It seems every week we see the same conversation hashed out in social media/articles over plus-size retailers. It goes like this.
· Plus-size clothing brand puts out new set of photos of “curvy” women (all too often in their underwear rather than the clothes they are selling) with “Everyone is beautiful” strain of slogan. (Note: “curvy” models are usually straight sized with breasts and hips, ALWAYS hourglass shaped, usually white and femme. “Curvy” models are not fat models.)
· Media sites interview the models. Models say that they don’t want to be labelled “plus-size”, they want to be just models. They say “plus-size” is derogatory. Curvy models collect paycheck for a job they clearly don’t want to be doing.
· Actual fat women who are forced to shop at these brands because there are little to no other alternatives (particularly in budget price ranges), say to the brand “We need the label plus-size, it saves us from having to wade through 90% of stock that does not include us, and we aren’t ashamed of being plus-sized. Please use models who look like us.”
· Plus-size clothing brand completely ignores what their actual customers want. Actual customers have no option to purchase elsewhere.
· Trolls turn up and say “Curvy is fine, but ew, not obese!”
· Rinse and repeat to infinity.
I want off this merry-go-round!
The problem really lies with the plus-size clothing brands – a) co-opting fat activism language to try to sell us products and b) refusing to employ models who look like their customers to promote their products.
The big box brands have realised that more and more women are hearing the messages that fat activists have been working tirelessly to get out to them, so they have started to use anything they can sloganise to cash in on that success. They take all the touchy-feely bits, the easy positive stuff and repackage it as their own and then because they have a wider audience than fat activists do, sit back and enjoy the kudos that they are somehow “revolutionary”. Yet those of us who have lived in fat bodies and worked to liberate fat women from the hatred, stigma and shame that is heaped on us know, this is in no way new or revolutionary. It’s a vastly diluted version of the appreciation of fat bodies that really only celebrates bodies that are slightly outside of the margins of mainstream. They take the work that is about improving the quality of life for fat people, and water it down to an advertising slogan to sell products.
The second part of the problem is that these same brands continually hire models who would not ever buy or wear those brand clothes in their day to day lives, often pinning the too large clothes or padding the models in photo shoots. Not only does this create an unrealistic expectation of how the clothes fit on their customers bodies, but it also means that the customers of those businesses never see themselves represented in marketing that is FOR THEM. And, with the way that the media works now, instead of asking the customers how they feel about products and the messages that these businesses send out, the media immediately turn to the models, many of whom do not want to identify as a customer of those businesses (ie, a fat customer). One thing that is raised repeatedly by so many amazing fat activists, bloggers, tweeters etc is that these models are more than happy to collect the paycheque from these businesses, but they don’t want to be seen as a customer of the same business. That’s pretty hypocritical attitude to take.
Unfortunately, unlike straight sized clothing customers, most plus-size customers, particularly those of us in the larger size bracket, can’t make the choice to simply no longer shop at these businesses. Either because there is no alternative in their size bracket, or in their location, or simply because these big box companies are the only ones who are able to offer clothing in a lower price range. I myself would LOVE to only shop with small, indie brands but the reality is that very few of them offer products in my size, and if they do, I do not have the budget to be able to spend a large amount of money on one or two items. I have to maintain my entire wardrobe for my entire life (work, leisure, events, underwear and swimwear – everything!) with a budget that would only buy me one party dress or maybe two skirts from many indie designers. This is not a fault with the indie designers – their products have more overheads and are usually far better quality than a mass produced product – it’s just that many of us just don’t have that kind of budget, particularly in these harsh economic times.
IMPORTANT: That is not and will never be, the fault of the plus-sized customer. I have no time for any business of any size/type which blames the customer for their business failures. But it’s only plus-sizes really where you see the customers blamed for a failure of a business. We are expected to hold up businesses whether they provide us a product or a price range that suits us. You never hear of a business that sells only straight-sized clothes saying “Well, people won’t pay for quality.” Because people WILL pay for quality IF they can afford it and if that quality is a product that they want and need.
Straight sizes have the luxury of choice – they can and do pick and choose which businesses they buy from – there are plenty of budget options for straight sized clothes out there. If they don’t like how a business is marketing to them, they have the option to shop elsewhere.
To be honest, I wonder if the big box plus-size businesses intentionally foster that environment. They perpetuate the myth that the customer is somehow at fault for there not being range, price and quality, blame us because “Those lines just don’t sell.” knowing full well that we don’t have the luxury of choosing to go elsewhere. It’s a very effective method – keep the options to a minimum and perpetuate the myth that variety doesn’t work so that other businesses don’t bother to try, and know that they have a captive market that can’t go anywhere else.
So what has to be fixed?
The first thing that needs to happen is that plus-size businesses need to be proud of their product – or start stocking product that they can be proud of. How often do you see website front pages and storefronts for plus-sized clothes that don’t even have the clothes front and centre of their marketing! I mean why are they promoting plus-size clothing with naked or underwear-clad women? Or why do they use other props in their windows instead of proudly displaying their product front and centre. I think a lot of them know their product is mediocre at best so they try to distract their customers with gimmicks and cheesy props. Show us the clothes! And if people aren’t attracted to the products when they see them, get better products!
The next thing is they need to start marketing their products properly. They need to stop trying to co-opt body politics and start actually promoting their products in a positive and aspirational way. And when I say aspirational, I don’t mean thin, white and hourglass shaped. Aspirational means so much more than that. By marketing their products as fun, luxury, quality, fashionable, stylish, and positioning themes around friendship, success, professionalism, entertainment/enjoyment etc. I want to see aspirational marketing campaigns for plus-sizes that have messages that we see all the time in other marketing – simple things like “Spoil yourself – you’ve earned it!” or “Look great – feel great!” Give me some happy fat women modelling the clothes front and centre any day over another “All bodies are beautiful” with only white, small, hourglass shaped models in their undies.
And most of all, we need to see the actual women the clothes are made for modelling them. That means no more “plus-size models” which are anything between a size 8 and 14 and some actual models size 16+. Preferably a range of sizes between 16 and 32. I need to be able to see what the clothes look like on a body like mine.
What can we do to drive that fix?
This is the toughest one since we ARE so limited in our options. We need to keep telling these companies we want to see their clothes and we want to see them on bodies like our own. Where financially possible, we need to support indie businesses who DO market well and provide things we want and need. We need to stop expecting models to be the spokespeople for body politics and we need to tell the media that they’re not appropriate spokespeople for body politics. We need to tell the big box companies that we have money that we want to spend, if only they would provide us the clothes that we want and need. We need to tell them when their product is poor quality, over-priced, or simply just un-fashionable.
But our biggest power lies in word of mouth. That’s what sells a product, and particularly so in the fat community. If a company is doing great stuff, tell people about it. Tell your fat friends. Post it on your social media. Blog about it. Post on the company’s social media telling them that you love what they are doing, please do more of it. They ARE listening, the fact that they’re co-opting our work is telling us that, so get out there and speak up!