How Clothing Sizes Affect Eating Disorder Recovery

Clothing options

Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place

For many people who struggle with an eating disorder, clothing size represents weight, and weight greatly affects self-esteem and body image. Unfortunately, there is no standard for clothing size measurements, leading to unpredictable numbers on the tags. Shopping for new clothes can be a stressful process for those who are in recovery, and navigating inconsistent sizes can be especially triggering.

The History of Clothing Sizes

The first sizing chart for women’s clothing was introduced in 1958 and included sizes ranging from 8-42 [1]. Since then, the measurements for women’s clothing have continued to change. For example, a size 8 dress today fits the same measurements for a size 16 from 1958, and a size 8 from 1958 is even smaller than today’s 00 [1].

The government updated the standards for clothing sizes in 1970, but by 1983, it got rid of the standards completely, leaving manufacturers to determine their own sizing charts [1]. Without these standards, some manufacturers began to make sizes smaller, thinking that this would flatter consumers. However, this resulted in different manufacturers using different and potentially inaccurate sizing labels. By 2011, a size 8 dress could have up to a 5-inch difference in waist measurements between manufacturers [1].

The Dangers of Inaccurate Clothing Sizes

For those who are struggling with an eating disorder, trying on clothing can be an emotionally difficult process. People who are in recovery may have negative thoughts and feelings when shopping, especially when first transitioning out of treatment. The size they’ll be once they complete eating disorder care is likely different from the size they were when they started treatment. This can be triggering at first, and encountering potentially inaccurate sizes can put someone at risk for relapse if they aren’t prepared.

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While traditional clothing sizes may be unavoidable for now, organizations like the Garment Project provide sizeless clothing for those in recovery and are pushing for more inclusivity in the clothing industry [2]. Organizations like Garment aren’t accessible to everyone, but they do show that ignoring sizing labels can help promote eating disorder recovery.

Shopping for Clothes While in Recovery 

People who are in eating disorder recovery should recognize how manufacturers manipulate clothing sizes and that size is just a number with no representation of a person’s worth.

Still, trying on new clothes and seeing sizing labels can be overwhelming for someone who is in recovery. It may take some time for them to be ready for this step. When you are ready, here are some tips for managing stress while shopping:

  • Let go of old clothes. Clothes you wore before entering eating disorder recovery can be triggering. Before shopping for new clothes, it might help to clean out your closet and get ready for a fresh start.
  • Make a list of what is needed. Making a list before shopping can help you feel more prepared and focused. You might choose to shop for just one article of clothing at first.
  • Plan when and where to shop. Shopping in a crowded store can add extra stress to the experience. Planning to go clothes shopping at a time and place that is less busy can help make the process more comfortable.
  • Bring support. Having a close friend or family member with you can help make shopping easier. Try to be honest with them about how you’re feeling during the process so that they can offer their support.
  • Focus on comfort. Instead of paying too much attention to the sizes on tags, try to focus on how the clothes make you feel, and put comfort first.
  • Don’t push yourself. Shopping for clothes after treatment is a big step. It’s important to check in with yourself and know when to leave if it becomes too stressful.

Inaccurate and unpredictable clothing sizes can be a major trigger for those who are in recovery from an eating disorder. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by eating disorder symptoms, help is available.


[1] Ingraham, C. (2015, August 11). The absurdity of women’s clothing sizes, in one chart. The Washington Post.

[2] Garment. (2020). About. The Garment Project.

About The Sponsor

McCallum PlaceMcCallum Place Banner is an eating disorder treatment center with locations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. We provide comprehensive treatment for adolescents and adults. We also offer a specialty treatment program for athletes who are living with eating disorders. Our experienced treatment team works closely with each patient to ensure that they play a central role in their recovery process. We offer a full range of services to meet the unique needs of each patient and address all issues related to the treatment of eating disorders.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published December 7, 2021 on
Reviewed & Approved on December 7, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC