I knew it would be an ordeal, so I tried to make it fun. I took three friends along. We left the kids with the husbands. We made a night out of it. But two hours after hitting store after store with no formal dresses in my size, I was about to break down.
They tried to keep my spirits up. They really did. And when we finally found something, a giant black sequined thing that wouldn’t have been out of place on Dynasty, it was ugly, a beaded tent nothing like my style. I snapped it up. I put it on, a friend zipped up the back, and the mirror said I didn’t look like a sausage stuffed into a black beaded casing. So I plunked down my credit card and paid over 200 bucks for a dress I didn’t like and would only wear once. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
I was only a size 14/16.
Never mind that the average American woman is a size 16, says Today reporting on a study from the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education. They say that “it’s no secret that what we find on the racks is getting smaller and smaller by the season — leaving us with unrealistic, teeny-tiny options that we just can’t squeeze into.” These woman with me had been where I was underneath my baby weight.
Been to the plus-size side of fashion, that is. Those women lived there, and they knew it as it was: Demeaning, expensive, and exploitative. Embarrassing. Unavailable. If you wear above a size 14 — and even if you’re as small as a 14, like I had just shown — you’re mostly SOL when it comes to decent, trendy clothing.
Bigger than a 14? Forget it.
A prescription drug caused me to put on 50 pounds last year. I was a 16/18. I gave the fuck up on buying brick-and-mortar clothing and went online to score used designer threads that fit my growing frame. I had to. Target subjected me to the dreaded XXL category, which was usually a small sized up and not cut for a plus-size body. Their new Ava & Viv line hadn’t debuted. Not that it helps everyone; it’s mostly sized up to 3x, with a precipitous drop in clothing available in 4x.
Rebecca, age 31, is larger than a 4x. A gorgeous, nurturing woman with a kind smile and a beautiful body, the fashion industry has left her in the dust. It’s a terrible shame that this amazing person has said that “it’s easier to stick to a uniform”: an Enwrapture skirt and a tank top. She says that she doesn’t feel left behind by the fashion industry, but instead misunderstood. “Most stores just upsize measurements all around to make ‘plus-size’ clothes,” she complains. “They don’t take into account how a fat body fits into things vs. how a thin body fits.” (Oh yeah, and fat isn’t a pejorative term — so if it bothers you, ask yourself why).
Sophie, age 35, agrees. “So many places used to add plus-size, but they would just make a straight size bigger instead of using a plus-size model to make the fit appropriate. Thankfully that’s not as much of an issue anymore. I know Torrid uses multiple fit models per size for styling.”
Then there’s another issue with plus-size clothing, one that came up with every woman I talked to. Plus-size clothes must be woven of unicorn hair and troll fur because they are freaking expensive. And not just more expensive to compensate for extra fabric; it’s freaking price gouging. “‘Plus-size clothes are EXPENSIVE,” Rebecca says in all caps. Stephanie, age 32, agrees. “On the rare chance I find something pretty, it’s outrageously expensive,” she tells me. “They overprice fat people clothes,” Mallory, age 31, says bluntly.
Even online, the used fat people clothes were more expensive than their non-plus-size counterparts. And you can’t argue a resale clothing site is on the hook for fabric prices. They just know fat women will pay jacked prices because we’re desperate to feel good in our clothes. As Stephanie says, so often “nothing fits, or if I can get it on, it looks like a damn tent. I have curves, damn it! I want them to be seen!”
There are, of course, options for larger clothing. Lane Bryant goes up to a U.S. size 28, reports Living ~400lbs. She names several other retailers and their size ranges, but they’re only available online. Sophie complains that, with her local Torrid, if she didn’t like the clothing line they put out that season, she was shit out of luck because that was one of the only places she could buy clothing. Online, Lane Bryant and its sister intimates store, Cacique, claims to go to a size 32. They may be the only brick-and-mortar games in town.
Stephanie says that last year for her birthday, her husband searched locally for clothing for her. “He found one set of capri leggings and a matching top,” she says. “The top swallowed me but at least it fit my chest.” She adds that “sportswear is particularly hard to find unless you try ordering online; then fit and quality are a crapshoot.”
I found the same. It’s like America thinks fat people don’t work out or run (newsflash: we do) — a decent sports bra ran me 70 bucks onAmazon, and it was total guesswork if a running jacket or pants would fit me, sausage me, or drown me.
But many women are still left out. Rebecca continues, “Even though ‘plus-size’ clothes are becoming easier to find, those of us who are bigger are still left, well, naked. Most places don’t carry 3/4/5x.” She agreed that it can be super-frustrating just to find a damn cardigan. Mallory agrees. “Not all fat people like to dress like they came from Kmart.”
But the absolute worst? The demoralizing feeling of being left behind. The normalization of the thin at the expense of the size-16-or-above body leaves women feeling sad, confused, and ill-at-ease in their own skin. “It’s hellish,” Steph says. “Almost all my body issues come up around shopping … I hate clothes shopping. It’s so depressing. I start to feel desperate or like something is wrong with my shape. Rationally I know I am ‘normal,’ but clearly clothes manufacturers don’t think so.”
When I go into Target, even as an XL now, and all those cute little dresses don’t come in my size, I feel inadequate. Too big to be allowed. Too big to be cute or stylish.
I’m not though — my body is perfect the way it is. But damn if those racks and racks of clothing don’t trigger a deep sense of inadequacy and shame. I don’t even enter an H&M, whose sizes run small, because I know how I’ll walk out feeling. When I realize my belly’s big from diabetes (inherited, not Western-diseased by food and inactivity, thank you) and I can’t button a certain size of pants, I want to cry. I begin to hate the skin I’m in, which is a horrible, horrible way to feel.
They do this to us, ladies. It’s so bad that Susan Dunn, one of the lead researchers who conducted the International Journal of Fashion Design study, says that by telling women a size 16 is normal, “We hope that this information can get out and be used by industry and consumers alike. Just knowing where the average is can help a lot of women with their self image.” She continues, “And we hope that the apparel industry can see the numbers and know that these women aren’t going away, they aren’t going to disappear, and they deserve to have clothing. That the clothing should fit well, both in style and measurements, and be available elsewhere than back corners or solely online is still a controversial topic. Why?”
Why should women like Rebecca, Stephanie, Mallory, and Sophie be forced into dark corners? They are loud. They are beautiful. They are wonderful, amazing, proud women who are perfect the way they are — yes, perfect. No concern trolling, please, these women are wonderful and healthy. They should be in the spotlight, front and center, in dresses that flatter them, not your Nana’s muumuu. They all manage to dress flatteringly and beautifully. But it’s a huge struggle to find the clothes, to afford the clothes, to not feel like shit while you’re buying the clothes.
And it shouldn’t be.
I hope the fashion industry is starting to pay attention. Big women are here, we have money, and we want to spend it. Help us out.