I’m tired of buying clothes I don’t even like just because they’re still the only options I have.
Straight-size shoppers don’t know about fat safety net stores. The term belongs to the increasingly few stores in malls and shopping centers where fat people like me can shop. They are the places we feel fleeting confidence we’ll find some clothing we’ll fit in, even if it’s ugly or has a cheugy “Too Cool 4 U” saying splashed across it. Until recently, Forever 21 was a steadfast fat safety net of mine. On a recent mall trip, I made my way up the store’s steps and headed toward the very back, looking for its plus-size section. I took a mental inventory of every section I saw: athleisure, men’s, sale, underwear, sale (again), kids. No plus sizes. So I went back downstairs, thinking I’d missed it, and circled that floor, too. The plus-size options were gone. I caught sight of my straight-size girlfriend hovering by the entrance, hangers of trendy new arrivals piled high over her arm.
There are 76 stores in the mall I visited; about half sell apparel. I’d struck out at Forever 21, but I knew of only one other store where I could shop: Macy’s, another fat safety net store. I circled every floor in that store, too, checking overhead section markers and digging into individual racks to check size tags. I guess you could say I found something, but what I found were clothes that looked like this:
I didn’t have to comb through those racks to know what was there. Peplum tops. Poorly made peasant skirts. Splotchy, faded blue tie-dye. Black. Cold shoulders. Ugly florals. Oversized tunics. Tummy control. A stupid amount of handkerchief hemlines. There were no cute crop tops. No trendy denim. No colorful swimsuits. Not one item like the thousands of other cute clothes packed into every other square inch of the store. Instead, everything on those racks reflected how I felt looking at them: like absolute sh*t.
So I left the store and started walking toward nothing in particular, blinded by the dejection, rage, and defeat brewing inside me. Swathes of people brushed past me, completely oblivious to my tears, which came down harder when I realized the worst part of it all: I was crying in a f*cking mall.
Plus-size people are consistently subjected to downright humiliating experiences with in-store associates, are almost always relegated to a few cramped square feet at the back of a store, and have been burned constantly by brands producing ill-fitting plus-size clothing to make a quick buck. It’s not that I was shocked by my own recent experience — far from it. Twenty years of pretending to be hyper-fixated on accessories while my friends try on clothes served as preparation. But for all the apparent “strides” the fashion industry claims it’s made in plus-size fashion and the amount of brands shouting “size inclusivity” from the rooftops, I couldn’t even rely on my two comfort stores for options that didn’t make me feel bad about myself or look like rejects from the Les Mis costume department. I couldn’t rely on them for plus-size options at all.
Alienated as I felt, some plus-size person somewhere else was likely experiencing that same exact feeling at that same exact moment. Ellen Scatena, 28, says the Forever 21 near her also did away with its plus-size section, apparently adding a little girls’ section and a large men’s section instead. Multiple Reddit users have posted about plus-size sections disappearing from their local Forever 21s as far back as two years ago.
“Forever 21 is committed to providing customers accessible fashion to inspire unique style and confidence in all sizes at an affordable price. Our inclusive sizing philosophy is rooted in creating a positive shopping experience for our customers regardless of size. In 2020, under new ownership, we conducted an extensive audit of existing collections and are excited to share that we are in the process of evolving and improving key parts of our business, specifically our plus assortment,” a spokesperson for the brand says in a statement to Elite Daily. “As we rebuild our plus business, we have brought on an entirely new team to help amplify our efforts in developing better products with improved fits, fabrications, and styles. Our goal is to expand our Plus offerings across all stores, but as we work toward evolving the plus size business, there may be some store locations where the product is not currently available. However, during this time we are offering a full assortment online, including our new Moxi Collection, and provide free shipping and returns to all stores.”
Forever 21 filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but it isn’t the only fashion brand walking back its plus-size offerings. (The brand does still offer extended sizes online.) When brick-and-mortar stores first closed and consumers started spending less on clothing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, fashion brands were (and still are) forced to cut costs. Unfortunately, for plus-size consumers, plus-size lines were (and still are) often the first to go. Loft, which launched plus sizes in 2018, pulled sizes above an 18 in March 2021, drawing intense scrutiny from the plus-size community and body-positive activists. (Earlier in July 2020, Loft’s former parent company Ascena Retail Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, selling Loft, plus-size staple Lane Bryant, and its other subsidiaries to the controversial Sycamore Partners. More than 150 Lane Bryant stores closed as a result.)
Plus-size brand Ryllace only launched in September 2019 and quietly shut down in September 2020. M.M.LaFleur, which introduced extended sizes mid-2017, announced to its customers via email in February 2020 that it, too, would cease production on any new plus-size styles. “[T]he truth is that we’ve been struggling to sell enough of our plus-size clothing to offset the cost of producing it,” founder Sarah LaFleur reportedly wrote in an email to customers, citing difficulties with the production and design processes.
Other brands have similarly attributed the “difficulty” with plus sizes to fabric costs, limited resources, and unmet goals as reasons why they’ve shuttered their plus lines. This mindset places the onus on the plus-size consumer to blindly purchase whatever a brand decides to offer — and to purchase it quickly — rather than on the brand to produce quality options rooted in realistic monetary expectations. “We need to give the plus consumer time to shop and time to know that they exist in these stores,” plus-size model Hunter McGrady told InStyle in March 2021. “A lot of brands will cut plus sizes before consumers even know that they exist at these brands.”
Tried-and-true e-commerce sites like Asos, Nasty Gal, and Eloquii remain the default, where there are (usually) more options and less potential for disaster. “I solely do my shopping online because it saves me the potential embarrassment of the store not carrying my size,” says 21-year-old Casey Clark. “Even if they do, [shopping online] saves the pain of going into the changing room and having the piece not fit or look extremely unflattering.”
While online plus-size shopping may have become the de facto preference for many, it’s still its own unreliable beast. Jasmine Paulino, 25, no longer shops for clothes in-store. “I have to resort to online shopping, which can be a hassle when [you] constantly have to return items that don’t fit or don’t look how they appear online,” she says. It doesn’t help that brands that do carry plus sizes don’t always carry those sizes in physical locations. “I only shop in-person when I’m returning things at Old Navy and perhaps see something that catches my eye,” says Hannah Caldwell, 26, “but even then, they don’t have all the sizes on the floor.”
You’d think plus-size people could at least rely on exclusively plus-size brands to deliver clothing we’re excited about, but even that’s not a given. Luxury plus-size clothing brand 11 Honoré recently came under fire for its disappointing collaboration with actor Lena Dunham, an interesting choice given the several other celebrities — Lizzo, Ashley Graham, Gabourey Sidibe — who’ve been championed as body-positive and plus-size role models. Aside from the offensive comments Dunham delivered in a New York Times interview about the collection, the self-proclaimed “inclusive” collection only offers up to a size 26 and prices out a huge chunk of plus-size shoppers.
“Over the years as the plus-size and inclusive market has grown, most of the offering has been in the lower to mid price point,” Danielle Eke, 11 Honoré design director, said in a statement to Tmrw following the backlash. “11 Honoré wanted to speak to a different customer who had a little more money to spend and was looking for quality over quantity. The contemporary and designer market has ignored the plus-size community, and we are here to disrupt that.” As further disappointment, the five-item collection bears a striking resemblance to the sack shirts, lifeless colors, and handkerchief hemlines plus-size shoppers are tired of seeing, both IRL and online.
To Scatena, these oversized, tired styles represent a complete disregard for, and an aversion to, plus-size bodies. “The majority of plus-size clothes... generally look like something that can be worn to bed. The most used designs are generally a peplum top, shirts with some type of sleeve, or longer A-line dresses and skirts that hit at or below the knee,” she says. “We’re told these designs ‘compliment our bodies’ when, really, they’re just mechanisms for covering up the parts of our bodies that society deems most unacceptable, such as our bellies, thick thighs with cellulite, bigger arms, etc. Don’t even get me started on the fact that ... many plus-size-exclusive brands offer childish patterns, like stars, hearts, and Disney characters.” Fat activist Devon Elizabeth even started a humorous TikTok series in which she investigates whether a piece of clothing is sleepwear or actually plus-size fashion. The joke is no one can tell, not even plus-size shoppers themselves. But that doesn’t make it funny.
“I always feel like I’m settling. It’s extremely rare that I find clothes that I truly love that look amazing on my body, and I’m so tired of it,” says 31-year-old Rachel Rowan. Paulino agrees. “It’s extremely frustrating to see that the new arrivals and most updated styles do not exist in larger sizes.”
To 23-year-old Gianluca Russo, fashion writer and co-creator of digital size-inclusivity community The Power of Plus, the lack of variety speaks volumes about how dismissive the fashion industry really is of plus-size consumers. “The industry at large views plus-size shoppers as a monolith rather than a spectrum of humans, which has caused them to believe we only have one type of style, rather than the same diversity of style that straight sizes have,” he says. “I think places like Fashion to Figure have done a good job at honing in on who, exactly, their customer is within the plus-size market, which is obviously not the same as QVC’s shopper. But too many brands don’t understand this at all.”
So, how does a brand begin to better understand plus-size consumers? Ensuring plus-size people are the ones making decisions is a good place to start. A concerted effort to research and appeal to the nuances of fat bodies also feels like an obvious route to pursue. “At its most basic level, that [effort] looks like understanding that proportions of larger bodies are varied and differ wildly from those of straight-size bodies,” says Paulino. Caldwell wants to see more height diversity in plus-size options as well: “I’m 5-foot-3 and a 16-18, and I feel like most plus-size clothes are made for people 5-foot-7 and over.” For brands listening, a simple size-up with proportions equal to the sample size doesn’t cut it. “Plus-size bodies often need more support in some places and more space or stretch in others,” says 27-year-old Veronica Lopez, dating editor at Elite Daily. “It’s not enough for something to just ‘fit’; it can ‘fit’ and still look bad.”
The resounding answer is variety, in plus-size brands, in sizes, and in offerings. Do this, and plus-size consumers like me might find joy in shopping again — in shopping toward the front of the store, in piling as many hangers over their arms as they can carry, in deciding between five different cute shirts that all fit and fit well, in leaving the store with shopping bags instead of tears.