What’s The Deal With Australian Brands Ignoring Plus Size Women?

Chloe Papas is a writer, journalist and prodigious eater based in Perth.

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Approx 8 minute reading time

Please note that for the purposes of this article, I am focusing on people who identify as women.

I spent a fair bit of time crying in store change rooms as a teenager. Usually it was on the eve of an event or a job interview, as I tried to pull a shirt down over my boobs or yank a pair of jeans past my thighs. Sometimes, it was because a fitting assistant had clucked sadly at me, or suggested that I try the plus size store up the road that catered to women in their twilight years. Most of the time, it was because I was frustrated with myself for not being the ‘right’ size.

These days, I only cry at regular things – sad movies, happy movies, rescue dog videos. Frustrated fitting room tears aren’t on my radar anymore, and my access to clothing has significantly improved due to the wonderful world wide web and the run-on effect of the body positive movement. But, one thing hasn’t changed: I still can’t shop at the stores that I wanted to shop at as a teenager.

Ask any fat woman, and she’ll have the same story. She’s experienced judgement from store assistants, spent what feels like a lifetime in the accessories section, and she’s silently fumed when standard sized friends have complained about finding the perfect dress. She doesn’t want to be pitied, or fawned over, or catered for in any sort of ‘special’ way – she just wants to be able to buy some goddamn clothes.

Elle Lithgow is a plus size fashion Instagrammer based in Melbourne, and she believes that the decision by most major Australian brands to ignore plus sizes is damaging to those who fall into the category. “There is nothing more damaging than a 15-year-old going shopping and buying a pair of men’s pants while your best friend buys the skinny jeans,” she says.

Happy Halloween!! Loved my fat mermaid costume for my 30th Halloween Birthday Party! #plussizehalloween

A photo posted by Elyse “Elle” Lithgow (@ellecurve) on

It’s very strange and frustrating to have your style dictated by a handful of retailers and designers. For many years, my fashion choices weren’t really choices at all – I just bought whatever would fit. Elle agrees, and comments that before online brands and the plus size movement arrived, she rarely felt – for lack of a better word – “normal. I was never comfortable with my body, because I wasn’t expressing myself.”

These thoughts were echoed by a highly unscientific poll I conducted in a Facebook group full of fat Australian women. They cited affordability as the biggest barriers to plus size fashion, closely followed by a lack of options (one response: “why must we sweat in acrylic for the sin of being fat in the tropics?!”), not being able to pop down to the local shops and pick up an outfit, and the difficulties surrounding access to ethically created clothing.

Australian brands, where you at?

The average Australian store stocks up to a size 16-18 in women’s clothing. We know that Australian sizing is inconsistent at best, and there is very little credible data out there on how many women fall into the category of plus size – or even what constitutes plus size. I’m currently around a size 20, and if I wandered down to my local Westfield right now, I could shop at five stores: Target, Myer, and a couple of plus size-specific stores – at least two of which are targeted at women over 45. If I tried boutiques or designer stores, the results would be the same.

Australian writer Brodie Lancaster recently wrote about the hypocrisy of designer brands when it comes to plus sizes, and she believes that there are major misconceptions around cost and audience.

“There’s a bend in the logic regarding plus-size women buying designer fashion; more expensive clothes should be investments, but our bodies are supposed to be temporary,” she told The Vocal. “I think the weight loss and fashion industries intersect at the point where they assume anyone who wears plus-size clothes has a goal to lose weight, and then they will start spending more on clothes and become a valuable customer.”

So, are the standard sized brands that we see in the average shopping centre being lazy, discriminatory, or do they genuinely not know that the market is out there? I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I got in touch with six major brands – some, that I would have loved to shop at as a teenager, some that I would still love to spend my money on now. I emailed each brand, and gently asked why they don’t currently stock plus sizes, and if they had plans to do so in the future. Here are the responses:

fashion

(Can someone start a petition for plus size Gorman right this very minute? Editor note: yes, see action below)

Money and ethics

When it comes to finances, the problem is twofold. For those fat women that have money to spend, there are few places to burn it. For those who don’t have much to spend, the options are even slimmer (pun intended) when it comes to clothing access. Plus size clothing is often marked up both online and in stores, and even though there are some great independent and designer plus brands out there, their prices are high.

Until a few months ago, two of the biggest online retailers for plus size clothing – ASOS and Boohoo – were sneakily charging more for bigger sizes on some items that were available in plus and standard sizes. If you head to an in store brand like City Chic – who are the only major Australian retailer exclusively catering for younger plus size women – you won’t find a shirt or dress for under $70. If you’re looking for cheap basics, forget about it; there’s no Cotton On equivalent for fat women.

One of the biggest claims by brands is that bigger clothing means more material, which equates to higher costs. So, why don’t size 12 women pay more than size 6 women? And should fat women pay more to prop up the ‘niche’ industry?  This piece from Project Runway’s Tim Gunn illustrates the problem perfectly: “There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.”

Gunn focuses on the American market, but I’ve little doubt that if research was conducted in Australia (and perhaps it’s telling that it hasn’t been) the stats would be similar. The market is there, the money is there, and the women are there – it’s the designers and brands that refuse to come to the party. And why? Elle puts it simply: “They’re discriminating because they don’t want their clothes seen on a fat person.”

And, what about shopping for clothing that is made well, under humane conditions, and even locally? “If I had any other options I would shop ethically, but I just don’t. There are some decisions I would love to make about fashion that thinner people get to make all the time – organic, ethically made, Australian made,” explains Elle. “Those are all things that are important to me, but I just don’t have the options available to be who I am and express myself through fashion, and be mindful of those things.”

Online revolution and plus size movement

It wasn’t until I started following plus size bloggers on Instagram that I began to occasionally think that maybe my body wasn’t just a big hideous nuisance. That perhaps it was worthy of nice clothing and being treated well, and that maybe I didn’t need to think of it as something that I would definitely, probably, change ‘for the better’ one day.

“That’s the reason that I got to where I am – seeing other people who looked like me liking themselves, and I thought, well they actually look great, so maybe I can look great,” says Elle. For those of us who have been lucky enough to find online or physical communities that promote self-love and acceptance, things are slowly changing.

But what about the women who haven’t found these communities? “Those women are where I was 10 years ago where being fat was awful, and you are constantly trying to look thin and blend into the walls,” says Elle. “I know plus size women who don’t even go into certain stores if they don’t do their size, because they’re embarrassed, because they think the people working there will judge them.”

This is perhaps the most damaging and devastating part of this issue. By shutting people out of stores, by refusing to give fat people access to the same options as everyone else, brands are feeding the notion that fat equals bad. That fat people don’t deserve clothing, that fat people should strive for thinner, smaller bodies. That fat people’s bodies aren’t worthy of fast fashion or designer clothing or anything in between.  

What do we want?

When I think about my 14-year-old self thumbing through clothing racks for anything in my size (around a size 14 at that stage), pretending to be fascinated by accessories, and feeling embarrassed to go shopping with friends, all I want is for her to be able to have the same options as her standard sized friends. Despite the anger or disinterest I feel now when it comes to brands that are ignorant and discriminatory, a big part of me still wishes that they would suddenly do an about-turn, if only to cater for the new generation of young girls and women who are feeling ignored.

Social attitudes and conversation need to change, but unfortunately, that element of the fight will take time. So, what do plus size women want, right now? What would make a difference? Lean in, and listen closely. “I just want to wear what everyone else is wearing but in my size,” says Elle, laughing wryly. “I don’t want a pity version of something. I don’t want brands to give me the crap stuff from their standard sizing in my size in a mumu – it’s just insulting.”

Take some action

Gorman says they're open to extending their sizing offering if the demand is there

  Tell Gorman the demand is there #MakeGormanPlusSizePlease