them." This is why she has the big scholarship to a college next year, guys.

Interestingly enough, everything up to this point — except for the thicker American Eagle pair — was more or less a pair of jeggings advertised as jeans. In other words, most of the jeans we saw were very tight, very stretchy, and fairly thin. The line between jeggings and skinny jeans is being erased, people.

Overall reactions: These were by far the best-quality jeans we tried on. You get what you pay for, and in this case what you get is amazing.

Would she buy them? "Yes, if I could afford them."

Jean #5: Gap Always Skinny, size 29, $69.95

Anyone getting a little bit tired of these jean titles yet? Although these "Always Skinny" jeans were ostensibly the same size as the other ones we tried on, they were definitely the biggest of the lot. A Gap 29 is not an H&M 29. The fabric was thick and felt high-quality, but the fit wasn't right — they were big around the hips (imperceptibly, but she noticed) and the legs "stayed wrinkled" when she walked, for what it's worth.

Overall reactions: Apparently Gap jeans run big, at least for this family.

Would she buy them? No.

Jean #6: Abercrombie & Fitch AF Skinny Jean, Size 29, $78

It took me 15 minutes to find a pair of size 29 jeans in our local Abercrombie store, and I kid you not, it's because everything over size 26 was actually hidden. The racks and display tables were full of size 24s, and the 28s, 29s, and 30s were shoved into a bottom shelf behind a potted plant. I actually got upset when my precious sister made a joking comment about how they didn't carry her size. I can't believe she noticed, I thought. Does it bother her? She seemed unruffled, but my teeth were on edge.

The jeans were nice — tight, dark, expensive — but whatever. By then, I was ready to get out of the mall.

Did they fit? Yes.

Would she buy them? No, they were "a little uncomfortable."

In conclusion...

I was convinced we'd find a HUGE disparity in jeans sizes — a Gap 8 is an Abercrombie 14! A Forever 21 zero is a Gap XYZ and it also makes coffee for you in the morning! — but it turns out the jeans industry is more on the same page than I initially thought. While Anna only loved two of the pairs, everything fit her in a basic, does-this-cover-my-body-in-a-reasonable-way sense. Still, the subtle differences in cut, fit, stretch, and fabric were huge, and would have obviously made all the difference between purchasing and walking away.

Here's what I learned, though, if we want to philosophize about beauty, which I always want to do. Malls target young girls. My friends and I are past the age of hanging out at malls, so we forget just how insidious the messages at the mall can be, but for tweens and teenagers, the mall is a mecca of consumeristic bliss. And it's out to get them. Dressing room walls are plastered with photos of girls who are older than them, "hotter" than them, and hanging out with guys who look nothing like the guys at their high school. The clothing styles are awful: "Super skinny!" "Always skinny!" REALLY, REALLY SKINNY AND 21 YEARS OLD FOREVER! The "larger" sizes are pushed to the back. Even the basic confusion of the sizing seems treacherous to me — it makes a girl ask things like, "Am I a 6 or an 8?" It knows the girl will hold her breath, hoping for the smaller number.

Take your little sister to the coolest mall you can find, ladies, but when you're there, remind her at every turn — when you get a pretzel, when you avoid the pushy perfume samples guy, when she needs the next size up — that she's so much more than that pair of very tight, very stretchy, very thin jeans.

Images: Tori Telfer