Here's Why Most Online Clothing Size Calculators Don't Work For You

Kristin Mahler/Bustle

For me, online shopping is less something I do when I need clothes and more something I do when I feel bored. Or sad. Or excited. Or, let's be honest, anything at all really. Finding my correct size while online shopping, however, is a bit more complicated. I usually rely on size charts and guides and model height/size descriptions to get me through, but at 6 feet tall and a size 14/16, for the most part shopping online feels like choosing a number at random and hoping for the best. So the sight of an interactive size calculator is always welcome in my mind — when it works, that is.

Recently, I found myself on fast fashion website browsing around when I spotted a handy size calculator option in the notes of one of the items I was looking at. I was excited to have some sort of point of reference for sizing in a brand that I was unfamiliar with (and especially so when it came to their plus sizes). I entered my height and weight, and was promptly met with a, "Sorry, we don't have your size" type of message. OK, I thought, a little bummed, but not shocked. Out of sheer curiosity, I started subtracting 10 pounds from my weight to see how long it would take until the calculator spit out, "Congrats! We have your size!" Eventually I ended up at 90 pounds and 6 feet tall, and still, the calculator was telling me the brand didn't have my size. I had to laugh. Sure, I may have initially gone on the website looking for a trendy dress that would inevitably shrink to the size of baby clothing the first time I dry cleaned it, but what I left with was a big fat metaphor for the entire problem with sizing and the fashion industry.

Eventually I ended up at 90 pounds and 6 feet tall, and still, the calculator was telling me the brand didn't have my size.

My own size calculator snafu reminded me of something I already knew — that sizing is inconsistent and often misleading across the industry and that bodies were unique, never-one-size-fits-all things. Still, though, I was curious if in a world where we're sending cars into space for fun just because we can, there was an online size calculator that was sophisticated enough to take into account that behind every measurement is an actual human being. There had to be something, I thought. In hopes to learn about what goes into a sophisticated size calculator, I talked to Ra'el Cohen, the head of design at ThirdLove, an online-only bra brand. ThirdLove offers 70 sizes (28A to 48H, plus half cups) and uses something called Fit Finder quiz to help customers find their ThirdLove bra size.

The Fit Finder is essentially 10-12 questions (the number varies, depending on how you answer certain questions) that all work together to replicate the effect of a bra fitting — but not just any fitting, Cohen tells me, a truly good bra fitting, something that many women either don't have access to, or don't feel comfortable experiencing to begin with.

Courtesy ThirdLove

"What a lot of women don’t know is that [a good bra fitter] is doing a lot more than just measuring you. She’s looking at the brands your wearing, she's looking at the size you are wearing currently when you came in. She's looking at the fit issues that you are having. Is your cup digging? Is your strap slipping? And she's looking at the shape of your breasts, right?" Cohen says when describing the specific Fit Finder questions used to replicate a real life experience without the real life stress or anxiety.

"No one loves an in-store shopping experience for bras. No one wants to get measured. No one wants to be in a cold bright dressing room. You're half naked, you’re in there with a stranger. She’s poking and prodding you. And even if she means totally well and she is trying to help you, it's kind of a humiliating experience," Cohen says.

Courtesy ThirdLove

The Fit Finder works to make the process of finding a bra more comfortable, but that doesn't mean that you input three measurement statistics and you're done. Instead, the data-driven Fit Finder, which took over six months to create, is updated constantly (the brand says the exact amount it's updated varies month to month) and includes specific descriptions (and optional videos) describing exactly why certain questions are being asked, and how to find the right answer to the question at home if you aren't sure.

"You go through each question and there are little tips that...explain what’s happening [and] why you’re seeing something. Say that you’re saying you wearing it on the tightest hook, we tell you that that typically means it’s time to get to a smaller band because the band is stretched out," Cohen says.

The balance between an in-depth, accurate quiz and a digestible, accessible one is tough to strike but one that Cohen says ThirdLove understands is necessary.

"No one wants to go to a page and read paragraphs of text on why something does or doesn’t fit a certain way," Cohen says.

Even with all of the technology and evolving technology that go into ThirdLove's fit quiz, though, Cohen says she recognizes that there has to be human element that goes along with the tech side of the quiz.

"There has to be a second component to any of these online fit quizzes. You have to be a really excellent customer experience and customer service team," Cohen says, noting the importance of ThirdLove's own. "So in those cases when we don’t get it right, even though they are fewer and far between, we have to have that feedback loop and follow up so we can get someone to get it right."

"No one wants to go to a page and read paragraphs of text on why something does or doesn’t fit a certain way," Cohen says.

This human element of sizing and sizing quizzes is what can break or make a size calculator. For Mallorie Dunn; the designer and owner of Smart Glamour, a size inclusive brand that offers customizable sizing for all bodies (offering sizes XXS - 15x and beyond, according to the site); there is an even simpler solution than online quizzes: knowing your measurements. For many people, though, there is a hesitancy to measuring yourself — a fact reflected in a survey about sizes Bustle did, which received received responses from over 400 women. Of those who took the survey, the majority said they didn't know how to measure themselves. Dunn tells Bustle that while there is always some level of inaccuracy to any kind of online calculator, something equally as simple knowing your measurements can be life-changing. But the reluctance to do so is real.

"I’ve been trying to take away the stigma away from measuring yourself. Back when I first started at Smart Glamour ... I did my very first campaign with the hashtag #measuremebeautiful. What I did was to encourage people to measure themselves and send their measurements to me, and it was cool because I would re-share them and people would see that there are other people who have similar measurements to them who look nothing like them," Dunn says, going on to explain that she also did a pop up in a park where she asked people if she could measure them in exchange for a tank top. The reactions, Dunn says, were telling. "There were some people who were like, 'Oh my god, I’ve been meaning to get my measurements taken, this is perfect.' But then there were also people who would say absolutely not and run away from me."

Measurements work because they focus on the human being and the endless nuances of the human body. Universal Standard's cofounder Alex Waldman echoes Dunn's thoughts about people's hesitancy to be measured, telling Bustle that this could stem from something as simple as unfamiliarity or just not owning a measuring tape. In any case, the mere existence of sizing calculators is proof of people's desire for the comfort and ease of answering a few questions in a quiz and having your size pop out at the end of it. At Universal Standard, which offers sizes 6 to 32, the brand recognizes this and is using slightly different tools to help people find their size.

In May 2018, the brand implemented the "See It In Your Size" feature, showing their clothing on a model of every size available on the site. This is costly, but important, Waldman tells me.

"We photographed every item in every size on a fit-model so our customers could better understand and visualize how items will fit their unique bodies to make an informed decision," Waldman says.

Waldman says that See It In Your Size is important to Universal Standard because fit, though tricky, is so incredibly important to the brand. It's also the reason that the brand allows customers to exchange pieces from its core collection up to a year after purchase for new ones in a different size, if the customer should gain or lose weight. Waldman tells Bustle she always suggests women get measured so they should know their dimensions, but when it comes to your basic online size calculator, she acknowledges that "there’s just something about trying to quantify the diversity of the body through three numbers that never actually works."

Tools like ThirdLove's Fit Finder, Universal Standard's "See It In Your Size," and campaigns like SmartGlamour's #measuremebeautiful are all very different solutions to one major problem: sizing is complicated as hell and irreversibly intertwined with the fact that every single human body is different. This is the exact reason why size calculators exist and the exact reason why they'll never really work — not without a human element, anyway.

Courtesy Universal Standard

It's easy to think of clothing in terms of numbers and to boil it all down to numerical sizes, hip and chest measurements, statistics and standards. But when you focus on this human element of sizing — that behind every size is a body and behind every body is a person who just wants to feel good in clothing and always deserves to, the easier it becomes to focus on truly helpful tools in sizing.

When I took that first size calculator quiz that said there was nothing available on the site for the fake 90-pound version of me, my first instinct was to blame myself. I sat there thinking that the problem was me and my body, my weight. In reality, the whole damn system was broken. That tool might have been malfunctioning to begin with, but even if it wasn't, it is still impossible to boil down sizing from height and weight. Sizing is so much more than that, and so are people. The only way sizing works — and the only way it becomes more inclusive, for that matter — is if the industry realizes that.