Skinny Is the New Fat

In a development that appears to challenge both common sense and the laws of nature, there is now a clothing size that is--seriously, people--less than zero. Banana Republic began offering its "00" duds on its Web site in the spring. Next fall, designer Nicole Miller will intro-duce a size tentatively called "subzero," for women with 231/2-inch waists (about the circumference of a junior soccer ball) and 35-inch hips. The company, which introduced a size 0 (with a 251/2-inch waist) 15 years ago, decided to go smaller when it learned women were taking in their 0's.

The less-than-zeros arrive as Americans are getting bigger. The average woman is about 155 pounds and 5 feet 4 inches, according to SizeUSA, a 2003 survey by industry research group [TC]2. That's about 20 pounds heavier than the average woman of 40 years ago. But don't assume today's woman is wearing a bigger size than her mother. "According to stand-ard size measurements, that average 155-pound woman should be wearing a size 16, but thanks to vanity sizing, she's probably buying a 10 or 12," says Jim Lovejoy of the SizeUSA survey. "Most companies aren't using the standard ASTM [American Society for Testing and Materials] sizes anymore. Sizes have been creeping up a half inch at a time so women can fit into smaller sizes and feel good about it."

Think of vanity sizing as self-delusion on a mass scale. Any woman over 40 knows something isn't right if she can wear a smaller size than she wore 20 years and 10 pounds ago. Yet we gratefully slip into a size 6 pair of Old Navy jeans even though we wouldn't be able to squeeze into our 1980 size 10 Calvin Kleins. It's faith-based sizing. Women want to believe they're a size 6 because the label says so even when the scale disagrees.

Miller's spokesperson, Allison Hodge, says the designer created the subzero for naturally petite women, not for 5-foot-10-inch 14-year-old models who think skinny is the new fat. But there is some concern that the less-than-zero sizes will be a new status symbol for girls with eating disorders. Last month, rail-thin models were banned from a Madrid runway show. But despite the banishing of bony models and the disparaging headlines over photos of shrinking celebs like Nicole Richie, it's hard to shake the impression that razor thin is still very much in vogue. And it seems there's less than zero chance that will change any time soon.