TikTokers are exposing the ‘dark side’ of plus-size fashion: ‘Brands want our money but don’t want to see us’

In a rather biting TikTok videoDevon Elizabeth scrolls through H&M’s website, tallying up the number of Mickey Mouse garments marketed to plus-size shoppers.

“Not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE pieces of clothing with Mickey Mouse that are not sleepwear,” the 29-year-old law school student counts.

As for daywear options featuring the character available for straight-size women? Just one — a striking comparison, Elizabeth notes, considering that on average, H&M offers over 5,000 articles of clothing for straight-size women and carries just around 350 items for plus-size women.

Then, Elizabeth swiftly pivots her focus to another major name in the plus-size fashion world.

“We can’t be discussing brands’ insistence that plus-size shoppers crave Disney characters on their clothes without discussing the main offender — Torrid,” she says in the video, before showcasing fourteen garments and accessories emblazoned with Mickey Mouse listed on the company’s website.

“The industry is choosing fatphobia over profit”

The shortcomings of retailers in regards to plus-size fashion have been lamented by shoppers for years.

As brands continue to push toward greater size equity, many consumers are finding that the style, design (sorry, Mickey), and quality of plus-size clothing on the market pale in comparison to the more stylish options widely available to straight-size customers, who can freely shop for trendy clothing, while plus-size shoppers are often confined to buying wrap dresses, cartoon T-shirts, and, of course, billowy, shapeless garments.

Elizabeth told In The Know that she first started experiencing the “dark side” of plus-size shopping when she began fitting into a size 18. She quickly realized that although 70% of women in the U.S. are a size 14 or higher, most stores were only offering up to a size 16 — and the few options they did carry were seriously lacking for one reason or another.

“The industry is choosing fatphobia over profit,” she explained. “Plus-size women are expected to cover and hide their bodies as much as possible, and so much of that is reflected in the options available.”

“For young plus-size shoppers, this is incredibly frustrating,” she added. “We want fashion-forward, edgy, sexy, clothes and the options we are provided are giving us early-bird special.”

“There is still so much missing”

The problem is prevalent enough that Elizabeth, who regularly creates body acceptance and fat liberation content on TikTok, has an entire series where she asks her over 308,000 followers to guess whether a garment is “sleepwear” or “just plus-size fashion.” (Hint: The answer will surprise you.) 

Elizabeth, who describes fashion as one of her favorite pastimes, says she got the idea for her series after scrolling through ASOS’s plus-size section and realizing that “item after item looked like pajamas.” She visited a few other websites and realized the problem was more widespread than most would imagine.

“It made me think about how plus-size women are constantly given leisurewear and sleepwear and told it is our fashion,” she explained. “So, I decided to ask people if they could tell the difference (between daywear and pajamas) — and so many could not. I just wanted to challenge the way people think about plus-size fashion, and I found that comedy was the best way to do that.”

Sarah Jane Kelly, a 27-year-old plus-size model and content creator from Australia, frequently posts on TikTok to bring attention to similar issues she has encountered while shopping for clothing. As she watched her follower count balloon to over 87,000, she quickly realized she was not the only one plagued by these issues.

“I started using social media to keep myself accountable on my journey to self-acceptance and recovery,” she told In The Know. “Suddenly, there is this whole online community around me who have the same frustrations.”

Although Kelly noted that plus-size fashion has come a long way over the past decade or so, she, like Elizabeth, still feels that companies have a tendency to sell shoppers the same few options over and over again — like, say, floral wrap dresses, which she jokingly called “the bane of my existence.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I love a good floral wrap dress,” Kelly clarified. “But I’d also like on-trend clothes and options that don’t look like my mother’s wardrobe.”

“For so long plus-size options have always been florals, wrap dresses, tent-like smock dresses or outrageously loud prints,” she added. “I’m lucky that my generation has had more options in brands like Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova. But there is still so much missing.”

“Brands want our money but don’t want to see us or deal with us”

Beyond struggles with limited styles and options, plus-size customers are also finding that their sizes can cost double what straight sizes are sold for, part of the insidious phenomenon dubbed the “fat tax”.

“Plus-size shoppers are the majority group with access to a minority of clothes,” Elizabeth explained. “More people going for fewer options means brands that do cater to plus-size shoppers set high prices for low-quality clothes, knowing full well we only have so many options. These high price points for low- to mid-quality clothes are even worse when considering the fact fat women are often paid less than their thin counterparts. Paid less to spend more. The cycle is exhausting.”

Adding insult to injury, the pricier plus-size options are often only available online and not in stores. This robs consumers of the chance to try them on before purchasing. Some brands have even been caught using thin models to advertise plus fashion, making virtual shopping nearly impossible.

“As a plus-size model, I see this first hand, especially when a brand does have extended sizing but only uses a size 8 model,” Kelly noted. “I can’t relate to that because it’s not going to look like that on my body.”

Elizabeth echoed the concern, noting that most women modeling plus-size clothes “have flat stomachs and the classic hourglass shape” and do not represent the look of an average consumer. 

“For a majority of plus-size shoppers, this gives us no idea whatsoever what that item of clothing would like on an actual fat, big-bellied, plus-size body,” she explained. “I have come to rely heavily on companies that offer free returns for this reason.”

“It feels like brands want our money but don’t want to see us or deal with us,” Elizabeth added.

“Extending sizes requires additional investment”

The demands of plus-size shoppers like Kelly and Elizabeth are relatively simple: they want on-trend options created with their bodies in mind.

“We want color, we want diversity, we want recent trends,” Elizabeth told In The Know. “If we are paying high prices, we want the quality reflected in high price points. We want stores in the mall. We want models that reflect the majority of plus-size bodies. We want brands to invest the time and money into making clothes that understand fat bodies. We want fat designers dictating the clothes made for fat bodies.”

And the two women are certainly not alone. Market research by The NPD Group in 2018 found that the plus-size market in the U.S. alone is growing at nearly twice the rate of the overall apparel market, suggesting a “bright area of opportunity” within retail.

With so many plus-size shoppers ready to hand their hard-earned money to whichever brand can best fulfill their needs, the decision to put more time and effort into extended clothing sizes seems like a no-brainer. So why aren’t more brands racing to break into this underserved market?

Elyse Kaye, the founder and CEO of Bloom Bras, which carries sizes 28C through 56L, says the issue stems from most brands’ hesitance to negatively impact their financials — even temporarily, and with the prospect of a subsequent boom in business — for the sake of keeping investors happy.

“The major brands just know it is not how they have traditionally made money,” Kaye told In The Know. “(Expanding sizes) means working with different materials … and changing up their entire marketing (strategy). They have been selling the same styles for decades … Doubling their inventory and trying to bring in a new customer base, even if it is over half of the population, would hurt their bottom line and investors.”

Nadia Boujarwah, the CEO and co-founder of Dia & Co., a fashion retailer that sells sizes 10-32, shared similar concerns.

“Like any business expansion, extending sizes requires additional investment,” Boujarwah explained. “In the case of inclusive sizing, developing well-fitting garments over a larger size range, holding inventory in more sizes and marketing to a new group of customers, all require capital.”

However, Boujarwah added that these obstacles are certainly not “insurmountable,” as long as brands are willing to consider extending their sizes a venture worthy of a substantial investment and the financial risk that naturally comes with it.

“We believe that inclusive fashion is a team sport, and many of these costs can be shared through partnerships, making it possible even for brands that may have more limited resources,” she said.

Still, for companies who can master the new format, there is a potentially massive reward.

Kaye — whose company used real plus-size women instead of straight-size models to engineer a bra that truly suits their customers’ needs — called Bloom Bras’ decision to invest in a product designed for a majority of women in the U.S. a “homerun for longevity.”

“If you get the story and the product line right, women will invest,” she told In The Know. “Studies have shown that if she feels good in the product, she will come back and buy multiple. I am blown away that investors cannot see that.”

“We need to send the message that all bodies are appreciated”

The need for brands to create size equity within their fashion lines extends far beyond any individual consumer’s desire to purchase trendy clothing. 

Jillian Walsh, a registered dietitian and the founder of Change Creates Change Eating Disorder Care, explained that major brands’ constant neglect of plus-size customers could have “adverse effects” on the mental health of individuals in larger bodies. 

“When brands continue to fail to meet the needs of plus-size shoppers, it sends a message that those with larger bodies are not valued in the same way that straight-sized bodies are,” she told In The Know. “We need to send the message that all bodies are appreciated, valued and that our worth is not tied to our size.”

Walsh implored the individuals making executive decisions regarding size equity to take a moment to empathize with consumers and listen to their needs, rather than simply creating a few low-quality plus-size options and calling it a day. 

“These sizes need to be represented in the stores, not hidden in a limited availability online,” she said. “Folks need to feel represented, and inclusivity needs to be celebrated within the fashion industry.”

“They would be shocked at what we are faced with”

Although it has some significant issues, the plus-size fashion landscape isn’t entirely bleak, and the strides made over the past few years certainly cast a hopeful outlook on the future of expanded sizing. 

The pandemic dealt a painful blow to plus-size brands, as it did to most retailers, but size-inclusive retailers like Dia & Co. and Bloom Bras continue to offer reason to remain hopeful. 

Elizabeth believes that exposing size inequity within the fashion industry, like she, Kelly, and countless other creators have been doing on social media, is a great place to start.

She also feels that a little bit of empathy on the part of straight-size shoppers would go a long way in the fight toward greater size equity and even recommended a way to practice just that. 

“There has been this great trend on TikTok of plus-size creators asking thin viewers to go to their local mall and try to find an outfit they would want to wear in a size 20,” Elizabeth said. “I think if people took the time to shop through the lens of a plus-size woman, they would be shocked at what we are faced with.”

If you found this story insightful, read about why we need to stop using “fat” as an insult.

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