Until someone joins the ranks of the size 16 and over, she probably has no idea of the discrimination from the fashion industry and department stores that awaits her when she needs to buy clothes. For you who were wearing “chubby“ sizes as children, and forced into wearing clothes designed for a woman when you were still an adolescent girl, shopping as an overweight or obese adult is an indignity and discomfort that you know all too well.
However, if you are someone whose size has migrated upward as a result of weight gain from antidepressants, mood stabilizers, low dose steroids, or other medications, you will probably be shocked at what awaits you on the racks of the larger size clothes in department stores. And if you loved fashion, or at least wanted to wear something other than oversized tops and stretch bottoms, you will be dismayed at the paucity of designers and designs for someone who does not fit into what the industry calls “normal“ size.
Once, while talking with a weight-loss client whose obesity was a result of her antidepressant treatment, I asked her how she shopped for clothes. She had been a competitive athlete during her young adulthood, and her body could have been on the cover of Shape or Self magazine. Now she was struggling to lose the fifty or so pounds she had gained on her medication.
“I don’t shop unless I absolutely have to, and then I go to stores like Old Navy where the sizes are more generous. A size large in a store like Banana Republic or Madewell would be a medium in a store like Old Navy, so I didn’t feel so bad about my body when I shopped there. And there were enough shoppers who wear large sizes to support a pretty good selection. It isn’t like going to a regular department store and being sent to a plus-size department behind housewares or pet supplies, and where there were relatively few styles and none I would consider wearable,” she told me. She went on to say that, like many women (and some men), she had found clothes shopping to be a pleasurable distraction from training and her college studies. “It was fun going to the mall with my friends and trying on clothes. But after I gained weight, the selection was so limited, and in many cases so ghastly, I hated to shop. It is as if fashion stopped with size 12.”
She was right.
A few weeks ago my persistent channel surfing on the TV attached to the treadmill at my gym brought up an old episode of “Project Runway.” What made this episode different was that the models were the mothers and sisters of the fashion designer contestants. Thus, they were told to design clothes for models whose bodies looked much different than the industry’s norm. Indeed, several of the moms were in the larger than “normal” size category, a fact that made the designers not very happy. Several seemed incapable of making clothes that were not burka-like; others covered most of the upper body with a voluminous poncho or jackets. The objective, it seemed, was to pretend that the women did not have body parts with bumps and curves.
Tim Gunn, who had been the taskmaster of this show, now many seasons old, confirmed my impression in an article published in the Washington Post in September 2016. He said that even though the average American woman is a size 16 or 18, and is willing to outspend her thinner sisters on clothes, “many designers—dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk—still refuse to make clothes for them.”
This past June, Steve Dennis, writing for Forbes, confirmed what Gunn stated. Dennis described much of the fashion industry as being biased against any image of women that did not conform to an unrealistically thin body. Yet according to Plunkett Research, a market research firm, 68 percent of American women today wear size 14 or above.
Women’s sizes may be getting larger, but the amount of space in a department store selling clothes to fit their bodies is not expanding. And the clothes are certainly not front and center when the shopper exits the escalator onto the floor featuring women’s clothes. The “cute stuff,” size 2, is on the mannequins; the plus-size department is a hike away.
The answer proposed to the frustrated larger shopper is to shop online. Of course, buying clothes, along with everything we need or want online, is done by almost everyone regardless of size. Indeed, some manufacturers of plus-size clothes that only sell online promote the advantages of trying clothes on in the privacy of one’s home, and will accept returns of clothes that do not fit.
But according to an insightful article by Sara Tatyana Bernstein, not being able to try clothes on at a store is frustrating. Not everyone who is size 14 or 18 or 22 has the same shape, and not everyone carries the excess weight in the same areas of the body, she tells us. And the woman who has had a slimmer body prior to gaining weight on antidepressants might need the help of an experienced saleswoman to figure out what looks best on her new larger shape. However, Bernstein did report her own positive experience going into a couple of stores (Torrid and Lane Bryant) where, in her words, “the larger shopper feels comfortable and supported by other shoppers of the same size.”
She also has an interesting observation about the lack of quality in many clothes made for the larger woman. Even though market surveys show that often the larger woman is willing to spend more on clothes than her smaller counterpart, according to Bernstein, clothes of good quality, made to last, are very hard to find. She suggests that manufacturers make cheap (in regards to the items’ durability) plus-size clothes in the belief that no woman wants to remain a large size. Thus she doesn’t want to invest money in clothes worn only temporarily—i.e. until she loses weight. Why, the thinking goes, would a woman want to buy expensive “staples” that sooner or later will be too big to wear?
Since many who have gained weight on medication now find it impossible to lose weight months, and even years, after the drugs are discontinued, they don’t know whether they will ever lose that weight. And there are many others who for a variety of reasons may not be able to reduce to a “normal” size without great difficulty. Isn’t it time to manufacture larger-size clothes that flatter and endure? If Peter Paul Rubens could make the larger woman look desirable, cannot today’s fashion designers do the same?
“A Plus In The Sun: The Spatial Politics Of Selling Plus-Size Clothes To Women,” Body Politics, Fashion July 31, 2017.