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Plus-size fashion has come a long way within the last five years. Brands like 11 Honoré secured $10 million in funding from investors and announced they would now appear in Nordstrom. Larger retail brands like Anthropologie and Loft began to expand their size ranges to become “size-inclusive” - and for good reason. According to a report, the plus-sized fashion market was on target to be worth $31.9 billion in 2020 (prior to the coronavirus) and become one of the fastest-growing segments in apparel.
But for the average plus-size retailer, there’s been an evolution taking place within the plus-size fashion world. The term “inclusive sizing” has become synonymous with a brand that has offerings in all sizes, and has become a signal from brands to plus-size consumers: “You can join us!”
While brands across North America tout “inclusive sizing” as a new philosophy, you might be surprised to hear that many of those brands cease production at size 20 or 22.
In some respects, it’s great to see and hear about the brands expanding for the first time. Like so many in the plus community, expansion signals a wave of change.
But clicking through to many brand’s websites who publicly declare to be “size-inclusive” and then navigate through their size ranges online, you begin to see why there needs to be a larger discussion regarding access to clothes and the systemic oppression of fat people.
When brands proclaim they are “size inclusive” yet don’t ctively offer all sizing, they fail to centre the most marginalized, including individuals in the fat activism communities, classified as superfat (size 26 to 32) and infinifat (size 34 and above).
“It's actually probably one of my biggest pet peeves - the use of the word size-inclusive,” said Lisa Schoenberger, a Canadian influencer known as Mustangsallytwo. “I wish they would just stop using the word because it’s absolutely non-inclusive in more ways than one.”
For years, Schoenberger has struggled with finding a retailer that could truly cater to her fashion sense and size. She told Yahoo Canada how frustrating it has been to open emails from brands or witness online clothing launches touting themselves as fully inclusive — when they’re not.
Similar to the body positivity movement before it, Schoenberger feels like the term “inclusive sizing” is being increasingly used to sell products and believes retailers have turned to the plus-size fashion industry just to make money.
“They're trying to capitalize on our spending habits and our spending power when they have mostly ignored us,” she explained.
While many could argue that any kind of expansion is a step in the right direction, after years of actively ignoring customers larger than a size 12, Aisha Fairclough, co-founder of the Body Confidence Canada Awards said it’s not enough.
“It's not enough, it's unfair and it leaves a lot of people without dignity,” she said.
The reality is that for many people who exist in bodies above a size 22, they are, by and large, excluded and marginalized by fashion retailers the most. Influencer Louange Mwajuma agrees with Fairclough that brands aren’t doing enough for shoppers of all sizes.
“The term inclusive sizing, especially here in Canada, is one that I think is supposed to bring in feelings of comfort but it really doesn't,” she added. “It just makes me squint a bit because I know that it’s not going to include me as a person.”
While brands like Universal Standard, ELOQUII, Torrid and Loud Bodies all offer clothing up to a size 30, it’s still something that brands across the board struggle to provide. Many brands will often point to additional manufacturing costs as a reason they don’t extend sizes, or claim that larger sizes don’t sell as well, making them afraid to expand further.
Fairclough doesn’t believe either are the reason for not extending.
“If you're going to say that word (inclusive sizing), know that it can mean so much to so many people,” she said. “When it’s not fully inclusive, it's just empty words.”
Independent designers and brands have led the charge where larger brands have potentially dropped the ball on inclusive sizing. In Canada alone, FOC by Flaws of Couture (offering up to a 4X), Free Label (offering up to a 4X) and Mettamade, which offers up to a 5X, are just three examples.
“At the very beginning, we wanted to ensure that we were truly as inclusive as we could be as a small business and that meant for us that we would be offering everything we could be in our entire size range,” said Morgan MacDonald, co-founder and creative director of Mettamade. Throughout their website and social media, they made sure to feature bodies of all sizes. For them, size diversity wasn’t a marketing choice, but simply a reality of the world they live in and wanted to share with their customers.
“We were trying to make clothing for every body and not just the five or ten models that continue to be seen in advertisements,” MacDonald continued. “We are surrounded by real people that are of all shapes and sizes and ages and we think that really is a better reflection of the world out there and the world we want to share.”
However, the industry still has a lot of internalized fatphobia.
“It’s a choice,” Fairfield said. “If you're going to use the word inclusive, ensure that people like myself don't feel discriminated against when they check the sizes.”
At the end of the day, it comes down to access for larger bodies.
“Fashion, by its nature, reaches for extremes,” wrote Robin Givhan in an article for the Washington Post. “As a result, it has always made size inclusivity so much more of an event than it ever needed to be. It has politicized, weaponized and fetishized fat.”
Fashion is such an important part of self-presentation and communicating our identity to others. The question then becomes: Why aren’t we providing individuals with clothing that helps them express themselves or even do the day-to-day things like going to the office, or dressing up for a night up?
Fundamentally, a systemic change needs to happen within the industry. On average, plus-size women represent 68 per cent of shoppers, but when we look at the fashion industry as a whole, few of those working within the industry identify as plus-size.
Mwajuma believes this is where the breakdown happens.
“What's happening behind the scenes? Because obviously the plus-size industry is booming right now, but I want brands to move beyond just including us for the sake of earning the cash,” she said. “I want to see them bring in plus-size designers and voices behind the scenes, work with plus-sized creators, photographers, and models. Not simply just trying to sell us something because they can sell us something, but bring us into the room.”
Many independent brands, like Hilary MacMillan or SmartGlamour, have often turned to social media to issue a call for plus-size customers to book fit tests for sizing or ask for feedback from their audiences on what worked and what didn’t. This type of engagement adds a layer of transparency from brands and shows customers that even if they haven’t fully expanded they are trying their best to get it right.
The system as a whole needs to be rewritten in order for inclusive sizing to truly be inclusive, and for groups of people to feel less alienated by brands. Until then, it’s time to stop giving gold stars to brands for doing the bare minimum, and it’s time for those who are smaller sizes to speak up and ask brands what they are doing to become inclusive.
“You're forgetting about people and that’s my problem. I will be supportive [of brands] and sometimes I understand, maybe they don't carry my size yet, but they were like working on it,” Schoenberger added. “But now when I see people use the word inclusive, it drives me bonkers, and I call them out because I’m done.”