Invisible Bodies is a short term column by Natasha Matila-Smith, here is part two.
Even with a high demand and disposable income, it seems that very few companies are willing to sell big women a product that they are happy with. In 2014, the US plus-size women’s market brought in approximately ten billion dollars, yet consumer requests for more variety (in body sizing and clothing options) have been largely ignored.
Sure, there are plus-size lines in chain stores but they lack the range of the average-size clothing line. Kmart has an appalling range of stretchy leggings, bejeweled t-shirts with Paris written on them and little in between. Lots of sleeveless flowy loose shirts, kaftans, print maxi-dresses and off-tint mullet tops. Not everyone wants to dress like they are going on a boat cruise. It’s just a lot of the same. I’m also not aware of any women who want to feel like the options presented to them are an after-thought dependent upon the availability of cheap bulk polyester fabrics. Even Beth Ditto, who is well-known for their punk flamboyant way of dress, created a boring plus-size line with well-known fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier (JPG). With many pieces lacking the same personality and innovation that the singer and the fashion designer JPG are famous for.
‘Plus-size’ is already an exclusionary term that presents bigger women as abnormal. For the purpose of this piece, when I say ‘bigger’ or ‘fat’ I refer to sizes that are not found in most stores – by industry standards this is size 14 and over. Healthy body or not, fashion as it is now, suggests to people above a certain clothing size that their bodies are unacceptable. It’s almost like an unspoken intervention from a social and corporate level body-shaming big women into losing weight. Finding clothes that are ‘flattering for your body type’ is another form of body-shaming as it implies that only certain clothing is aesthetically acceptable on your body.
Why does society care so much about what big women wear? Is it because they are concerned that these women in charge of their own bodies are promoting an unhealthy lifestyle? Or because society are full of overly health conscious people that make assumptions about a person’s health based on their weight? I’ve never met a stranger that was genuinely concerned for my health. Nor have I ever felt the need to diet based on insults.
In some respects, there has been some progress in plus-size representation. There has been a steady rise of fashion labels releasing plus-size lines – H & M, Asos Curve, Forever 21 and Boohoo. Ultimately many companies are bowing down to the pressure of high demand and a literally growing market. As body shapes change, so too does the need for bigger clothing options. In 2013 even Abercrombie & Fitch, a popular American brand had to offer a plus-size range. Initially CEO Mike Jeffries stated:
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
This attitude is very hard to shake but I guess demand and declining sales are too high to ignore. The fat kids might now be the cool attractive kids with great attitudes and a lot of friends. The fat un-cool kids are now a viable consumer with power.
The ability to self-publish content has most certainly played a part in creating diversity in an industry well known for its exclusivity. As a result of popular YouTube channels, Instagram accounts and blogs, plus-size figures have become more prominent and even celebrated. Fashion bloggers like Nadia Aboulhosn, Gabi Fresh (real name: Gabi Gregg) and The Curvy Fashionista (real name: Marie Denee) suddenly make it known that bigger women like to be creative through fashion while also demonstrating that people of diverse backgrounds can also be influential. Georgia Pratt, who is a New Zealand plus-size model, was at one point represented by Ford Models and then Muse Management in New York City. Other famous plus-size models like Tess Holliday, who is a US size 22 at 5”5, is one of the top six plus-size models in the world. That these women even exist in today’s market is indicative that a demand for diverse body types does indeed exist.
In New Zealand though, we are yet to really fully embrace plus-size women in fashion. The average sized woman is a size 14 to 16, and as 16 is the lower end of ‘plus-size’, why is there not more to choose from? The options we do have access to are typically aimed at 40+ age groups. There is stuff out there but it’s often dull or conservative. Alternatively, plus-size items are excessively decorated and dated (City Chic!). Yes, fashion is subjective, but really what plus-size women desire, is choice and not to be left out of a conversation they are financially contributing to.
Zambesi, World and many other New Zealand labels fail to think outside of the ‘thin’ box when it comes to models and brand representation. To put in perspective, World designer and co-founder Denise L’estrange-Corbet once commented that ‘clothes look better on skinny people’ when defending an emaciated Glassons mannequin. On a positive note, Miss Crabb and Penny Sage sell selected free-sized dresses that accommodate a wide range of body types however not a wide range of budgets. The excessive cost of being a big woman delivers yet another blow. At whatever price point, why don’t major fashion labels want the fat consumer’s money? Like I said, there is money to be made – plus-size women as a group could be a dominant consumer. People are willing to pay money for the desired product, but regardless of the logistics of patternmaking for big women, why isn’t there more effort to meet the needs of this clientele? It could be that society is still largely unaccepting of fat women and their bodies and to have a plus-size person representing your brand or even your clientele is seen as negative. So, plus-size remains a rather largely populated niche market with slim options.
In recent years, exposure of big/fat women in the media has provided incremental change in society’s attitudes of ‘plus-size’. While we still aren’t anywhere near parity in media representation and availability of choice, there are more options for plus-size women in fashion now than there have ever been. However, the othering of marginalised bodies through the policing of big women, continues to occur. As mentioned in the previous instalment, change will only come when we stop rehashing the old and make conscious efforts to have diverse voices in tired discourse regarding the body. The body positive movement insists that all bodies are good bodies and we should stop shutting out marginalised voices; we should specifically stop focussing on criticising bodies that are not our own.