Apparel Retail: Sizeism or a Lesson in Economics?

Do you ever have difficulty finding clothes that fit you? Maybe clothes always seem a little too big. Perhaps clothes always feel a little too short or long for your body.

The conspicuous truth is that human beings coalesce all sorts of different topological formations. Some of us are Rubenesque, and some of us slim. Some of us are tall, and others are short. One may carry their mass primarily in their waist, and another may have a large bosom or hips. The point is that no matter what your body type, no one has the exact same dimensions as you, (granted you don’t have an identical twin) and therefore, mass-produced clothing will rarely fit perfectly.

Unless you go to a tailor, to find an article of clothing that is perfect for your dimensions would be serendipitous.

The reality is that because clothing manufacturers cannot tailor clothes for every single individual who buys them: they have to go with categorial general measurements. If you’re an American who wears t-shirts, you know the standard sizes: small, medium, large, and x-large are the standard sizes you can find at nearly every retail establishment that sells mass-produced clothing in the United States. With the increasing rate of obesity in the United States (5), it is becoming increasingly common to see sizes such as 2X, 3X, and even larger in non-plus-sized retailers.

While clothing retailers are becoming more inclusive of larger sizes, some feel that the absence of much larger sizes are indicative of something sinister: sizeism.

We have are all familiar with the terms racism and sexism, but what is sizeism? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, sizeism is defined as “discrimination or prejudice directed against people because of their size and especially because of their weight.” (6)

Some feel indignant about the fact that apparel retailers don’t supply their size.

Names concealed for privacy.

Are clothing manufacturers and apparel retailers “fatphobic?”

The absence of preternaturally large sizes can be vindicated by the rudimentary economics concept of supply and demand. Firms adjust supply commensurately to demand. In spite of the large amount of obesity in the United States (3), the average waist circumference for men remains at 40.5 inches and 38.7 inches for women. (3) How do these means compare with the supply of clothing?

To test the hypothesis of the absence of plus size clothing from apparel retailers being tantamount to sizeism or “fatphobia.” I sampled 88 dresses from three popular online retailers: Amazon, Target, and Nordstrom. I equally sampled clothes marketed as “plus-size” and those not marketed as such (44 dresses per category.) Since there is no true size standard for the waist circumference of dresses in American retailers, (i.e. a size 12 for one brand may be an 8 or a 14 in another) I am using the more quantitative measurement of maximum waist circumference that a dress can have countenance for. This waist circumference is obtained using the given size charts on a dress’s listing. I have constructed the histograms below using the obtained data. Below the histograms is further analysis.

Before we can accurately analyze the data, we have to keep something extremely salient to statistical analysis in mind: only examining the mean will very often belie accurate representation of the population. If you have a rudimentary understanding of statistics, you are cognizant of the fact that the mean can be influenced by extreme outliers. Furthermore, those with anorexia nervosa, and the stars of TLC network’s “My 600-lb Life” likely are affecting the overall mean. I will, however, represent the implications of results utilizing the mean, in addition to the more accurate measurement: percentiles.

Let’s start with looking at the mean and its relationship to the histogram, and what this means when applying economic principles. I have underlined in blue the range that includes the mean waist circumference of American women.

As one can observe here, the mean falls within the range of the most ubiquitous maximum waist circumference for all dresses. This aligns with the economic principle of supply and demand. Since American women average a waist circumference of 38.7 inches (3), it is unsurprising that the availability of dresses that can fit this circumference are more common than dresses that do not accommodate this circumference. A gainsayer may point out that this doesn’t fall true for the overall counted clothes for clothes not marketed as ‘plus size’ (and this doesn’t fall true for the plus sizes either when looking at the histogram.) This is where the statistical measurement of using the mean begins to fall short. Moreover, we cannot dismiss the fact that the mean still falls within the most ubiquitous range.

Before I discuss percentiles, it is salient to this topic to state the fact that the average waist size for women in the United States of 38.7 inches exceeds what is considered the ceiling for good health by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, which is a maximum waist circumference of 35 inches (4). Moreover, one needs to use qualitative observation to examine the possibility that women of greater body mass are less likely to have demand for dresses (and therefore, less supply.) Given the fact that dresses are much more structured and geometrically defined than other articles of clothing, it can be reasonably inferred that women of greater mass are less likely to want to display their topological properties than women of a more gossamer frame since they are much more likely to have low self-esteem. (1)

Moreover, economists cannot form sound arguments on qualitative observations, possibilities, and inferences. So let us re-examine the data .

For American women 20 and over, the 5th percentile of waist circumference stands at 28.8 inches (this means that a woman with a 28.8 inch waist has a larger waist than 5% of other American women, and a smaller waist than 95% of American women.) The 95th percentile for American women stands at 51.8 inches (this means that a woman with a 51.8 inch waist has a smaller waist than 5% of American women, and a waist larger than 95% of American women.) Furthermore, this all means is that 90% of all American women have a waist size between 28.8 and 51.8 inches (3). How does this look on our histograms?

The blue line represents the waist circumference distribution of 90% of American Women. (in)

It can be observed from the data that the availability of clothes over the 95th percentile constitutes just as much, if not, more ubiquitousness than clothes under the 5th percentile. Does this mean that clothing manufacturers are sizeist towards very thin women?

The question asked earlier in the blog post, “are clothing manufacturers and apparel retailers ‘fatphobic?'” We can now answer that question with a resounding no.

The availability of clothes at certain sizes reflects the demand for these clothes. If it was profitable to manufacture or mass-produce dresses with a 19 inch waist circumference or an 80 inch waist circumference, apparel companies and brands would do so with no hesitation. It would be inane for a clothing business to deprive themselves of profit and wealth consequent of a jejune visual preference.

If a clothing business that mass produces clothes expanded their dress sizes to include waist circumferences of 65 inches, since so few people are that gargantuan, the businesses would end up losing money as a result of producing clothes for such a niche market. It is no different from a shoe brand that doesn’t carry size 20 shoes. Since so few people have feet of that size, to produce such large shoes would be costly to the shoe business, despite the fact that carrying a size 20 shoe would be more “inclusive.”

Clothing companies with considerable financial collateral could hypothetically start manufacturing larger clothes than they already produce, but the loss caused by this would require the business to forego something else that would also eventually result in loss, or needing to take measures that would be more costly to all consumers of that business. For example, if a clothing business incurred a loss caused by including niche sizes, they would either need to decrease the cost of manufacturing clothes by using cheaper materials, and therefore, producing lower quality clothes, or raise the prices of all their apparel. The decreased overall quality of clothes, or raised prices would burden to both the consumer and the supplier. The consumers would have to endure the reduction in quality of clothing or the increased priciness of the clothes. The suppliers would have to endure the losses caused by decreased revenue as a result of consumers not wanting low-quality or overpriced clothes.

When one understands the fundamental concept of supply and demand, it becomes conspicuous why clothing retailers that offer niche sizing are either cheap and of subpar quality, or extraordinarily expensive.

What can be taken away from all this?

If you have difficulty finding clothes in your size regardless of whether you’re very petite or very fat, it’s not a matter of discrimination or prejudice; in the end, it’s just business. The cleverest action you can take if you’re of niche dimensions is to either find a skilled tailor, or take on the endeavor of becoming closer the to the mean sizes.

Although, I cannot auspiciously advocate for the latter as it’s not the healthiest place to be.


(1) Alvani, Reza & Kimura, Laurel & Parvin Hosseini, Mehrshad. (2016). Relationship between Body Weight and Self-Esteem: A Study of Young Men and Women in Iran. Journal of Obesity and Overweight. 75450. 10.15744/2455-7633.2.202.

(2) Fryar CD, Carroll MD, Gu Q, Afful J, Ogden CL. Anthropometric reference data for children and adults: United States, 2015–2018. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 3(46). 2021.

(3) Cheryl D. Fryar; et al. (September 2018). “Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Severe Obesity Among Adults Aged 20 and Over: United States, 1960–1962 Through 2015–2016” (PDF). Health E-Stats. National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Health Interview Statistics. Retrieved October 15, 2021.

(4) National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Obesity Education Initiative: “The Practical Guide: Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Overweight and Obesity in Adults.”

(5) Marks, Jennifer B. “Obesity in America: it’s getting worse.” Clinical Diabetes 22.1 (2004): 1-2.

(6) Dictionary, s.v. “sizeism,” accessed October 15, 2021,

(7) The 2010 Census Summary File 1 (SF1) con- tains data on age, sex, race, Hispanic origin, group quarters, relationship, tenure, and households at a variety of geographic levels down to the block level. For a detailed schedule of 2010 Census products and release dates, visit < /www/cen2010/glance/index.html>.

Published by Daniel Ballesteros

An aspiring labor economist.

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