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I tried the same size shorts from 5 brands—and they all fit differently

I learned first-hand that vanity sizing is a real issue.

I tried the same size shorts at 5 different brands Credit: Reviewed/Amanda Tarlton

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“Wait, why did you get these? You’re not a size 4.” That’s what my boyfriend said when he saw a new pair of shorts sitting on my kitchen counter. And he’s right—but he’s also wrong. Here’s the thing: I wear a different size at almost every place I shop. At H&M, I’m often a size 6. At Loft, I find a size 2 fits better. And at Lululemon, I can easily slip into a size 0. What. The. Heck.

This kind of inconsistent sizing—often because stores lean into vanity sizing, where they label clothing with smaller size numbers so people ‘feel better’ about their bodies—can make shopping in general a pain and online shopping a nightmare. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve ordered something in my “regular” size, only to find it fits two sizes too small or two sizes too big. Sometimes sizing even varies at the same retailer—looking at you, Shein. I feel like the “choose your size” prompt is more anxiety-provoking than a simple-to-answer question. Will my usual size fit? I never know anymore.

To find out just how ridiculous the size discrepancy can be, I ordered high-waisted denim shorts in the same size—a size 4—from five popular retailers: Old Navy, H&M, Target, Madewell, and American Eagle. Before I even tried the shorts on, I compared the sizes based on the brands’ size charts. Here’s what the waist size of a size 4 measures at each:

  • Madewell: 25 inches
  • H&M: 26 inches
  • American Eagle: 26.5 inches
  • Old Navy: 27 inches
  • Target: 27.5 inches

I then tried on each pair. For reference, I’m 5-foot-5 with a 26.5-inch natural waist and an athletic build, so I often have trouble finding shorts that fit around the waist and my muscular thighs. How did the shorts compare across brands, and which ones fit the best (and worst)?

1. American Eagle

American Eagle denim shorts
Credit: American Eagle & Reviewed/Amanda Tarlton

The American Eagle shorts were super stretchy, which I liked.

These were my favorite shorts of all the ones I tried on. At first glance, they looked too small—I thought for sure they wouldn’t fit. But they slid right on, thanks to the very stretchy material, a blend of cotton, viscose, polyester, and elastane (a.k.a. spandex). They fit snug and comfortable around both my waist and thighs, and I felt like I could move freely throughout my everyday activities. I never had to adjust them, and they didn’t feel too tight or restrictive. By my tape measure, the waist measures 27 inches, which is a half-inch larger than the size chart.

These shorts come in women’s sizes 000 to 20 and 11 colors. Based on my experience, they fit true to size.

Get the AE Ne(x)t Level High-Waisted Denim Short Short from American Eagle for $49.95

2. Old Navy

Old Navy denim shorts
Credit: Old Navy & Reviewed/Amanda Tarlton

The legs of the Old Navy shorts fit but not so much the waist.

The Old Navy shorts, made of a cotton and spandex material, fit comfortably as well. The leg holes were snug on my thighs—but not too tight—and the waistband doesn’t gape or cut into me. I felt like I could move around without adjusting the shorts, but the waist felt looser than what I prefer—and it measures 28 inches, which is one inch bigger than the size chart indicates. I think if it were a half-inch smaller, the shorts would fit even better around the waist, but if I went down a whole size, the shorts might be too tight in the legs.

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These shorts come in women’s sizes 0 to 20 and two colors. Most people will find they fit true to size, especially if you have a figure with narrower hips and relatively slimmer thighs.

Get the High-Waisted O.G. Straight Ripped Jean Shorts from Old Navy for $35

3. Madewell

Madewell denim shorts
Credit: Madewell & Reviewed/Amanda Tarlton

I was shocked by how loose the Madewell shorts were, especially around the waist.

Madewell’s shorts fit a little too big for my liking, despite the fact that they claimed to be the smallest in terms of waist measurement, at 25 inches. This was shocking to me because I’ve always heard how amazing Madewell’s denim is, though I hadn’t yet tried it for myself. I expected its shorts to be the best-fitting, but I found the waist quite loose, and by my tape measure, it’s 30.5 inches (5.5 inches more than advertised). It shifted around when I walked, constantly riding up because it’s so loose, and it stretched out even more as I wore the shorts. However, the legs fit really well—not too tight but not too baggy, either. The shorts are made of cotton, but they didn’t shrink after washing, which is a big plus.

These shorts come in women’s sizes 0 to 24 and two colors. If you have more of a straight shape, they may work for you, but don’t go based on the tape measure to choose your size. Indeed, a lot of reviewers describe the shorts as “massive,” so sizing down may be your best bet.

Get the Relaxed Denim Shorts from Madewell for $39.99

4. Target

Target denim shorts
Credit: Target & Reviewed/Amanda Tarlton

I was swimming in these Target shorts.

The Target shorts were the largest of the size 4s I tried, which I should've expected from them having the largest waist measurement on the size chart, at 27.5 inches. And it measures 30.5 inches in real life, which is a full three inches bigger than the sizing chart. There’s at least an extra inch around my waist and even the leg holes felt too roomy. That’s surprising, given that I have athletic thighs and tend to find that shorts are too tight on my legs, not too loose. I wouldn’t be able to wear these comfortably without a belt, and the material around my legs swishes as I walk because there’s so much of it.

These shorts are made of a cotton/spandex material and come in women’s sizes 00 to 18 and five colors. By my experience, I’d suggest sizing down, unless you like your shorts extra-relaxed. They shrunk ever so slightly in the wash, but not enough to make them noticeably snugger.

Get the Universal Thread High-Rise Jean Shorts from Target for $17.99

5. H&M

H&M denim shorts
Credit: H&M

I couldn't even get these H&M shorts over my thighs.

The H&M shorts were by far the smallest—and by smallest, I mean I couldn’t even get them up over my thighs. I wasn’t surprised by the fact that they were so little—I’ve never bought bottoms from H&M because I’ve always found them to be cut teensy-tiny when I try them on at the store. But I was surprised that they were so small, considering their waist measurement on the size chart is listed at 26 inches, making them supposedly larger than the actually-way-too-large Madewells and only a half-inch smaller than my faves from American Eagle. Even more interestingly, my tape measure indicates the H&M waist measures 26.5 inches, which is what my waist actually is. The fabric is 100% cotton with no give or stretch, so that didn’t help matters as I struggled—and failed—to pull these on.

These shorts come in women’s sizes 0 to 18 and four colors. If you want to give them a try, go up at least two sizes—or hit the store to try ‘em on in advance.

Get the Denim Shorts from H&M for $24.99

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Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.

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