Overweight? It's All Relative
What Is Vanity Sizing?
"Vanity sizing" is a new trend in the western world, where retail clothing companies from high end to mass retail chains have slowly been scaling their clothing sizes down, while the actual measurements remain the same. This gives shoppers a false perception of what size they actually wear, with the aim of increasing sales by decreasing the shopper's negative feelings about their size. It appears the tags inside our clothing are now advertisements too!
Studies from 1988-1994 and 1999-2004 showed a variety of findings about people's perceptions of themselves and their overall body weight. They asked participants in both studies what their BMI was, and whether they considered themselves to be "underweight," "overweight," or "about right." They found that the BMI response had increased from the earlier study, while less people described themselves as "overweight."
These studies were conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, nationally representative surveys run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women were credited with having a healthier body image from the first survey to the next: they found that women with a normal BMI were more likely to rate themselves as "just right" in the later survey than in the earlier one. This was most true among women ages 17-19 years old. The experts do not credit this attitude shift to healthy body image campaigns, but rather to the overall increasing weight of the population most likely making the women feel that their body is normal.
There is worry that overweight people will have less motivation to become healthier if they see their weight as normal. Some evidence from the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that being over weight, but not obese, may actually lead to a lower mortality rate. If a person in their older age is overweight, research has shown that can lead to higher bone density, which may help prevent breaks and fractures in the case of a fall. This is not a good reason to suggest that people should gain weight, or give up the fight for their healthy weight, as the BMI measurement does not explain where the extra weight is carried on the body, and simply carrying an extra ten pounds in the waist can lead to many unwanted health consequences.
A Fashionable History
In the history of body perception and fashion, the middle ages were a time when being overweight was considered a symbol of high social status. In the mid 1800's, the New York fashion style was for young women to be willowy and slender, though actresses on stage were still expected to be voluptuous. The word "diet" came into our vocabulary to include the goal of weight loss as early as 1910, and though our portion sizes have gone up, our expectations of beauty have changed to define "fashionable" as simply being smaller than ever before. As far as "vanity sizing" goes, it may make a person think their size is smaller, but doesn't erase the health issue of being overweight or obese, and in fact can discourage those people from making healthy lifestyle changes.