The disparity between average women's bodies and the bodies served by the fashion industry has been widely acknowledged for decades.

Changing the shape of fashion

The new power of the plus-sized market—By Cat Ashton

In the fall of 2011, at the One of a Kind Show in Toronto, I entered one of the clothing booths in the hope of finding a Christmas present for my mother. As I began to look over colourful sweaters and patchwork hoodies, the booth owner quickly moved to intercept me. “We don’t have anything for you here,” he said. Mortified, I slunk away; the anger came later.

Most thin women react with horror and outrage when they hear that story. Recently, I shared it, over coffee, with a friend of comparable size. She said, “The thing is, every larger woman has a story like that.”

It was first pointed out to me that I was fat when I was five. Although it took me more than thirty years to accept that I could be happy, healthy, and fit nonetheless, I gave up on the prospect of beauty very early on: when I was thirteen, I stopped wearing skirts and makeup, and began to wear jeans and t-shirts exclusively. By the time I learned from friends that it was possible to be fat and beautiful, fat and sexy, fat and immaculately turned out, those things had been presented to me as impossible for so long that I had lost interest in being any of them.

The disparity between average women’s bodies and the bodies served by the fashion industry has been widely acknowledged for decades. Sizes 0, 00, and the new 000, with the latter corresponding to the waist size of a (presumably thin) six-year-old child, are not duplicated in men’s clothing. Runway models have tended to be sizes 0 to 4. Meanwhile, the average North American woman is between size 12 and 14.

Why larger women have been largely invisible in an industry where there is clearly money to be made from them is unclear, although Mariana Leung notes that there are practical challenges. She points out, “Merely sizing up from [a size 2-4] into larger sizes would be treating a plus-size customer like a rectangle—flattering no one. There have been plenty of companies who try, and the clothing ultimately does not sell because the fit is awful. The executives then conclude that they do not have a significant plus-size customer base and then refuse to invest in it.” Creating flattering clothes in larger sizes under current production conditions, she says, requires extra time, personnel, and labour.

However, Leung reports that the internet has gradually not only made larger women visible to clothing designers, but convinced them that serving the needs these women is worth the extra effort. She says, “Full-figured fashionistas were one of the most successful groups of influencers at the outset of fashion blogging.” A robust online community of women who are prepared to share their needs with clothing designers and spread the word about brands that cater to them, and who perhaps more importantly resist the negative valuation of fat bodies, appears to have made a significant impact on the industry. Indeed, as “plus-size” models Robin Lawley and Ashley Graham grace the pages of Sports Illustrated, and Tess Holliday, founder of the #effyourbeautystandards campaign, becomes the largest model to be signed by a major agency, it’s beginning to look like we’ve passed a tipping point in women’s fashion.

One of the issues around which this demographic has rallied is the #droptheplus campaign, which advocates for the removal of the “plus size” label. A recurring criticism is that “plus size” is naturally othering; that it arbitrarily places one group of women outside of the “normal” continuum of sizes, even though the fashion world’s ideas of “normal” size are out of touch with reality. Another is that built into the “plus size” label are misconceptions about the nature of plusness: Brittany Goldfield Rodrigues writes that merely scaling up the proportions of “straight” sizes simply does not accommodate the full range of body types. She notes, “The amount of times I’ve tried on a top and hoped that there was a little less fabric in the arm, or had more fabric in the bust area are countless. Plus-sizes are supposed to accommodate for those who aren’t flattered by straight sizes, not idealize plus-size women as having the same proportions.” Adds Leung, “full-figured shoppers could be very busty, pear-shaped or muscular.”

Indeed, as “plus-size” models Robin Lawley and Ashley Graham grace the pages of Sports Illustrated, and Tess Holliday, founder of the #effyourbeautystandards campaign, becomes the largest model to be signed by a major agency, it’s beginning to look like we’ve passed a tipping point in women’s fashion.

Kristin Chirico and Sheridan Watson point out that the problems of conflating a number of body types under the term “plus size” are exacerbated by the fact that many of the fashionable clothes targeted to larger women can only be purchased online, meaning that there is no way to check the fit of a garment. This they illustrate in a photo spread showing how clothes that fit a “plus size” model perfectly do not look the same on their two very different “plus size” bodies. Chirico says of one outfit, “I love when things are simultaneously too big and too small. I don’t even know what to do about that—like, sorry I inconvenienced you with the distribution of my fat?” More succinctly, Watson adds, “Pray for me in my time of polyester need.”

Although Mariana Leung does not explicitly advocate dropping the term “plus-size,” part of her prescription for the fashion industry involves dropping plus sizes as a cognitive category, advising, “have design teams work from the initial concept direction at the same time to prioritize all size ranges”. Lane Bryant, an online women’s clothing retailer that sells sizes 14 to 28, no longer uses the term “plus size.” Nor does Boutique Monroe, a Montreal storefront retailer that sells sizes 8 to 18 and emphasizes body positivity and beauty on one’s own terms. And ethnographer Lauren Peters marks as a triumph Time Out New York’s 2012 interview with New York fashion blogger Nicolette Mason (who in Peters’ ethnographic study of “plus-size” consumers of fashion is given the pseudonym “Carine”). The interviewers make no mention of Mason’s “plus-size” status, “or even so much as refer to her as ‘curvy.'” Peters notes, “Practicing what she preaches to her readership, [Mason]’s primary goal via her blog is to erode some of those definitions that have pigeonholed plus-size women’s fashion for so long, and which made her feel so alienated in her youth.” By resisting an identity as a plus-sized fashion advocate, Mason has been able to work with major designers and brands to develop clothing that fits a greater range of bodies.

There is, naturally, resistance, with Fox News’ Diana Falzone characterizing the #droptheplus campaign as a proposed ban, and asserting that some other category would have to take its place. But arguably this kind of protest misses the point: that there is a growing acknowledgement that size exists on a continuum, and arbitrarily setting some sizes apart serves no one. More salient is the criticism, by body positivity activist Jess Baker, that Lane Bryant’s new #ImNoAngel campaign, which in turn critiques Victoria’s Secret’s very small “angel” models, still depicts models with “the traditional hourglass” figure and “a flat belly,” who are thus not fully representative of all body types. Baker respectfully offers a set of alternative photographs, featuring models with a greater diversity of body forms, under the hashtag #EmpowerALLBodies. She writes, in an open letter to the CEO of Lane Bryant, “Hopefully these can be a game changer for you. Now, I realize that you are a company with financial motives (and that change is often met with resistance), but if you’re truly interested in empowering all women and joining the body positive conversation, I strongly suggest you consider widening your definition of sexy. […] I want to be clear: the models you chose are not wrong or unworthy of being photographed. They’re beautiful, they exist in the real world, they are valuable and I’m so happy that some identify with their presence. But they are not the whole story.”

After I had told my humiliating One of a Kind (but sadly not one-of-a-kind) story to my friend over coffee, she told me a different one, a better one. “I was at Yonge and Queen today,” she said, “and I saw the most beautiful woman. She had my build, and she was wearing a black dress with white polka dots, with a white blazer, all perfectly tailored and clearly expensive, and she finished it off with black leggings and white shoes with black patent toes. It was all very Chanel. She was standing in the heart of Toronto’s fashion district and she totally looked like she belonged there. Beautifully coiffed hair. She just looked fabulous. Five years ago she would have stood out for different reasons.”

Cat Ashton has a BA and an MA from York University, and has worked as a baker’s assistant, a chocolatier, a library assistant, a university teacher, a communications officer, a graduate assistant, an event manager’s assistant, a recycling sorter, a science fiction author, a conference organizer, and a researcher. She currently works as a machine operator and freelance writer, and lives in Toronto with her beloved.

Illustration by Amy Higgins, a recent graduate from Norwich University of the Arts. Her work features painted, paper-cut collage which she assembles into 2D compositions and 3D objects. Check out more of her recent work,

Share Tweet about this on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Google+ Google+ Email to someone
TAGS /Body Image / fashion and culture /